It is a six-volume so-called “Proustian” autobiographical novel, which Knausgaard refers to as “a nonfiction novel.” (Only three of the books have been published so far in the U.S.) Reading My Struggle is to find yourself absorbed in a litearary soap opera about the daily life of Karl Ove, a lover/husband/writer/dad/friend. He describes his relationship with the beautiful, complicated writer, Linda, an actress’s daughter who is deeply sensitive and who has bipolar disorder; his intense affection for their three children but also the mind-numbing boredom of child care; the difficulty of finding time for his work; moments of depression; his visits to bookstores and coffeehouses; and long drinking sessions.
In other words, he is like us, only he says intellectual things about philosophy and poetry that we don’t say.
Does that tell you he’s not like us? It does. But Karl Ove is also Everyman. For instance, he admits he often has difficulty reading poetry. He says, “I could read it, but poems never opened themselves to me, and that was because I had no ‘right’ to them: they were not for me…. You had to earn the right to read them.”
We become Karl Ove as we read My Stuggle. Knausgaard doesn’t go for the big moments: there’s cleaning the apartment, dealing with a psychotic neighbor, making love with Linda, taking the children to a kind of low-rent carnival they happen to pass in the car, giving readings, which he hates, and his fierce need to protect time for writing.
I started with Book Two, partly because the bookstore had it, but also because I didn’t want to be put off by a long introductory volume of a Proustian narrative. I needn’t have worried. Yes, there are layers and layers of stream-of-consciousness, but it is more compelling than Proust’s. And the book isn’t in chronological order–he doesn’t get to childhood till Book Three–so I’m not sure it matters where you start. Book Two is subtitled A Man in Love and delineates his fierce passion for Linda after he leaves his first wife and moves from Norway to Stockholm. Their relationship is essentially stable, though they have their disagreements and moments of boredom. But actually this volume isn’t a chronological narrative either: it opens with a scene in which Karl Ove and Linda irritably attempt to control their children at a couple’s vacation house. Only later do we learn the genesis of their relationship.
You can read long critical reviews of the book elsewhere, but I want to write about a few episodes that delighted me.
He goes to a cafe for an hour every day to read and smoke.
I never went to the same cafe more than four or five times at a stretch because then they started to treat me like a “stammis,” that is, they greeted me when I arrived and wanted to impress me with their knowledge of my predilections, often with a friendly comment about some topic on everyone’s lips. But the whole point for me of living in a big city was that I could be completely alone in int while still surrounded by people on all sides.
I love this, because I have had a similar experience with coffeehouses. When you walk in the door and they already have your drink ready for you, it’s both comical and perturbing, especially if you’ve decided you want something else.
Karl Ove is a bit cranky and socially awkward, as well as brilliant and passionate: he reminds me of Levin in Anna Karenina, particularly in a scene of his first daughter’s christening. The priest was reluctant to christen Vanja because Karl Ove and Linda are not married. Suddenly at the christening, Karl Ove, not a Christian, ups and takes Communion. His meditation on Christianity reminds me of Levin’s when he is required to confess to a priest before he marries Kitty.
Karl Ove also goes to bookstores and buys many books, knowing that he won’t read most of them. Heavens, nobody has ever bought as many books as Karl Ove, and possibly I, and possibly you.
How can anyone be so fascinating on boring details of living? But he wants to get past daily living so he can write.
Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, not something that was meaningful or that made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change diapers but rather with something more fundamental; the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be awa from it. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts.
I love, love, love reading this. I’m continuing with it (going on to Book One) this weekend. The great thing about reading Book Two is that I will now appreciate the artistic design of Book One.
Knausgaard said in a recent Amazon interview:
I just tried to write a novel. This was the only way I could do it at the time. So no, no active down-tearing of anything. But for me, these books definitely are novels. I didn´t try to represent my life, but wanted to use my life as a kind of raw material for a novelistic search for meaning or for meaningful patterns. I use all the novels tools, I can describe one day over three hundred pages, or a year in a sentence. It isn´t fiction, though, it´s non-fiction, but it isn’t a documentary or a memoir either: it’s a non fiction novel.
Really a fascinating writer.