If there’s a maxim that all politics is local, perhaps there should be a similar one that all literature’s in the small details of life, or something like that. If so, the novels of Karl Ove Knausgaard are the standard by which we measure successful literary endeavor.
Writing in the New Yorker, critic James Wood said of reading Volume Two of Knausgaard’s, My Struggle that “even when I was bored I was interested”. This hits the nail head about as efficiently as one could ever hope to when approximating the oddly addictive allure of the Norwegian author’s autobiographical novels.
The third translated volume of My Struggle is due to be available this May, though there are said to be three additional volumes to go, so far. The slab of autobiographical time this impressive work is designed to incorporate naturally has provoked comparisons to Proust, though for me the comparison stops at the scope and the scale of ambition.
While Proust may turn his recollections over in his hands as though lovingly admiring a precious jewel, Knausgaard flays them open and mercilessly dissects them. If in À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time the favored translation now apparently rather than the stalwart Remembrance of Things Past) Proust is compiling a treasury of moments in time, setting down beautifully teased out and woven together memories, Knausgaard seems to be expelling the contents of an encyclopedic repository of memories persistently dogging him, in a kind of deliberate, unstoppable, nondramatic catharsis. For my money (a cheap currency, admittedly) to make such a presentation compelling may be the more difficult task of the two.
How Knausgaard galvanizes a reader, creates narrative tension even…and he actually does, from the unfolding of microscopic dailiness is indicative of the rarity and power of the man’s gift. You sure as hell can’t teach this. Nor can one overstate the scale of humiliation and failure for any inclined to imitate.
Normally not one for either unsparing naturalism or family drama, in this case it must only be that these are the recollections of the grown, accomplished Karl Ove that makes them interesting to me, and that the novels serve as aperture through which to observe what is idiosyncratic in the living of Scandinavian lives, even as the world, and the stories grow more homogenous.
While perhaps some of the family dynamics and coming of age episodes are universal enough, there is much here that is still askew in what is related of the growing up years. As for the recounting of more recent slices of adult life, there is no question that for me at least, Knausgaard’s depictions of daily middle-class bohemian life are more than resonant, and likely would be not only for those who write, but for the kind of person for whom reading or music or cinema are as central as chewing food, where by some mixture of necessity and choice, one finds oneself suspended somewhere between the bourgeois and the wild and the scruffy, certainly closer to the former once the kids appear.
Beyond the daily dilemmas of how the life of the mind and imagination coexists with the ordinary and mundane, arguably a key to why the putatively autobiographical is as consuming as it is for readers is that self-scrutiny is something Knausgaard undertakes with near brutality, a disregard for consequences, for himself and others that is either the riskiest lack of inhibition or a valiant overcoming of it. He drops these moments of unvarnished self-accounting in with the least of fanfare, rolled up in the rest of the quotidian flow as it rumbles along. But these bracing interludes may be as much the reason as any other why all of it works together so well, and creates such sustainable gravitational pull on the reader.
He is bluntest and clearest when it comes to conveying that the most important thing in life to him is the writing he does, and that it always will be so, wives, children, finances, repute and all else forever secondary, presenting it almost as coldly as scientific fact, though with recognition that such a thing can seem alarming, even to him.
While no small number of artists have lived this way, and said as much, usually it is accompanied with some sort of grandiosity toward the work itself, its relevance, its stature, its legacy, whereas Knausgaard simply intends to write, speaks of it as a constant endeavor fundamental to his being, apart from virtually all else .This is much less common. And in fact, he could be lying. However I do not think he is. Too much else here is the opposite of any sort of self-burnishing or backhanded or sideways self-appraisal of the flattering sort to suggest he is inclined, even in the slightest to elevate himself as a person or artist.
For all the remembrance of things past laid out so voluminously and in such minute detail, there are times when Knausgaard steps away from the recollection to simply observe, assess, confess or analyze, such astounding nuggets striking as though they have plummeted to the page from the Asteroid Belt. When they hit, they seem so completely perfect, so succinctly and comprehensively astute, one is as much awed as satisfied by their relatability or elucidation or encapsulation, marvels of observational precision. In fact, they are such that I have said to myself after encountering one that the four or five hundred page volume would have been worth the read if only for the single paragraph.
Of course, he is both winking at us and being authentic at the same time with his title, My Struggle. And as release of the latest volume approaches, it is a struggle to which, without ambivalence I cannot wait to return