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.
- "Excerpt from Book I of My Struggle," Guardian, March 7, 2014.
- "An Excerpt From Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle II: A Man in Love," Biblioklept, March 7, 2014.
- "Fueled by Sentences: The Uncanny Art of Karl Ove Knausgaard," by Mark Sussman, L.A. Review of Books, May 24, 2013.
- "Man vs. Corpse," by Zadie Smith, New York Review of Books, December 5, 2013.
- "In Proust's Footsteps: Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard reclaims the novel's humanistic ambitions," by Adam Kirsch, City Journal, Summer 2013.
- "Devoutly to Be Wished: Karl Ove Knausgaard's Consummation," by Jonathan Callahan, The Millions, June 10, 2013.