“A life is simple to understand,” Karl Ove Knausgaard declares in the second volume of My Struggle, “the elements that determine it are few.” Thousands of pages later, it seems that this reductionist aphorism was most likely a joke. The complete account of Knausgaard’s life so far--an excruciatingly detailed, introspective warts-and-all expose of everyday life in Norway and Sweden, as lived by a blue-eyed Gen-X male from Southern Norway--clocks in at over 3500 pages. The small conundrums of Knausgaard’s life pale beside the larger enigma of educated readers in Western industrialized countries: for some reason, a quasi-fictive memoir written by an occasional stay-at-home dad which devotes countless pages to the onerous social obligations presented by kids’ birthday parties, the various hygiene failings of his vodka-sipping grandma’s house near Kristiansand, and the Byzantine intricacies of Stockholm’s apartment rental market, sells surprisingly well. It’s been reported that one out of every ten Norwegians have, if not read, at least purchased the book. Ever since Brooklyn-based Archipelago Books published the first English language version of Book One in 2012, American critics have awaited each new installment of Knausgaard’s maybe-life story with baited breath.
Is the cheap thrill of carrying a book called My Struggle on the subway really going to get you through a six-volume tome? Probably not, unless you love the idea of seeing how Scandinavians outside of Ikea catalogues really live. Book One contains the highlights of Knausgaard’s teen years in southern Norway and his adulthood as a struggling writer in both Norway and Sweden: meticulously documented quantum bricks of long-sentenced memory, focusing primarily on the degeneration of Karl Ove’s troubled alcoholic father, are bracketed by philosophical observations on death, memory, meaning, and family. The collected essays in Book Two address the tensions between familial obligations and desires, the banality of day-to-day life, and the social engineering of the Swedish state, tethered together by narratives of Karl Ove’s move to Sweden in a moment of personal crisis and his growing relationship with Linda, his future wife and the eventual mother of his three children, and the first years raising his daughter. Book Three, by contrast, is pure narrative: it begins with Karl Ove’s earliest memories as a boy in 1970s Tromøya, Norway, and ends with his last days in school before moving off the island for his father’s work-related relocation.
Knausgaard’s magnum opus draws its strength from the author’s faith that writing tomes that blur the boundaries between fiction and memoir is meaningful, which is mirrored by the faith of his European readers (and lately his American ones): while the commercial success of My Struggle is probably overhyped, considering that (at its most sensational) it’s essentially the story of a relatively perceptive Everyman going about his own business in the stodgiest of European settings, the book has made a spectacular splash. At 3500 plus pages, Knausgaard and his readers definitely manifest stamina, not to mention heroic commitment. But commitment to what?
As is traditional for books about a problematic relationship with a parent, Book One ends with the numbness of funeral planning. “A town that does not keep its dead out of sight, that leaves people where they died, on highways and byways, in parks and parking lots, is not a town but a hell, “ Knausgaard declares early in Book One, “The fact that this hell reflects our life experience in a more realistic and essentially truer way is of no consequence.”
Death, according to Knausgaard, is the one thing in life that has not been destroyed, perverted, commodified, or generally left bereft of meaning by society. Consequently, it is the one thing that is hidden from view, at any cost, by modern social normative standards. Once a sacred rite framed by momentous religious or philosophical trappings, Knausgaard observes, death is now a subset of nihilistic teenaged angst. In his view, Western liberal society--as epitomized by the extreme of the Swedish socialist utopia--has positioned “equality and justice” as the overriding goal of life and society, to the exclusion of anything that is truly meaningful.
And yet death is not merely a sociological phenomenon. It also has a literary element. A compelling review by Ben Lerner essentially posits that much of the tension and success of My Struggle stems from our latent sense that the very act of writing--at least the very act of writing a work that either is, or resembles, a memoir written by a living man--is a tango with mortality. The “all-in” commitment of this type of writing--the type that exposes everything in its shameful and gory vividness--is an authorial death-wish that can only reach closure with the conclusion of the final book and the destruction of the writer’s career and authorial identity. It is only with death, metaphorical or actual, that the long-promised, semi-mythical “tying together” of all the endless data, the "one thing after another" aspect of a personal history, will be revealed.
To some extent, this background preoccupation with death is present in all works that have a strong connection to a nonfictional reality. But it is forefront in the thematic concerns of My Struggle. In the closing paragraphs of Book One, Karl Ove identifies his father’s body, spends [several days] cleaning up the squalid house where Knausgaard senior died, and then has second thoughts. He calls the undertaker, urgent and sheepish. He wants to see the body again.
Insufficient preoccupation with mortality, of course, is not the only problem that Knausgaard has with the Swedish nanny state and the Western liberal social program at large. Knausgaard sees modernity as an enemy to meaning--which is actually dead on, if you interpret meaning (as he does with a wink and a nudge, along with most of the Game of Thrones viewership) as synonymous with the traditional Nordic virtues of running around stabbing at things with spears and eating food skewered on dead tree branches as your enemies lie dead at your feet. Discussing a friend’s book about a boxing gym in Sweden, Knausgaard observes that at the gym, “the values that the welfare state had otherwise subverted, such as masculinity, honor, violence, and pain, were upheld, and the interest for me lay in how different society looked when viewed from that angle, with the set of values that they had retained.”
To confront this more primal world without the baggage of the modern world, he declares, is an “art”: you must “try to see it as it was on its own terms, that is, and then, with that as a platform, look outwards again.” From this acknowledgment of an older world comes insight. In one sense, Knausgaard is making a culturally universal observation about the warrior past that still lurks in the psyches of many peoples that are not currently devoted to relentless rape, pillage, and the wearing of hats with horns on them. This compelling description of life as a Swedish “house husband” references the primal man still lurking inside:
In the class and culture we belonged to, that meant adopting the same role, previously called the woman’s role. I was bound to it like Odysseus to the mast: if I wanted to free myself I could do that, but not without losing everything. As a result I walked around Stockholm’s streets, modern and feminized, with a furious nineteenth-century man inside me.
But Knausgaard is also sending an unsubtle Norwegian jab in the eye of the hyper-liberal, ultra-PC postwar Swedish establishment. The modern front lines of this conflict reside no longer in a medieval Anglo-Saxon village, but rather in, for example, a birthing class in Stockholm:
We went to the pre-natal classes together, the room was packed and the audience sensitive to every word spoken from the podium; if there was anything remotely controversial, from a biological point of view, a low sucking of breath ran through the rows, for this was taking place in a country where gender was a social construct for the body, outside what everyone agreed was common sense, there was no place. Instinct, came a voice from the podium. No, no, no! the angry women in the room whispered. How could you say such a thing! I saw a woman sobbing on a bench, her husband was ten minutes late for the course, and I thought, I am not alone.
None of these cultural tensions are particularly unique to Knausgaard or even to Scandinavia. But they are poignant to Knausgaard as a writer because they represent the transition from nature and direct experience to knowledge and abstraction. How do you suck out the real meaning from a moment or experience, and therefore life, if you live in a modern world that discounts the primal and instinctive as childish? And worse: how do you do it if you are a writer, someone who is by definition an agent of abstraction?
There is a pervasive sense in My Struggle of a commitment to art in the very deepest sense. On a basic and accessible level, there’s something refreshing about the idea, in a postmodern age, that writing can “solve” anything, not least the tangled knots in Knausgaard’s dysfunctional family drama, his mundane struggles with raising three children with his poet wife, and so on.
More problematically, Knausgaard’s commitment to the aesthetic enterprise results in criticisms of the sanctimonious, unstylish Swedish social structure that look disingenuous. Only in a socialist utopia, one suspects, could two artists with no visible source of steady cash flow afford an apartment in the trendiest parts of Stockholm and send their children to daycare with those from the upper middle class. Such unspoken elephants in the discursive space, which are a common feature (for example) of Michael Moore productions, do not necessarily detract from the merit of a work. But they convert Knausgaard’s social commentary into mere belles-lettres. They are stylistic exercises in how a writer and an artist connects to the outside world. That Knausgaard acknowledges the place of his commentary is evident from the title of his work.
Knausgaard’s true predecessor, of course, is not Hitler, but rather Proust. In many obvious ways, My Struggle takes its cue from another six-volume work that chronicles every aspect of an individual life in meticulous and sometimes distressing detail. Yet the fundamental posture of Knausgaard’s work does not follow Proust; it mirrors, and is opposite to, Proust. The Marcel of In Search of Lost Time is a privileged and distanced version of Proust himself--wealthy, heterosexual, and politically establishmentarian; the relatively non-mainstream aspects of Proust’s own life (his Jewishness, his homosexuality, and his Dreyfusard beliefs) are relegated to the characters of Bloch, Swann, and a seemingly limitless list of openly or closeted friends. By contrast, Knausgaard has somehow managed to pass off his own place in society--as a respected writer, romantically successful white heterosexual male, father, and member of a cosmopolitan literary elite--as that of a vulnerable underdog. The Karl Ove of My Struggle, the narrative emphasizes, is the victim of an unending string of indignities large and small. He doesn’t get on with his father; he’s bullied by his older brother as a child; Swedes are annoying; it’s hard to get an apartment in Stockholm; and we are constantly reminded of a string of devastating sexual rejections (beginning with adolescence and culminating in a disastrous first meeting with his now-wife). Knausgaard comes from a different age than Proust, with distinct needs. It is the age of Oprah, which originates in our ancestors’ preoccupation with Freud: it is the age of fascination with the undercurrents of darkness hiding behind confident and conventional exteriors.
In this sense, Knausgaard--and his alter ego, Karl Ove--are merely what the elite cosmopolitan establishment has always unconsciously anticipated and desired. It is not necessarily his talent that makes him compelling to the critics, but more what he is and represents. In an age where literature is struggling mightily against the widespread (perhaps correct) notion that reading is kind of neurotic and nerdy, the domain of bespectacled small women with cats and pasty asexual guys who play World of Warcraft for money, Knausgaard is not just any guy: he is a representation of the writer par excellence--a dose of domestic and existential angst, assembled in a tall, compelling, grungy, rock star-like Norwegian writer. A sensitive, tall, male of the Scandinavian variety: bad boy, lover, writer and doting father. Brad Pitt is probably signing up for Berlitz classes so he can play the guy in the movie.
This observation invites some troubling questions about where culture is headed generally. We all struggle; in fact, if you’re in the West and middle-class, you probably struggle in the same ways Knausgaard does, with the same First World Problems and the same cosmopolitan urban intellectual experience. Why is his struggle the one to receive a box set? Put another way: could an African immigrant living in London have written a similar work to such rapturous applause? What about a Chinese-American woman practicing law in San Jose? My Struggle is the ultimate literary SWPL (Stuff White People Like) of our time: post-millennial existence articulated through the words of a really tall, blond, long-haired, bearded Norwegian guy who seems pretty cool. The kind of self-deprecating (but good-looking) guy whom you’d like to hang out with after one of his readings, maybe getting drunk on craft beer and talking about Dostoyevsky as he grumbles about how much he actually hates and feels shamed by the acclaim, just as other good-looking scruffy intellectual Scandinavians stop by to say hello and roast a wild boar together on the steps of a Williamsburg bar. It’s the kind of guy who secretly loves talking about how Japanese tourists are totally obsessed with him:
What once had irked me, walking through the town with a stroller, was now history, forgotten and outlandish, as I pushed a shabby carriage with three children on board around the streets, often with tow or three shopping bags dangling from one hand, deep furrows carved in my brow and down my cheeks, and eyes that burned with a vacant ferocity I had long lost any contact with. I no longer bothered about the potentially feminized nature of what I did, now it was a question of getting the children to wherever we had to go, with no sit-down strikes or any other ideas they could dream up to thwart my wishes for an easy morning or afternoon. Once a crowd of Japanese tourists stopped on the other side of the street and pointed at me, as though I were the ringmaster of some circus parade or something. They pointed. There you can see a Scandinavian man! Look, and tell your grandchildren what you saw!
The Japanese tourists are not unique. We are all Japanese tourists, fascinated by juxtapositions of power and vulnerability, anticipating the release of the English language version of Book Four.
According to Knausgaard, we lose the battle against the destruction of meaning on two fronts. On one hand, it is part of a process of aging and becoming an adult. On another level, it is due to larger sociological forces associated with modernity. My Struggle is arguably an attempt to return to some childlike level of connection to reality. Describing an incident when he was eight, Karl Ove observes:
So when my father raised the sledgehammer above his head and let it fall on the rock that spring evening in the mid-1970s, he was doing so in a world he knew and was familiar with. It was not until I myself reached this same age that I understood that there was indeed a price to pay for this.
Knausgaard goes on to explain that this price is the one that comes with the reconfiguration of the relationship between aging, knowledge and time:
As your perspective of the world increases not only is the pain that it inflicts on you less but also its meaning….At length we bring it within the scope of our senses and we stabilize it with fixer. When it has been fixed, we call it knowledge. Throughout childhood and teenage years, we strive to attain the correct distance to objects and phenomena. We read, we learn, we experience, we make adjustments. Then one day we reach the point where all the necessary distances have been set, all the necessary systems have been put in place. This is when time picks up speed.
We thus lose meaning and have lost meaning. The modern liberal project, post-Renaissance, has placed knowledge and abstraction, above the spiritual, natural, and primal. We are unable to see things as they are, to step beyond the representations that we have created (and photography has only accelerated this curious process). The world has closed, the universe is known, distances and time have shrunk. The global projects of government and of a society dedicated to full equality and justice can now proceed, full steam ahead.
We film our lives on Go-Pro cameras and take selfies. Real meaning once was to be found while slowly pouring milk on cornflakes in a Tromøya house in the 1970s, watching and appreciating the moment in all its intensity.