Post Road Magazine #29

The Great Shame of Knausgaard's My Struggle

Katherine Hill

It embarrasses me to recommend Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle.

Just Google him and you will find that his autobiographical novel in six volumes, three of which are now available in English, is the most unoriginal literary recommendation of the 2010s. I have thought about how foolish I will sound mentioning this work again after Zadie Smith and James Wood and Jeffrey Eugenides have already made the case so well. I have thought I really don't have an original thought in my head. I have thought, I have to be able to come up with something else, something off-beat and surprising, something under-read by a living female writer whose excellent work tuned me in to some vital current in my own mind, when I was in grave danger of becoming a person who didn't write. But in the end, I have to be honest: Knausgaard is the man I've been reading. I am in it right now with him.

Anyway it's fine to be unoriginal. Karl Ove is pretty unoriginal himself.

Which is not to say My Struggle is. No person but Knausgaard could have written it. Though because Karl Ove is a person like us, who has had parents and friends, and has been to school, and has fallen in love, and has been drunk, and has had children, and has tried to be somebody, and has seen himself in mirrors, there is much in the work that feels as familiar as if we'd written it ourselves. In the western democracies, at least, a lot of us have lived it.

Knausgaard has said he embarked on this project after four years of trying and failing to fictionalize his dead father, a strict man, a teacher and an alcoholic, who terrified him throughout his childhood. Life, he felt, was often too complicated for fiction. So, he told the LA Review of Books, he decided to write about his father "as if it's fiction [in form] but more like how it actually was [in content], kind of a naive thought but that was what I thought, exactly how I remember it."

He's not alone in his pursuit of a less dramatic realism (the fiction of Sheila Heti and Tao Lin come to mind, as do films like Sofia Coppola's Somewhere and Richard Linklater's Boyhood), but he might be the most rigorous. Knausgaard has done his best to ally writing with living. In My Struggle, narrative writing becomes a kind of re-living, the process by which Karl Ove discovers what his life is, what it was, and how it takes shape. The project itself is a pursuit: of emotion and true experience, related in detailed scenes of daily life interspersed with essays on art and death, and of the kind of formal freedom that comes from not caring what anybody else might think. His gushing readers included.

Even so the gushing must be embarrassing for Karl Ove, who is intensely prone to shame. "How can you sit there receiving applause when you know that what you have done is not good enough?" he writes in My Struggle. It's also embarrassing for the entire literary establishment, which has basically been stripped of its clothes, and at times seems determined to go naked forever, as if in penance for its fiction-loving past. But all this is fine, too, because embarrassment so often correlates with earnestness and deep feeling. If we are embarrassing ourselves, we are probably also onto something good.

Knausgaard recalibrates our attention, practically a necessity in our Internet age. His several hundred pages of house cleaning and child rearing bore us into interest, breaking every single writing workshop rule, and every single convention of contemporary snark. Reading him is a bit like taking a deeply rational psychedelic. "How much of the twenty-year-old was left in me now?" he writes in Book 2. "Not much, I thought, sitting and looking at the glimmering stars above the town. The feeling of being me was the same. The person I woke up to every morning and fell asleep to every night. But the quivering panic was gone." When you're in his life with him, you're in it. The immediate is heightened; beauty is everywhere; memory overwhelms. The computer is blissfully far away.

The question, then, is not whether to read Knausgaard, but how. Not on a Kindle, that's for sure. But beyond that, where? The novel offers some suggestions: read him in a cafe, in your hour to yourself before dinner; read him on the subway after clumsily losing your phone; read him in the one clean corner of a relative's overrun house; read him in the country somewhere, in sight of water or mountains or trees; read him during a child's nap, with diapers piled up in the trash; read him after emailing the parent or friend who vexes you deeply but whom you love and want to protect and would never dare expose. Send that email, your life is important, the email must be sent. But then go live Karl Ove's life—at least, as his literary mind remembers it. Cast off your embarrassment and go live in that life for a while.

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