Brene Brown, author of the two self-empowerment books Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly, must love Karl Ove Knausgaard. My biggest takeaway from this six volume, 3,500 page autobiography is how brave Knausgaard is, how naked. The books are like a grove of winter trees, dour, stark and beautiful, and, at 3,500 pages, it took at least a grove of trees to produce them.
Karl Ove–the books are so intimate that I think of him as a friend, and so I’m on a first name basis–takes shame and angst and almost prints money out of it. As his friend Geir says in Book Two Karl Ove, “sheds tears in a limousine.” We, like Geir, wonder how on earth Karl Ove manages to captivate readers with the quotidian and the mundane, for example, a trip to the bathroom. It’s not that as I read I felt he intended to get rich with a six volume biography, but the thought must cross the mind any writer reading My Struggle, “I could do this…couldn’t I? Maybe after my entire family is dead. Under a pseudonym.”
My Struggle is sort of the equivalent of Jackson Pollock or late Picasso, the kinds of paintings of which uneducated viewers say, “My kid could do that.” It is impossible to put a finger on Karl Ove’s particular genius. There’s the rigorous honesty, yes, but the prose is straightforward, nearly plain. It could be incredibly boring, yet it is strangely addictive. What keeps a reader hefting Knausgaard by the pound and anxiously awaiting the drop date of the final volume?
Karl Ove does not write prose poetry. He doesn’t employ a shit-ton of adjectives, but those he does use are simple, unique and very apt. Memorably, he describes reading the news as dumping a trash bin over one’s head. So simple, so everyman, and yet so fresh. He does get lazy and throw cliches in here and there, but they only add to the heightened ordinariness of the prose.
In describing a fairly normal 1970s-1980s upbringing in a middle class family with a dry drunk, terrifying father, Karl Ove offers the reader many moments of self-recognition. I have never read another author who described the particular despair of the teenager with no musical talent. Who has not grown up wanting to sing, dance, play an instrument, only to find after a few practice sessions or lessons that there is absolutely no aptitude? I found these sections about playing guitar and Karl Ove’s ill-fated band to be particularly resonant–he dispels the idea that if only one had practiced more, one might have been great. The truth is, talented individuals are recognizable from the moment they pick up an instrument or open their mouth to sing or move their body to music.
Book One: Knausgaard describes with uncanny clarity memories from his earliest childhood. He lived in dread of his father, a dark vain and moody character who later becomes an alcoholic who drinks suicidally. Most of the book centers on Knausgaard’s adolescence, his deep appreciation of music, his drunken antics. From the beginning Knausgaard drinks alcoholically. The book ends with a shift to a later period in Knausgaard’s life, when his father dies horribly of alcoholism. The scenes describing the clean up of his senile grandmother’s house, where his father spent his last years, are visceral and disturbing but cathartic. The Big Bad Wolf is dead and at the end he was pathetic; no more than a diseased animal in a cage of his own making.
Book Two:Knausgaard transitions to adulthood, marriage and fatherhood in Book Two. The shift is disconcerting, but after a few dozen pages the reading become addictive again, like a change from salty snacks to sweet. Knausgaard is recognizable and all too human as the character who wants kids but wants nothing to do with raising them. Among the themes are masculinity, commitment and loyalty and Knausgaard struggles mightily with each of them.
Book Three: Knausgaard returns to his early childhood and his tyrannical, unpredictable father. The scenes about the flowered swimming cap that his mother bought for him to wear to swim practice were particularly memorable for me. The childhood expectations of wanting or needing something in order to fit in at school are so recognizable. Somehow parents, in their exhaustion and indifference, can fail to grok the importance of having just the right object, even if described to them in exact detail. The obliviousness and overwhelm of a tired parent in a bad marriage rings completely true.
Book Four: At age eighteen Knausgaard travels to northern Norway to teach at a school in a tiny fishing village. Although he does manage quite a bit of writing during his year as a teacher, he is also drunk to blacking out much of the book, and it is awful to read, but like the proverbial train wreck, fascinating too. His descriptions of drunkenness and hangovers are the best I’ve ever read, having experienced many iterations of both myself.
Knausgaard’s descriptions of attraction to very young girls in his classes is disturbing but anyone who’s ever flirted with a teacher knows these thoughts and behaviors are commonplace; they are just rarely discussed. Since in Book Two Knausgaard’s friend Geir teases him about having had sex with a thirteen year old, when reading Book Four there’s a sense that something very inappropriate did happen and for all Knausgaard’s honesty, this fact is still deeply buried, perhaps with the excuse that he was blackout drunk. His much-described premature ejaculation problem would have probably prevented him consummating such an encounter however.
The book ends with Knausgaard finally having intercourse several times with a willing, age appropriate young woman. She is plump, and his description of her thighs as “tree trunks” and “hams” and his mention of her “big ass” are off-putting and objectifying, but no surprise as he’s been objectifying women throughout the books, just not as cruelly.
Book Five: I am too sick of these books to write about Book Five. When Book Six arrived, at over 1,000 pages, I optimistically got out a razor blade and carved it into three manageable-in-bed parts, but I couldn’t even get past the first page or two. My Struggle is over.