The Struggle That Wasn’t

So, I just finished Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (Book One). I heard about it out of the blue about a month ago, when a stranger directed me to a review– which one, I can’t remember, but it made more than a few allusions to Proust, and focused on both Knausgaard’s and his French predecessor’s exhaustive attention to detail.

I suppose I need to read up some more on the project, which consists of a total of six volumes of autobiography. What immediately struck me, though, was its name: in Norwegian, Min Kamp, which obviously jars the reader with thoughts of a predecessor far less appetizing than Proust: Hitler, and his Mein Kampf. Until I find some reliable sources regarding this choice in title, however, I’ll just pass over that subject, since any speculation I make about it would be idle, and most likely unoriginal.

To the meat of it, then. I cannot possibly explain what makes this book so engaging. It really is just the story of growing up with a difficult father and getting on with an adult life marked with all the ambiguities and frustrations courtesy of such a parent. Reflections on nostalgia, the (meaning of the) everyday, cohabitation, and ordinary human imperfection. I’m tempted to say it’s more of a chronicle than a story, but stopping there would constitute a false move, or a betrayal. It’s as if Knausgaard’s created some sort of magical, contemporary expansion of one of those detailed 19th-century diaries that turn up and are used in history seminars as accompaniments to scholarly texts– only shorn of all the naivete and preciousness and over-eager avowals of trust in divine guidance.

A study in critical self-scrutiny, yes, but nothing akin to navel-gazing. And done in a style that doesn’t even come close to ostentation, but maintains an iron literary grip the whole way through– a feat that still has me wondering exactly what happened, how this guy did it, and how I can 1) get over my envy at the author’s skill and perseverance and 2) at least display equivalent amounts of sustained writerly diligence. Until my brain can sort through this phenomenon further, that’s about all I have to offer now– other than the charge to check it out for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.

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2 comments

  1. Special K

    Thanks, Sean! I think what kept the project from falling into the “navel-gazing” category for me was a lack of self-pity in Knausgaard's observations. What was of value, I think– or rather, what kept the book from being just one more autobiography– was its seeming recognition that human existence (especially our own individual one) is a continual, frustrating puzzle, about which, try as we might, we'll never come to any (emotional or rational) conclusions. Even knowing that fact, though, we won't stop trying to make sense of things– a maybe-senseless endeavor that also defines us as a species. (Otherwise, why produce anything new, from literature to technology, at all?)

    Probably only semi-related to that is the way in which the brothers handle their father's death and their grandmother's state of existence: by just getting the job done, even in their state of partial amazement– but also partial non-suprise– at how things stand. There's something from that whole section that's lingering, but again, I don't have a way to describe it right now.

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  2. lostgander

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I like what you are saying about the 'continual, frustrating puzzle' of life without a solution, and yet how we still try to make sense of it all. And I guess I can see some of that in this book, but I think the overwhelming bleakness of his attitude, spread out over 400+ pages was too much for me. Like this statement from early on: “The only thing I have learned from life is to endure it, never to question it, and to burn up the longing generated by this in writing.”

    That said, there were some passages I really did enjoy, like this one: “Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows. That is what writing is about. Not what happens there, not what actions are played out there, bu the there itself. There, that is writing's location and aim. But how to get there?”

    I also agree with you about the part with their grandmother. I thought it particularly poignant how the grandmother kept obliquely referencing drinking, and the slow realization the brothers came to that perhaps she had grown closer to her son through drinking every night with him. The description of how she comes alive when they sit around drinking is powerful, yet also heartbreaking to read.

    Anyway, thanks again for the discussion. This book seems to have generated some divisive reactions, and I think those kind of books are the most interesting ones to talk about. If you continue on with reading the other volumes, I hope you'll post more of your reactions.

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