Doesn’t your life feel like his?
June 3, 2014 3:06 PM   Subscribe

This week sees the publication of the third volume of “My Struggle,” the thirty-six-hundred-page autobiographical novel by Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian novelist. It’s hard to overstate the strangeness of the book’s success. The six volumes of “My Struggle” chronicle, in hypnotic detail, episodes from Knausgaard’s life. There is no plot to speak of, unless you consider real life a plot.

And yet, in Norway, one book has sold for every nine adults; as translations have proliferated, readers all over the world have fallen in love with Knausgaard. Part of the appeal is that he has left many of the names and details unchanged; you can do a Google images search and see many of the characters you read about. But the appeal isn’t just gossipy. Perhaps because he is so candid and open, Knausgaard has made his memories into common property. He encourages readers to look inside and find their inner Karl Oves. Or the reverse: he holds a mirror up to his life; you look, and see yourself.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to recognize yourself in “My Struggle.” The first is to notice where your own thoughts and experiences coincide with Knausgaard’s—to find, as many readers have, that he has written the diary that you would’ve written, were you a Norwegian man born in 1968. (Reading the first volume, I was delighted to find that Karl Ove and I liked the same bands—New Order, Talk Talk, Talking Heads—and that we have the same elaborate theory about why they’re good.) The second is to discern, in the rhythms and textures of the book, the rhythms and textures of your own life. This second kind of recognition is the secret to “My Struggle” ’s popularity. Set aside the particular events that Knausgaard describes: doesn’t your life feel like his?

Terrific post by Cash4Lead on Knausgaard previously.
posted by whyareyouatriangle (31 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
he couldn't think of an alternative title?
posted by bruce at 3:28 PM on June 3, 2014 [39 favorites]

maybe something in german
posted by elizardbits at 3:28 PM on June 3, 2014 [59 favorites]

The first is to notice where your own thoughts and experiences coincide with Knausgaard’s—to find, as many readers have, that he has written the diary that you would’ve written, were you a Norwegian man born in 1968.

This isn't a statement that I would normally take very seriously, but damn if I didn't read one brief excerpt that was so emotionally (and fairly situationally) similar to my life right now that I teared up a bit... and I like Talking Heads, too!
posted by Huck500 at 3:32 PM on June 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Mein Blitzkrieg?
posted by codswallop at 3:33 PM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

he couldn't think of an alternative title?

From the prior FPP:
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.
Also covered in the Guardian article linked in that FPP.
posted by mykescipark at 3:34 PM on June 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Set aside the particular events that Knausgaard describes: doesn’t your life feel like his?

I don't know, New Yorker critic. You're both 40-something, well-educated professional male writers. It's not outlandish that the "rhythms and textures" of your life have some similarities to Knausgaard's.
posted by naju at 3:38 PM on June 3, 2014 [16 favorites]

If the plot is going to resemble my life, I hope it has a happy ending
posted by Postroad at 3:44 PM on June 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

It ends with you being a world famous author who has the money of Dan Brown and the respect of Philip Roth.
posted by tofu_crouton at 3:46 PM on June 3, 2014 [6 favorites]

I feel a bit silly about how I instantly starting mythologizing him after reading a few paragraphs of the article and seeing his photograph. I wonder if that's a part of the popularity of his books? He looks so unassuming and even shy...kind of like you want to wrap a scarf around him. It kind of awakens, at least for me, a craving for the authentic and uncynical. I actually feel disappointed to see that he's written previous novels. I wanted this writing to be his only published work, tentative and artifice-free. Anyhow, as a great lover of modernist writing and Virginia Woolf in particular, I can't wait to read these.
posted by kitcat at 3:52 PM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

With his own children, he continues, “I have tried to achieve only one aim: that they shouldn’t be afraid of their father”:

I am not in love with the concept, nor the excerpts, but I found that really moving. Years ago, I knew (rather casually) a guy who was a father to some fairly young children. Later, I heard that he had had a bad childhood -- serious abuse by both parents bad -- and once I asked him "has that affected your parenting?" And he said "I know that my first impulse is always wrong. For example, when the kids are being loud and I need to focus, I have to scroll through a list in my head before acting, starting with hitting, until I get to a response that I intellectually know is OK. Because my instincts here are bad." And that sounds a bit like what Knausgaard is trying with his kids. I hope it works.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:05 PM on June 3, 2014 [9 favorites]

> But the appeal isn’t just gossipy.

I'm glad to hear that, because otherwise one of my co-workers is sitting on a best-selling gold mine.

posted by The Card Cheat at 4:35 PM on June 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

If the plot is going to resemble my life, I hope it has a happy ending

$20, same as in town.
posted by hippybear at 4:58 PM on June 3, 2014 [6 favorites]

I started reading the first volume and found it soporific. It seemed to be a list of moments with no real insight about anything. I cannot understand why so many of today's writers (Zadie Smith, for one) think so highly of him. To me, it felt like watching a TV set with nothing on.
posted by MrMisterio at 5:04 PM on June 3, 2014

we took out all the evil, but you still get all the tasty banality!
posted by bruce at 5:25 PM on June 3, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm reading volume one. There is something strangely hypnotic about the writing even though it's describing really mundane things. I think a lot of people these days can relate to the narrator's struggle with the tedium of everyday life - work, family, normal problems - while being someone who harbors a romantic desire to break free of these bonds and be bohemian or artistic. This is the reality of many middle class people these days, people who were raised to value individuality and self-expression and were probably told they were special or creative by their parents and teachers, and looked up to rock stars and other famous artists, but who ended up trapped anyway in a regular bourgeois life. We feel like he does, that there's a point we will reach where we fulfill our potential, and we're slowly peeling away the layers just by simply living, or reading his life story, making our way out of our cocoons. And eventually we'll know how and when that happens. Maybe at the end it will be nothing but if Karl Ove can make that special why can't we? There's also the familiar scenarios he describes of growing up that we can find parallels to in our own pasts. It's like reading the diary of someone who had a strangely similar experience to your own. That's why it's like "crack" for people like Zadie Smith.
posted by ChuckRamone at 5:44 PM on June 3, 2014 [12 favorites]

I just finished Volume three, and while it's my least favorite thus far, it's still fascinating.

In one of the earlier volumes he goes into his love for certain paintings, and that's what I feel like "My Struggle" is- it's a self-portrait; a painting of his life and his view of the world, and the result of his "struggle" to express himself. It's so deeply personal that it's universal- he's describing the world by describing the only thing any of us can ever truly know about- our self. That's why 50 pages about hiding some beer bottles in a ditch can be fascinating in his hands.

Normally my idea of a great novel is something like "The Great Gatsby," where there is literally not one sentence you could remove without damaging the story. And given my screenwriting background I'm very much in favor of "Don't put in anything that doesn't advance the story" 99% of the time. This is that other one percent. The words he puts on the page combine to paint a picture that goes far beyond just a description of events involving one Norwegian man. He's trying something really really really ambitious here, and he's pulling it off. If he was just vomiting out the events of his life no one would be talking about it.
posted by drjimmy11 at 6:18 PM on June 3, 2014 [6 favorites]

And, yes, the title in Norwegian is Min Kamp, and it's not an accident. The guy who turned me on to Knausgaard told me that in the last volume he actually spends several hundred pages discussing Hitler's book.
posted by drjimmy11 at 6:20 PM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I finagled up Volume One, but it definitely wasn't a good time for me to read it; being fairly self-reflective for a couple of weeks, the tenor of all the childhood events hit a bit too close to home. Still firmly on my list, but it's not one I can do in a library two weeks apparently.

To restate from the previous thread, the title's actually a great idea; since it's become popular, any time we refer to a book called "My Struggle", clarification will now be needed on which one it is, which subtracts from the potency of Hitler's legacy.
posted by solarion at 6:26 PM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would add that Knausgaard's particular genius is sifting through his moment-to-moment awareness of an experience, whether that experience is 'small' or 'large' in meaning. In Book 1, for example, his recounting of going to a New Year's Eve party feels aimless when you read it, but leaves an indelible stamp by the end. And the effect is particularly powerful when applied to graver matters, like the death of his father: horrifying moments, like the discovery of the filth in which his father and grandmother had been living, are nestled against quotidian moments, like picking up food and cleaning supplies at the supermarket; and like life, they form a whole story. The shadow of Proust looms large over Knausgaard, though their styles and demeanors are very different.

I would also remind folks of the reality show-style fallout of the books in Norway. Knausgaard left the names of people mostly unchanged, and since there's only one Knausgaard family in Norway, everyone knows exactly who the alcoholic father and senile, incontinent grandmother described in Book 1 are. Needless to say, it's caused a scandal. And there's something unseemly, when you think about it, about reading the intimate details of people still living who may not necessarily have asked for it. Google Linda Boström, Knausgaard's second wife, and then read Knausgaard's recounting in Book 2 of them falling in love, having fights, and her struggle with bipolar disorder. Most of us, even in a confessional culture like the US, would blanch at having our personal lives laid bare as happens to many people in My Struggle; and it complicates the artistic merit of the books.

Still, it is a massive achievement in literature, and it has come to occupy a good portion of my brain. I haven't started Book 3 yet, but I hope to soon.
posted by Cash4Lead at 7:41 PM on June 3, 2014 [6 favorites]

The Paris Review has a piece from Knausgard as well.
posted by Think_Long at 7:47 PM on June 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

To put it another way, the greatness of Knausgaard is that what he does lies in the "How" and not the "What." There's a common misconception that art is good or bad because of what it's about, not how it's executed. That all you have to do is pick an "important" subject and the work is automatically important. Thus we get the mainstream memoir market, which becomes a race to the bottom as far as who can detail (and usually fictionalize) the most abusive childhood, the worst drug problem, etc. etc. There's little to no artistic merit in the writing of someone like James Frey or Augusten Burroughs, so they have to go for the cheap shocks.

And then along comes Knausgaard, who says, "Oh yeah? I'm going to spend 50 pages talking about hiding beer bottles in a ditch and you're going to be fascinated." He gets up there with nothing but his talent and his will to tell the truth. He's leaving the cheap simulators in the dust and taking real risks no one else will take, and that's why he's becoming a literary rock star. It's "just a bunch of stuff that happened to him" in the same sense that Van Gogh's sunflowers were just some sunflowers.
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:59 PM on June 3, 2014 [5 favorites]

To follow on my last comment: consider Knausgaard's account of what happened when Linda Boström read the manuscript to Book 2, which centers on their relationship. Bear in mind that she initially favored Knausgaard writing candidly about the two of them:

“She first read the manuscript on the train and called to say she was fine with it. Then she called again and said, ‘Goodbye romance.’ The third time she called, she cried and I cried. There are a lot of things that are there in a relationship that you both know, but don’t say because you’re not supposed to say it. So, suddenly, things are written down, like me turning in the street if I see a beautiful woman, and they have to be dealt with.”

Again, I'm not suggesting My Struggle isn't a great work of art--it is--but thinking about the real-world consequences of Knausgaard's openness about his life is worth remembering when judging the books' merit.
posted by Cash4Lead at 8:01 PM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

thinking about the real-world consequences of Knausgaard's openness about his life is worth remembering when judging the books' merit.

Well, yeah, but that's exactly what's thrilling about it, and in my opinion it only increases the book's merit. I'm not saying it makes me think he's a good human being or a good husband, but the whole point of the book, at least the three volumes I've read, is that he's willing to go to these ultimate lengths to express himself. That is his struggle, and literally nothing else matters. That's why it's such a high-wire act, and the opposite of those boring low-stakes memoirs that detail the worst things imaginable and yet leave us yawning.

Maybe (and this is pure speculation since I haven't read volume six) this is why he took the title from Hitler, the man who went to the ultimate extreme of trying to impose his vision on the world.
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:08 PM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Is this like Knut Hamsun?
posted by ovvl at 8:48 PM on June 3, 2014

From this article, a book quote:

"Don’t believe you are anybody.
Do not fucking believe you are somebody.
Because you are not. You’re just a smug, mediocre little shit.
Do not believe that you’re anything special. Do not believe that you’re worth anything, because you aren’t. You’re just a little shit."

I hear ya, sir.
Oh god, reading this is giving me the terrible feeling that writing a long and tedious autobiography and somehow getting lauded for it sounds like great fun. Except realistically speaking, yeah right.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:41 PM on June 3, 2014

He looks so unassuming and even shy...kind of like you want to wrap a scarf around him.

I attended his session at Hay Festival this year, and this qas exactly the impression I got. He has one of the kindest faces I've ever seen, which sounds weird and twee but in person... I just wanted to give him a hug.

I've only read the first volume so far, and found it strange to get into. I didn't actually like it at first, but kept finding myself falling into his life, reading for long jags. The second half, where he and his brother go to bury his father was almost the opposite though. I was fascinated by what was happening, but it was too intense to read too much at a time.

Incidentally, he mentioned that his father's family has nothing to do with him now, and he understands why, and accepts it. Possibly it speaks to what all this detail means that I'm genuinely a bit sad that Gunnar is no longer in contact with him.
posted by kalimac at 12:07 AM on June 4, 2014

To put it another way, the greatness of Knausgaard is that what he does lies in the "How" and not the "What."

This, times a million.
posted by From Bklyn at 1:11 AM on June 4, 2014

Another Interview with him. From TinHouse
posted by From Bklyn at 4:24 AM on June 6, 2014

John Crace reduces the latest chunk of autobiography by the Norwegian author to a navel-gazing 600 words:
2008: The summer has been long, and Linda and I have been quarrelling for longer. I still haven't finished the second novel I haven't started and we are taking our three children, Vanja, Heidi and John, to a rundown theme park.

"This is boring," Linda says.

"Really boring," I reply.

"Do you want a sandwich?"

"Only if it's stale."

We switched tenses and went home. I tried to write, but Linda wanted me to make dinner. I could have told her to do it herself, but I preferred the sullen silence of martyrdom. I put the children to sleep by reading extracts of Dostoyevsky and Holderlin. If they were going to bore me, I was going to bore them. I then sat down and thought of the first and only time I had been happy...
posted by shivohum at 12:03 PM on June 6, 2014

Well, it's kind of obvious, but this:

Heidi's birth was even duller than Vanja's. I can barely bring myself to mention John's.

Is actually pretty funny.

If you're a writer, pay attention to your writing immediately after reading Knausgaard - it has an affect on you. I'll be damned if I didn't find myself unconsciously imitating him, going on for pages and pages about the most minor details in a piece of genre fiction of all things.
posted by Think_Long at 12:55 PM on June 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

New short piece by Knausgaard in the Times Magazine: I Am Someone, Look at Me.
posted by ChuckRamone at 1:03 PM on June 10, 2014

« Older "...spotlights on the side, an altimeter and, yes...   |   A Surreal Underwater Photoshoot in Bali Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments