Copyright Dennis Mitton
I have started reading the six volume autofictional tome My Struggle written by Norwegian Karl Knausgaard. Many lit types laud the work as a modern classic. Just as many consider the book to be very expensive toilet paper. I’m posting as I read, dividing the work into roughly hundred page chunks for easy digestion. I am reading the English language version titled My Struggle, Book 1, translated by Dan Bartlett and published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
We’ve already fought. That’s the sign of a good book. If the reviews can be believed, it’s to be expected. For everyone who loves My Struggle, there is someone else burning it. People pay big money for press like that.
I discovered Knausgaard via a review in the NYT of Book 4. I was intrigued enough to check out Amazon reviews and then traipsed headway to Barnes and Noble to buy Book 1. No Nook download this time. I wanted to hold the book and have something I could talk to and scribble in. Something to save as a record. Once home and ensconced firmly on the bed reading, Mal wanted to know what the fuss was. I gave her the elevator pitch and, when I set the book down, she picked it up, read a couple of paragraphs, and got that glow in her eyes. It’s the same glow that makes the kids clean their room without complaint.
“I know you. I know how you get wrapped up in a book and an author and everything he talks about.” She put that edge on her words – I know you – to let me know that this was not a two-way conversation. “But I…what?” Oops. I forget easy. Time to listen, not talk. “I know you. If you think that you’re going to start living like this, acting like this, if you think that you’re going to start being some pained art recluse…” I tried to interject. “Well, I’m telling you right now that you might as well put that damned book away. I’d put it down before it just gets you in trouble.” My special look was met by her special and more ominous look. “But hon. I’ve read about eight pages.” “Well, as far as I can tell, that’s about eight pages too many.” Conversation over and she’s looking for matches.
What is Knausgaard’s struggle?
Three themes stand out in the first hundred pages. The first, which is never explicitly mentioned but permeates the writing like a Norwegian hoarfrost, is his relationship with his father. His father is at home as much as any other parent but never connects. He seems surprised to have a son. He is pleasant and mannered but distant and uninvolved. He surprises the young Karl one night and shows up at Parent’s Night at school only to have a bad experience with a teacher. He leaves shouting, announcing loudly that he will never return. Karl’s mother mostly just stops by for the weekend. She is at the university, studying for her Masters, far enough away to make spontaneous stops inconvenient. She evokes the same response from her husband as Karl does from his father. There is nothing overtly ominous or remarkable but a general disconnect and coldness filters that through their lives. They live together from habit with neither animosity nor passion. Knausgaard writes about his father in the same cold, indifferent tone that his father uses to speak to him. Does this uninterested tone hide a hurt and confusion? The lyrics from Pearl Jam’s Jeremy sound true here; ”Daddy didn’t give attention to the fact that Mommy didn’t care.” I want to see where this goes. Mothers can be crazy but it takes a father to really screw someone up.
Knausgaard is unabashed in his desire to be a great writer. Not just a writer who writes great lines, but a celebrated novelist who is revered and recognized. He is entitled to it. He is a great mind. He sees things. His angst over not measuring up is a central theme in the early pages of My Struggle. He has sold a few articles and stories over five years as a professional writer but not enough to load his bank or his ego. He blames his family. He requires a large and quiet expanse for careful thoughts, for selecting just the right word, for crafting an exceptional sentence. Instead, he has diaper duty through the daytime hours with breakfast and lunch to serve and clean. He must shop. Comb hair. Cart the children to school. All wastes of time for a genius of his caliber.
Like any honest story about growing up, Knausgaard admits to a portion of teenage confusion and sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. I’m interested to see if this carries through or if it’s just a slice of his teenage life. His ‘rock band’ disintegrates within moments of striking their first power chords at their first live show. The mall manager, running toward them with a scrunched face and hands over his ears, thrusts their pay at them and tells them to pack up. He hides beer in the woods and smokes. He loves the feeling of laughing hilarity that rolls over him when he drinks at parties. Until the hilarity gives way to vomiting and passing out. He learns about love. Maybe not love but certainly the glories of naked breasts. But in just a few pages he moves from kissing to sex to boredom.
This is the milieu of My Struggle. Burdened with familial chores and feelings of foisted mediocrity, Knausgaard finally loses his taste for writing and searches for something – anything – to force him to put pen to paper. Something to get back to making letters into words and words into sentences. He decides to write the story of his life so far. He will write plainly and honestly. He will name names. Who cares? No one will ever read these scribbles. He will cut open his heart and ego and expose what is good and what is not. And each day he will call his agent and read what he wrote just to prove that he is still writing. He never imagined that this would be his best work. Friends and family were just as surprised with his honest telling of it and of his popularity – it is reported that many have refused to see him since My Struggle was published.
A hundred pages in and what can be said? He is any kid. He is my kid. He is me. But he writes my story in a way that makes me want to read more. (Is that it? Is Knausgaard’s struggle my struggle?) So far there is no epiphany. No secrets revealed. Just the everyday life of a normal, angst ridden, rock star wannabe teenager in love with bare breasts.
At this point I couldn’t agree more with the reviewer on the back cover:
I can’t stop. I want to stop. I can’t stop, just one more page, then I will cook dinner, just one more page…