The serial publication of the six volumes of My Struggle—four of them so far translated from Norwegian into English—has been one of the most exciting developments in contemporary fiction. The books recount, not always chronologically, the childhood, adolescence, first and second marriages, and fatherhood of a character who shares author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s name, family, and history. Not quite an autobiography, My Struggle contains invented dialogue and details that it would have been impossible for Knausgaard to remember. The volumes span 3,600 pages, and leisurely attention is given to such activities as childhood play, a teenage attempt to procure alcohol for a party, dinner conversation, visits to grandparents, a music class with one of his young daughters, and much more of everyday life past and present.
All of this is surprisingly interesting, even addictive, as has often been pointed out in reviews. But no one can pinpoint precisely why. A striking element in the praise of Knausgaard—and he has garnered almost uniform praise in the English-speaking press—is the recourse to vocabulary not normally considered complimentary. “Boring” comes up an enormous amount. James Wood of the New Yorker wrote of Book One that “even when I was bored, I was interested.” Other terms that get used are “self-aggrandizing,” “sloppy,” “lack of selection,” “lack of structure,” “intermittent meaninglessness,” “cliche,” and “banal.” Again, these are all quotes from highly laudatory reviews.
Those who haven’t fallen under Knausgaard’s spell repeat those words and add more slicing ones of their own. In the Nation, William Deresiewicz claimed that Knausgaard is “utterly insensible to other people” and that his work is the product of “modern self-inflation.” Becca Rothfeld, formerly assistant literary editor for the New Republic, wrote for the site Hyperallergic that My Struggle is “insultingly self-indulgent.”
Let’s note here that Rothfeld by her own admission stopped reading My Struggle after the first 100 pages, which would seem to disqualify her from an authoritative opinion on its literary value. Outside of the review venues, many serious readers seem likewise ready to dismiss Knausgaard without reading his work. Whenever the subject of My Struggle comes up in my Facebook feed, which is heavily weighted toward fellow writers, there are numerous comments along the lines of “I have no intention of reading 3,000 pages of navel-gazing.” Always, at some point, someone will introduce the word “narcissism,” after which talk disperses like a crowd at a hanging after the prisoner’s neck has been broken.
Why is this term, a theft from the discipline of psychology, so readily reached for in discussing My Struggle, and why is it so often used as a trump card by those hostile to the book? At stake here is the question of how we regard autobiography and self-portraiture in fiction. I begin to suspect that narcissism, with its currency as shorthand for whatever drawbacks we find in our individualistic and individual rights-defending culture, is meant to put an end to conversation about the artistic merits or emotional power of certain literary works. These are generally works narrated by a speaker who feels uncertain in his self-definition and who examines his thoughts and his interactions with others in an attempt to forge some sort of coherence out of his desires, impulses, actions, and values. They are works that make us uncomfortable, and My Struggle is one of them.
The banality and boringness of My Struggle have been highly overstated. They are likely not really what readers, fans and nonfans alike, are reacting to when they try to articulate what seems strange or off-putting about the book. Despite its length, My Struggle is a quick and lively read. Knausgaard employs a brisk, colloquial style; characters are sketched with concision and energy. Even what is most ordinary in the novel is nearly always rooted in powerful emotions vividly recalled. The opening of Book One gives us the earliest and most persistent of these emotions: Knausgaard’s utter terror of his father, a controlling, rage-filled, sometimes physically violent man who tried to crush the least spontaneity and joy out of his two sons. This terror shadows Knausgaard’s entire childhood and perhaps accounts for his antiauthoritarian strain as a young man. It certainly accounts for his statement, both in interviews and in his book, that his primary wish for his own children is that “they shouldn’t be afraid of their father.” The long concluding section of Book One, in which Knausgaard and his older brother, Yngve, travel to the house where their father recently drank himself to death, is mesmerizing, both in the description of the days Karl Ove and Yngve spend scrubbing the place clean of rotted clothes, empty bottles, and excrement, and in Knausgaard’s honesty about his reaction to the death, which includes both unexpected grief and a sense that the bastard got what was coming to him. Some may read the details of the cleaning as banal, but how can they be when they are saturated with horror over a parent’s life ending in this kind of squalor?
Likewise, in later volumes, Knausgaard’s adolescent longing for sex and his courtship of his second wife strike deep universal tones of desire and despair. Passages about pushing a stroller through the streets of Malmö, Sweden, resonate with fears of emasculation (a sensitive topic, given Knausgaard Senior’s tendency to ridicule young Karl Ove as a sissy) as well as the fear of sacrificing one’s ambitions and ideals to the demands of caretaking.
The complaints about My Struggle’s banality are curious, given that the novel as a genre was born to give voice to the everyday. That is what differentiated it from the epic, the chivalric tale, and the morally improving allegory. The novel has always had as its aim the depiction of ordinary people. Think of the works of Jane Austen and their dances, letters, long walks, and teas. Novels bore not when they contain the banal but when the banal is not a means of conveying underlying feeling and meaning. When Knausgaard and his childhood friends shit in the woods in Book Three, delighting in examining the differences between one boy’s excrement and another’s, the point is not to force our attention upon something so everyday and undignified as normally to be banished from the pages of literature. The point is Knausgaard’s capturing of the pure animal vitality he and his playmates experienced as children. I disagree with critics who claim that Knausgaard includes “everything” in his opus. It’s true that he wrote the volumes of My Struggle very quickly and that they were not greatly edited before publication. But a natural selection surely occurred; he wrote of what was emotionally salient enough to have remained in memory. As an accomplished author with two celebrated novels behind him, Knausgaard had the skill and stamina to translate those memories into compelling scenes and minidramas.
My Struggle is not formless. The first volume, as has been pointed out by Elaine Blair in the New York Review of Books, is a kind of overture, with glimpses of Knausgaard as a child, a teenager, and an adult. Book Two employs an ingenious structure, opening with a visit to a run-down amusement park by Knausgaard; his wife, Linda; and their then three children. It soon regresses to an earlier time, a birthday party to which Knausgaard takes his elder daughter. Then it regresses again to Knausgaard’s move several years before to Sweden, in flight from his first marriage, and his budding romance with Linda. After a great deal of material on their early months together, his relationship with his mother-in-law, and the new experience of parenthood, we are brought back to the day of the birthday party and then continue full circle to the amusement park, 500 pages after we last saw it. Books Three and Four proceed more chronologically, detailing Knausgaard’s childhood, move to a new town, last years of high school, first job, and so on.
If My Struggle is not banal in the pejorative sense, nor boring, nor formless, what triggers the endless repetition of these criticisms? Perhaps it’s that it is so clearly a book about selfhood. Knausgaard has defined his project as such, to New York Times writer Larry Rohter among others: “It is a book about the construction of the self.” This is what creates such bile in its critics and such apology in its promoters. Self-construction is historically another one of the novel’s central themes, from Jane Eyre to The Portrait of a Lady to Harry Potter. But normally this theme is tricked out with fictional characters and suspenseful plots and engaging local color (Thornfield Hall, Hogwarts) to make it less stark to the reader. The construction of an imagined, interestingly costumed self is engaging to the reader and morally acceptable in the writer. When the self happens to be more or less the author’s own, readers may feel like intruders spying on matters too intimate to enjoy.
What is narcissism, anyway? Book critics like to lob the term due to its frisson of clinical pathology (technically, it means the inability to distinguish between self and external objects, or extreme grandiosity), but what they really mean by it is a level of interest in the self beyond that which they consider polite. The very fact that Knausgaard has written 3,600 pages about “the construction of a self” is taken as proof that he suffers from excessive self-regard. “How nice it would be,” jeers Becca Rothfeld of Hyperallergic, “to be afforded the luxury of narcissism—the luxury of writing about experiences that are taken, prima facie, to matter.”
In fact, Knausgaard has made it clear he often doubted that the pages he was generating for My Struggle did matter. He has many times told the story of writing the book as a desperate gambit to break through four years of writing failure that had slowed his output to a trickle. He had hoped to write a novel about his father, and the only way to circumvent his block, he discovered, was to write “stupidly”—without attention to the quality of the prose and without self-criticism. In an interview with the author Andrew O’Hagan, Knausgaard reported that he saw the work as “uninteresting” and that only the encouragement of a friend, to whom he read pages over the telephone every day, kept him going.
What made Knausgaard’s friend encourage him was clearly not just kindness. What many readers fail to see is that Karl Ove Knausgaard, the narrator of My Struggle, and Karl Ove Knausgaard, the protagonist of My Struggle, are two quite independent beings. Let’s call the latter “KOK” to help distinguish them. To be able to write freely, Knausgaard had to construct for himself a stance and a voice that were without judgment: unalarmed, unafraid, unashamed, undefended. This is precisely what makes the books work and creates our riveted attention. Knausgaard achieves a Zen-like ability to observe everything yet attach to nothing. KOK, like any normal human being, attaches to it all: his parents, his brother, music, girls at school, his own fluctuating feelings. Knausgaard transcribes these feelings and the thoughts associated with them and moves on. KOK watches himself, worrying about his clothes and his popularity; Knausgaard simply watches that watching. KOK suffers from terrible shame, but Knausgaard is not ashamed of that shame and doesn’t seek to hide it. Knausgaard writes a good deal about his excessive drinking in My Struggle, and in Book Four he explains: “Alcohol makes everything big…and the light it transmits gilds everything you see, even the ugliest and most revolting person becomes attractive in some way, it is as if all objections and all judgments are cast aside in a wide sweep of the hand, in an act of supreme generosity, here everything, and I do mean everything, is beautiful.” There are hints that in writing My Struggle Knausgaard found a method of replicating what drinking does for him. And so while there is grandiosity and self-centered behavior in My Struggle, they belong to KOK the boy or teen or young man, and the more clear-sighted yet accepting Knausgaard mines these moments in a way that is gently funny. When, as an unknown eighteen-year-old, KOK is accepted into a writing program, Knausgaard tell us: “I had expected to be accepted because although I knew what I had written might not have been that good and consequently they ought to have rejected me, it was me, however, who had done the writing and that, I felt, they would not be able to ignore.”
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