My Struggle (review)

It wasn’t a question of keeping away from something, it was a question of something not existing; nothing about him touched me. That was how it had been, but then I had sat down to write, and the tears poured forth.

It’s been a while since I finished My Struggle – mid-September, I think – but it has stuck with me. When I finished it, I wasn’t sure if I’d read Knausgård’s second volume, to say nothing of the third, fourth, fifth and sixth. I pre-ordered the second last week.

Reading this book is a strange experience. It’s rarely fun. The book opens with a reflection on death, closes with death, and in between are all manner of musings and journalings about muddling through life and fatherhood. But it’s a great exercise in being aware, a wake-up call. Despite relying on some pretty intense memory-dredging, it doesn’t quite feel sentimental (“Nostalgia is not only shameless, it is also treacherous.”). The challenge seems to be to examine the past so closely that you can let it go – the contrast with what’s actually here and now becomes too stark to ignore.

And there’s a weird addictive quality to it, despite how dark it is sometimes. The writing is mostly functional, rather than poetic or luminous or whatever. And the boldness of his oversharing helps. But it’s the occasional big, beautiful payoff that makes the slogging really worthwhile. (And some of it is indeed pure slog – the 100-page story of a New Year’s Eve beer run is… something else.) There are delights like this description, taken from a section about his college days, when he discovered Theodor Adorno’s writing:

This heavy, intricate, detailed, precise language whose aim was to elevate thought ever higher, and where every period was set like a mountaineer’s cleat.

Such a great image! Or this, trying to capture the feeling of falling in love with a painting:

Yes, yes yes. That’s where it is. That’s where I have to go.

Been there, for sure. I suppose when you write so much without filtering or apparent embarrassment (on life as a teen: “I have never been in any doubt that this is what girls I have tried my luck with have seen in my eyes. Too much desire, too little hope.”), there’s bound to be some memorable parts. Let it all pour out, and see what works. Like this passage early on, when he, a middle-aged guy, is thinking back to what it felt like to be a kid around his father, and using his now-adult perspective to reflect on what it was like to be his father, now that time has made him his father’s peer, in a way:

While my days were jampacked with meaning, when each step opened a new opportunity, and when every opportunity filled me to the brim, in a way which now is actually incomprehensible, the meaning of his days was not concentrated in individual events but spread over such large areas that it was not possible to comprehend them in anything other than abstract terms. “Family” was one such term, “career” another.

Speaking of being a father, here he is on the birth of first child:

There has never been so much future in my life as at that time, never so much joy.

So beautiful. But as Knausgård doesn’t seem to have much of a filter, nothing remains quite that simple or tidy:

Nothing I had previously experienced warned me about the invasion into your life that having children entails. […] Your own worst sides are no longer something you can keep to yourself.

He’s not afraid to acknowledge ambivalence. (That bit, by the way, reminded me of Carolyn Hax talking about introverts having children.) Along with the mundane details – like the dozens of scenes where’s he’s hanging out with someone and making coffee, tea, etc. – there are some more philosophical asides. In a passage that mirrors the opening and the closing of the book, he talks about death and and how our language mirrors the way we don’t quite accept it:

While the person is alive the name refers to the body, to where it resides, to what it does; the name becomes detached from the body when it dies and remains with the living, who, when they use the name always mean the person he was, never the person he is now, a body which lies rotting somewhere. […] Death might be beyond the term and beyond life, but it is not beyond the world.

These little excerpts don’t quite capture it, though. It really is a book better experienced in huge chunks. Recommended.

Filed under: books I’ve reviewed. I also enjoyed this LARB review and this Bookforum interview.

bookforum talks with karl ove knausgaard – bookforum.com / interviews

Good interview. My Struggle sounds so strange. Here’s Knausgaard talking about the magic that happened when he stopped filtering and perfecting his writing, and just started going for sheer volume:

When I was nineteen, I went to a yearlong course in creative writing. There, some simple rules dominated, and the most important one dealt with quality: if a sentence was bad, you removed it. If a scene was bad, you removed it. The critical reading of the texts always resulted in parts being deleted. So that was what I did. My writing became more and more minimalist. In the end, I couldn’t write at all. For seven or eight years, I hardly wrote. But then I had a revelation. What if I did the opposite? What if, when a sentence or a scene was bad, I expanded it, and poured in more and more? After I started to do that, I became free in my writing. Fuck quality, fuck perfection, fuck minimalism. My world isn’t minimalist; my world isn’t perfect, so why on earth should my writing be? I then did the same thing with every other rule. Show, don’t tell? What happens if you do tell, really try to tell EVERYTHING, and don’t give a damn about subtext? Something else happens, something you can’t control. No matter how explicitly you describe a person or a scene, there is always a shadow in the text, a kind of tone or sound, and that tone or sound is the important thing. When I freed myself from these restrictions and started to insist on quantity instead of quality, my texts started to get long. Not necessarily good, but long!

Reminds me of Borges on the baroque style: “The Baroque is that style which deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) its possibilities and borders on its own caricature.” In a similar section of the interview I liked, he talks about the balance of family and ambition, and how he started being easier on himself, in a way:

Karen Blixen, the Danish writer, said something like “you can’t go hunting the Grail with a pram.” And she’s right. When I started to write this book, I was deeply frustrated and alienated. We had three kids in four years, and the dominant feeling for both my wife and me was that of living on the edge of chaos. There was a lot of quarreling going on, and at the same time, I was not able to write anything. So at one point I decided to let go of all ambition whatsoever and just write about that: The domestic world, the banality and tristesse of everyday life. I really hated the idea, because I didn’t want trivialities, I wanted the Grail, and when I started to do this, I was ashamed of my writing. The struggle was really to overcome the shame. But taking care of kids and writing do not exclude each other—I would start to write at 4am, then either my wife or I would take them to Kindergarten at 8, and then I would write until 3 pm and spend the rest of the day with them. It’s not Hemingway’s way—as I understand, he wrote from 6 till 12, then started to drink—but it is a way, if not to reach the Grail, then at least to finish some pages every day.

bookforum talks with karl ove knausgaard – bookforum.com / interviews