on 27 April 2013
Novels are often autobiographical, and memoirs usually have as much fiction as fact. So what is Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle? It's clearly his personal story, told in a hyper-realistic manner. When I saw him in conversation with James Wood in September 2012 at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, he said yes, of course this is a novel, not a memoir: he uses the techniques of a novelist. But it's something simpler than that: it's an extremely effective piece of storytelling, the elemental kind that is how we make sense of our lives.
Why should readers care about the story of Karl Ove's life? It's not that it's in any way remarkable, though it certainly has its personal dramas. No, it's the almost guileless realism that drew me in--all the small details that make up our everyday lives that rarely get acknowledged in books, but which completely resonates at some deep inner level. And while there are passages where the writing is plain--no other word for it--often Knausgaard is employing the careful wordcraft of a skilled writer more concerned with telling his story than showing off his chops. In doing so, he gets to the heart of being in all its everyday ordinariness.
Knausgaard spares no one in his family in this portrayal, least of all himself. We see family scenes from his childhood, a long section from his teenage years that's blissfully free of moralizing or wallowing in self pity: it's simply life itself.
But ultimately the book is about death, and what that means for the living. My Struggle opens with a meditation on life's end, and the heart of the book recounts Karl Ove's week after learning of his father's death, most of it spent at his grandmother's fetid home in Kristiansand, a town on the southern coast of Norway. It was here that his father spent the last years of his life, slowly drinking himself to death. Karl Ove and his brother Yngve slowly clean out the stinking house, tossing reeking clothes and furniture, scrubbing for hours on end, and trying to understand their grandmother, who found their dead father, her dead son.
It doesn't sound like promising material, and should by rights be downright depressing, but it's not. Every detail is described with care; the story is more like a painting of an old Dutch master, rich in intricate and mundane detail, sparing nothing, engrossing us, leaving us wanting more.
Why does this book work so well? Why did I look forward to reading another 20 pages every evening? I think somehow Knausgaard has managed to make his struggle universal through all the small details that accumulate into the larger whole. That includes his own follies and failures, his self doubt and fears, and yet also a confidence that he will make it through to the next day, the ultimate struggle for all of us.
Each little moment he describes is a moment of awareness of the present. Perhaps that's why it captivated me: all too often, we go through our days unaware of the moments that make up our lives, lost in thought, focused on the future or the past. Knausgaard describes a relentless present, something that we mostly forget in our own daily struggles.
This definitely isn't a book for everyone; if you want plot development and action, look elsewhere. But for me it was rich, rewarding, thought-provoking, and ultimately moving.
on 5 January 2013
I would rarely use the word "masterpiece" to descrive a contemporary novel, let alone an autobiography, but this book deserves this title.
You have to admit he has guts: writing a six - part autobiography and calling it "My struggle" (in German translated as "Mein Kampf") is a daring enterprise. But Knausgard succeeds with brio: he is a brilliant story teller and explores the human condition with such honesty and candour that it just leaves you gasping for breath (and wanting to read more and more).
The scenes at the end of the book (his father, his grandmother, the house, the bottles, ....) still haunt my mind.
Apparently Knausgard has achieved a kind of rock star status in Scandinavia: as far as I am concerned he deserves it.
The second book of the series "A man in love" has already appeared in the Dutch translation and is a little bit disappointing after the sheer brilliance of the first, but that is only to be expected. This book is to be released in April in English. By that time I will have read part three of "My Struggle" and it is already marked on my calendar that I have to get the moment it comes out.
Seriously, this is a reading experience not to be missed!
on 3 June 2013
I can not decide whether or not I like this book. I found it self-indulgent, and I at times felt that the author was incredibly arrogant. The book appears to have been written as self-therapy, to cleanse the author of his feelings about his father. We never really find out why the author hated his father so much, nor do we discover much about what seems to have been a very good relationship with his mother. The style of the book is sometimes very difficult to read: there are whole pages without a single paragraph break, and there is little flow of narrative. You could start reading this book at any point and not lose the flow.
This book definitely is not as good as the praise at the front of the book suggests. But at the same time, I did want to read it. Although not likeable, the author's character is intriguing; his observations of human nature are fascinating, his descriptions of the things he sees brings them alive. And yet he appears to have no ability to interpret his own behaviour. It has bee suggested that the author may be somewhere on the autism spectrum; he is highly intelligent, but seems unable to truly relate to others.
I can't say I enjoyed the book. I can't say I would recommend it to others to read. But I am glad I took the time to read it.
It wasn't until I looked up the name 'Karl Ove Knausgaard' that I realised I had already read one of his books, 'A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven', which didn't impress me and I barely made it halfway through. After finding that out I approached this book with caution - which turned out to be unfounded.
The first book in the fictionalised memoir series 'My Struggle' ('Min Kamp' in Norwegian or 'Mein Kampf' in German) mainly deals with the death of Karl Ove's father. Along the way he digresses on death, life, growing up and the act of writing. He moves backwards and forwards through different times seamlessly and he uses no stylistic quirks - this is a story told in a straightforward 'flat' style and no chapters. All of this adds up to what has to be on of the best contemporary novels I have read in a long time and to call it a page-turner would not be a critiscism.
Quite simply this is a contemporary version of Proust - something I didn't think a modern writer would attempt again - and I am equally looking forward to the next chapter in Karl Ove's 'struggle'.
on 12 June 2015
I’ve never read such an open and full account of a person’s life.
Karl Ove combines pure honesty with a focused writing skill to reveal himself to the world completely.
We get a richer and deeper impression of him than any character from fact or fiction I’ve ever read.
He is a suburban family man who has laid down his worries, his anxieties, his troubles without sentimentality or self-pity, from the painful relationship with his father to admitting being bored playing with his children and questioning his “I love you too” to his wife.
There is even meaning in the small details of making a pot of coffee or a walk to the shops which give it an existentialist touch.
The earlier parts of the book on his school years dragged a bit but most of it, especially as a married man around the time of his father’s death, were utterly absorbing.
Through his sheer honesty he shows how an ordinary person and an ordinary life are full of humanity and meaning.
It’s a simple concept delivered with powerful style and it’s no surprise he has won awards in his native Norway.
‘The life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it, and always had done. 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.’ This, in a nutshell, is what the My Struggle cycle of four books is about, though at 3,000 plus pages altogether, this lends itself less than any other work to any nutshell characterisation.
A Death in the Family is the first of four volumes which, while they can be read entirely independently, purport together to tell the story of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s own life. Ostensibly autobiographical, the books appear to have been fictionalised in areas, or at least in the detail, though in the main it checks out. But the point is that Knausgaard’s life is no different from that of any average denizen of the modern, developed world, save perhaps that a writer is free from some of the professional constraints most people find themselves labouring under. His life is meant as an ordinary life, with a more or less fraught child-parent relationship and childhood, the search for professional success and meaning, friends, marriage, divorce, and so on. His struggle is everyone’s struggle.
The point, then, is to find meaning in ordinary life, any human life. A Death in the Family, which deals mostly with Knausgaard’s childhood, specifically makes the point that for children every small experience is intense, of tremendous novelty and import. A child’s reality remains unfiltered and therefore everything in it is vested with great meaning. But the adult sees things through the prisms of experience, judgement, and self-observation. For him or her, it becomes that much more difficult to relate tangibly to the everyday. For Knausgaard, this becomes clear when his father dies, and he is forced to come to terms with entire aspects of his youth. The death forces him to assume his own adulthood – his father dies of drunkenness, having damaged the lives of several of his closest kin in the process, and Karl Ove cleans up after him – but at the same time his grief is that of a child for a however ambivalent role model.
Meanwhile, of course, much else happens, ranging from the semi-tragic to the entirely comical. Knausgaard’s writing, indeed, proceeds by open and never-closed parenthesis, one subject or anecdote recalling another one, and so forth without always closing the first. His narration has a rambling, Russian-doll structure that creates the impression of a table-corner or pub-counter confession, and gives it the aura of a friend’s confidence. The book is occasionally long-winded, but it is never boring nor heavy-going. It is no coincidence, finally that the cycle title, My Struggle, or in Norwegian Min Kamp, is the same as Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Obfuscation, misdirection: these are also part and parcel of this dense, rich, and fascinating work.
on 10 November 2014
Knausgaaard sets about describing his life, and it is his life, by including absolutely everything - in the same way as Borges' Funes the Memorious never forgets anything he sees, nor does Knausgaard. And like Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose novels record the surface of the world is detail, so Knausgaard's preference is the quotidian and the incidental, and it's the accumulative effect of layers and layers of this that makes the novel so powerful, immersing the reader in Knausgaard's universe. There are moments when I can't help but feel I'm walking beside him, or that he is writing about my life, certainly his descriptions of his first experiments with alcohol, his first crushes, the bands he played in and the music he listened to. And Knaausgaard is a pitiful mess, sometimes, certainly he is no hero, and his inability to raise himself above the everyday, something he occasionally does with philosophical digressions, is somehow charming. He imbues everything, every gesture, whether opening a bottle of beer, rolling a cigarette, taking something out of a cupboard, laying a table, pouring a drink, with such filmic observational precision. 'What you see every day is what you never see,' he says, but Knausgaard captures every detail. I can't help but think of Ingmar Bergman; the slow, slow pace of things, the deliberation, the angst. This is full of angst. Poor Karl Ove. He cries throughout the second half of the novel, sometimes with embarrassment, sometimes without fear. But crying is good, and perhaps if Karl Ove weren't so sensitive, he wouldn't have produced such a fine book. It is a masterpiece of its own genre, kitchen sink, real time, plotless and written in such simple language, it sometimes feels less than what is. Because it is remarkable, and, if I still feel the same after I've read the second and third of the six volumes of My Struggle, this ranks alongside some of the most astonishing literary achievements of our times.
`A Death in the Family' (My Struggle: Vol 1) takes the autobiographical novel to the extreme. Knausgaard has written the truth, this is his reality. The frankness of his 6 Volume work has alienated him from half his family and he admits that the scandal accompanying its publication has contributed to its bestselling status in Norway where it has become a national obsession.
The central figure is his father, an ordinary school teacher who became an alcoholic and drank himself to death. There is no plot or formal structure and Knausgaard moves around freely in time as a particular event reminds him of something that happened in the past. It is about his struggle to write great literature while having to contend with the banality of everyday life including looking after his children, he loves them but is brutally honest about the fact he also resents the time they take up in his life. At times it can be almost uncomfortable learning about one man's life in such detail, but it is fascinating. Although it is a personal narrative about the struggles of a writers life it also explores the struggles universal to us all.
There are no chapters and frequently a single paragraph can take up several pages which may sound daunting but the compelling narrative kept me going. Memories and events in his life are described in minute detail, for example, the time that he and his brother clean their grandmother's house after their father died there; having wrecked the place. In spite of the detail of the mundane `A Death in the Family' is not boring, although Part 1 is the hardest to get through but it really takes off in Part 2 leaving me wanting to read the second volume.
It has frequently been compared to Marcel Proust, has been hailed as a literary masterpiece all over Europe and it will be interesting to see how it is received in the UK. `A Death in the Family' is amusing, tragic and very controversial; a very literary book but compelling and highly readable; thanks in no small part to Don Bartlett's translation, Scandi crime fans will recognise the name as he translates Jo Nesbo. The question is has Knausgaard sold his soul for fame?
on 23 February 2015
When the author is describing at one point in this book what it feels like to be drunk he talks of how it makes the unbearable banality of his world seem radiant. That is what he achieves in the book as a whole. It is a book like no other I have read - often dealing in great detail with the mundane everyday world but dealing with aspects of it - the moments of youthful embarrassment and gaucheness, of drunkenness and awkwardness with girlfriends - which are rarely dealt with outside comic novels. And alongside this Knausgaard deals with the huge questions of love and sex and family and, above all, death (which frames this part of the novel). It seems at first to be a very loose almost stream-of-consciousness structure, with constant digressions and journeys back and forward in time. But at the heart of it is the narrator's love-hate relationship with his father. It is interesting that this modern day author starts his long Proust-like series of novels with an exploration of the narrator's relationship with his father, just as Proust did with his relationship with his mother. It has all the makings of being a unique journey and I look forward to experiencing more of both the unbearable banality and the radiance along the way.
on 3 September 2014
I am totally hooked on Karl Ove's writing as I don't think any other writer I have ever read could write about the most mundane of life's trivialities and make them actually fascinating, possibly D.H. Lawrence.
I am already half way through his second book and loving that too. However I can understand why he is a bit of a "marmite" writer and why some people give up on him, nothing happens in his books and yet everything does, death,love,birth and what is more dramatic than these things but sometimes it takes great writer, and Karl Ove is a great writer, to get us to see the drama in everyday life.