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The Real Knausgaards of Norway
March 19, 2014 9:17 AM   Subscribe

If there's a literary equivalent of reality television right now--albeit one with more reflections on the cultural taboos surrounding dead bodies and the lingering consequences of the Holocaust--it's Karl Ove Knausgaard's sprawling autobiographical novel My Struggle (Min Kamp).

What you need to know about Karl Ove Knausgaard

Karl Ove Knausgaard is a Norwegian novelist and essayist. His first two novels, Out of the World and A Time for Everything, each won or were nominated for several literary awards in Norway. He has also collaborated on a new translation of the Bible into Norwegian. He now lives in Sweden with his second wife and their three children.

What you need to know about My Struggle

In 2006, Knausgaard faced a creative crisis: "I was so extremely frustrated over my life and my writing. I wanted to write something majestic and grand, something like Hamlet or Moby-Dick, but found myself with this small life." So he began writing about his life, at first about his father, then about everything else, "as truthfully and directly as he could and didn't stop, not bothering to embellish or elide, or even to avoid cliches." By the time the first of six volumes had been published in 2009, My Struggle totaled over 3,500 pages; he had written at a furious pace, producing up to 20 pages a day. Based on what has been translated into English so far, the books are an astonishing collection of lyrical reflections on death, art, and love, alongside minutely detailed narrations of incidents in his life, from the banal (attending a children's birthday party) to the horrible (cleaning up the house where his father drank himself to death).

The books have become a hit in Norway, at a level that the Anglo-American world may have a hard time appreciating: "One in ten Norwegians have read some of the book, and companies have introduced 'Knausgaard-free days' in order to keep people's minds on work." The literary establishment has celebrated Knausgaard as a latter-day Proust, with novelist Zadie Smith calling the books "crack" and critic James Wood saying, "There is something ceaselessly compelling about Knausgaard's book: even when I was bored, I was interested."

But My Struggle has also generated considerable controversy. "American readers, accustomed as they are to thinly disguised autobiographical novels and no-holds-barred memoirs, may wonder what all the fuss could be about. But in Scandinavia, with its stolidly Lutheran culture, many commentators saw Mr. Knausgaard as violating fundamental social norms." Knausgaard's father's side of the family refuse to speak to him after Book I described in detail the alcoholic squalor in which his father and grandmother had lived when he died. His uncle, who demanded his name be changed in the books, has roundly criticized him in the Norwegian press, saying Knausgaard is only after money and fame. His unflinching depiction of his love life has earned him the enmity of his first wife and caused a great deal of pain to his second wife, "who suffers from bipolar disorder, [and who] relapsed into a depression after reading the first manuscript and was hospitalised while he was writing the final book." For his part, Knausgaard has admitted that his decision to write about the people in his life has caused blowback: "I have actually sold my soul to the devil. That's the way it feels. Because in addition I get such a huge reward."

Then there is the title: Knausgaard's naming his memoir/novel after Hitler's manifesto was a deliberate act, putting in relief the stresses of everyday life in the modern developed world that he describes, while also suggesting a mood of defiance. Besides his familial travails, in several parts of My Struggle he rails against "the emasculating effects of Scandinavian social democracy, to the sound of teeny-tiny violins from those of us who are not eligible for a year's parental leave at 100% of our salaries." Reportedly, however, the sixth and final volume (not yet translated into English) contains meditations on Mein Kampf, which he had not read before, and on the 2011 bombing and mass shooting that killed 77 people at the Utøya youth camp (previously). The question that Knausgaard is said to labor over is "whether Anders Behring Breivik was an isolated madman or 'one of us'."

FYI, the English translation of Book III comes out in May.

Additional Reading
posted by Cash4Lead (19 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite

 
I have some Scandinavian friends who don't like My Struggle all that much (but also some who do), but everyone I know who's read A Time for Everything really likes it.
posted by Kattullus at 9:34 AM on March 19 [1 favorite]


the sixth and final volume contains meditations on Mein Kampf, which he had not read before

That reminds me of a great Albert Brooks line: "Just finished Mein Kampf. Had no idea it was the same guy."
posted by Ian A.T. at 9:46 AM on March 19 [4 favorites]


My Struggle by Karma Rocket
posted by any major dude at 9:51 AM on March 19


I'm on the waiting list for part II. It's one of those books that you really tell yourself that you're not into it and you're not into it and then suddenly it's over.
posted by Think_Long at 9:52 AM on March 19 [3 favorites]


If my previous comment wasn't clear, I meant to show that I fucking loved part I.
posted by Think_Long at 10:15 AM on March 19


"... and companies have introduced 'Knausgaard-free days' in order to keep people's minds on work."

They... They need to ban an book one day at a time, not because it's got some horribly anti-establishment ideas in it but because otherwise people will be too busy reading it to work!?

That is astounding.
posted by mhoye at 10:26 AM on March 19 [4 favorites]


Cash4Lead--A+ for putting together such a well organized,researched and thoughtful post. So, now I have to read those links but it is much appreciated
posted by rmhsinc at 10:30 AM on March 19 [2 favorites]


more astounding, is that people want to read about the boring day-to-day of living, including all the ugly bits, vicariously through this author.

You gotta be on hell of a writer to interest me in reading that, or else a set of people with, well, I'd say something missing in their own lives, to delve deeply into this.
posted by k5.user at 10:39 AM on March 19 [1 favorite]


I don't usually like James Wood, but his review (linked above) was one of the things that got me to finally commit to reading My Struggle, Vol. 1. I've never read anything that comes close to how specifically and uniquely these books, with the most simple, unadorned language, represent physical reality, the passage of time, and the flow of thought. As Wood says, even when they're boring, they're interesting.

You can get a small sense of it in the birthday party scene linked above, though I think it's most amazing in the setpiece about trying to go to a party as an adolescent and (of course) the scene about cleaning the house as an adult in Vol. 1 and (maybe my favorite) the scene at the fun fair/carnival at the beginning of Vol. 2.

The books are a lot of work, but in a totally different way than most of the doorstops (he says lovingly) of contemporary American literature, and totally worth it - for me, the power of Knaussgaard is the deja-vu-ish sense of reading about some small quotidian moment (like, for example, what it's like, as an insomniac, to look out your apartment window in the middle of the night while your partner is quietly sleeping in bed across the room and see what's happening out there, the cars and the people) that you find you recognize from your own life and realizing then that this little banal experience he's describing is actually something you've spent a lot of time over the years living over and over again and subconsciously storing without maybe ever once actively, consciously considering it but now here it is, the thing right in front of you.

I have these tiny epiphanies, sudden rushes of memories I didn't even know I had, over and over again while reading Knaussgard's books, even though I'm much younger than him and not Norwegian and the rest of the particulars of our lives are pretty different. People say Proust does this (and he's a model for Knaussgaard) but what I read of In Search of Lost Time never did it for me like this. I love early Nicholson Baker for a version of the same experience but he's, in a very American way, so self-conscious and eager to make you think he's clever or make you laugh or make you feel something - it rarely feels, on the other hand, like Knausgaard is trying to make something happen - it's just happening. Can't wait for the English version of Vol. 3.
posted by raisindebt at 11:04 AM on March 19 [7 favorites]


(This totally reminds me of Grady Tripp's unfinished novel in Wonder Boys.)

Kunzru's review in the Guardian is helpful in its reminding the world that this kind of writing isn't unique or unprecedented. What's unique and unprecedented is the time and context in which it's happening, a generation's return to hugely long-form (semi)autobiography. It's fascinating to us because it's contemporary. Color me intrigued--I'd never heard of the books before this (so thank you).
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 11:21 AM on March 19 [3 favorites]


Any time we can take something away from Hitler, I am all for it. I would love to live in a future where people say "Oh, that's Mein Kampf," and others say "The German translation of Karl Ove Knausgaard's novel?"

I'd like it if Adolph became a popular name again. I'd much rather Adolph be my bartender than the man who wanted to kill my family.

I know there are movement to reclaim the swastika, but maybe that's too soon. But we've already got the Voltswagon, Hugo Boss, Bayer aspirin, Krups, and Braun. Sooner or later, let's get it all. Never forget, and never stop stealing back.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:33 AM on March 19 [5 favorites]


rmhsinc: You're welcome!

raisindebt: You nailed exactly why My Struggle is so irresistible: You read it and you recognize something of your own life in it, which is what all good literature should do.
posted by Cash4Lead at 11:42 AM on March 19 [1 favorite]


Impressive post is impressive. I must now read and digest, but thank you.
posted by dabitch at 11:42 AM on March 19


They... They need to ban an book one day at a time, not because it's got some horribly anti-establishment ideas in it but because otherwise people will be too busy reading it to work!?

That is astounding.
posted by mhoye at 1:26 PM on March 1


Apparently no one at your workplace was reading Fifty Shades of Grey while it was on the best-seller lists.
posted by magstheaxe at 12:30 PM on March 19 [1 favorite]


"American readers, accustomed as they are to thinly disguised autobiographical novels and no-holds-barred memoirs, may wonder what all the fuss could be about. But in Scandinavia, with its stolidly Lutheran culture, many commentators saw Mr. Knausgaard as violating fundamental social norms."

Um, what? Brutal frankness has dominated Scandinavian cultural output for more than half a century.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:08 PM on March 19


Um, what? Brutal frankness has dominated Scandinavian cultural output for more than half a century.

Yes, but my understanding is that with that cultural output, real names and real people weren't much involved, and those that were didn't have scandalous events like alcoholism and mental illness attached to them.
posted by Cash4Lead at 1:21 PM on March 19


real names and real people weren't much involved

Agnar Mykle sort of did that in the 50s, with his roman a clef "The song of the red ruby". The public (sex) scandal and the trial for obscenity created high book sales, but eventually ruined Mykles career as a writer.

Anyway, Knausgaards book series should have this blurb:

"Christ, what an asshole."
posted by iviken at 2:27 PM on March 19 [3 favorites]


The thing about the Knaugaard-free days is overblown, but had to do with companies asking people to talk about something else during lunch.
posted by magnusbe at 5:59 PM on March 19 [2 favorites]


magnusbe: Fascinating! I gather you're Norwegian, have you read the books?
posted by Cash4Lead at 6:47 PM on March 19


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