Tuesday, July 15, 2014

And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor.

My Struggle, Book 1My Struggle, Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgård
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first time I heard of Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle was when I came across a New Yorker article in which the irrefutable link between the title of his novel, and that of Hitler’s manifesto, was discussed.

I skimmed through the piece and didn't think much of it – next thing you know, books 1, 2 and 3 of My Struggle are in bookstores EVERYWHERE.

The novel is receiving near-universal praise; Zadie Smith compared it to
crack and the Guardian calls it the “latest literary sensation.” Whoever reads My Struggle seems to agree that it is very, very addictive. So I put aside my fear of big books for a moment (cough The Luminaries cough Sylvia Plath’s unabridged journals) and decided to give the first couple of pages a go…

… and then I was hooked. It doesn’t particularly help that there are no chapters - only part 1 and part 2 - so you read on and on and on.

My Struggle is Knausgaard’s autobiography. I devoured the first volume in roughly six hours. I considered calling it quits at one point (maybe I’ll just finish the first volume, I thought); however, since Knausgaard left me hanging after the last page, I NEED more.

My Struggle begins with the following introspective line:
“For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can.”

Readers are at once introduced to the theme of death that eventually becomes central to the novel’s development and conclusion. The way Knausgaard begins his autobiography is thoughtful: indeed, long paragraphs of philosophical reflection recur throughout the novel. Then, Knausgaard’s style switches to the narrative voice: he lets us in on his childhood fears, his vision of a face in the water and his frequent anxiety. Knausgaard wrote My Struggle at forty-something and in the middle of his second marriage; however, the novel ends with him in his younger years, still attached to his first wife.

So, both form and time melt away in this novel. We jump between philosophical reflections to classic storytelling, from adolescent years to the afternoons of adulthood. Such versatility is of course a part of what keeps readers hooked on My Struggle. Although high school English teachers boycott this word, it must be said: My Struggle is interesting. Knausgaard’s life is worth reading about and the way he exposes it is unreservedly honest and captivating. I mean, he wrote 2,700 pages on his own life: he takes it seriously, and so do we.

Much of the first volume is centered on Knausgaard’s relationship with his father. We know from the beginning that Karl Ove and his brother, Yngve, are afraid of him. He can drive them to tears; they move around him tentatively. As Karl Ove himself admits, he most certainly wrote the novel for his father just as his need for others to ‘approve’ of him is influenced by the way he, as a child, badly wanted his father’s attention. The father is no doubt an enigma. He always seems to know, by intuition, whatever Karl Ove is hiding. Karl Ove is equally perplexed when, after his parents’ divorce, he sees his father wearing new clothes and surrounded by people who – seemingly out of the blue – are all his relatives. Even his death is an enigma – how exactly did it happen? Can the grandmother be trusted?

We encounter a Madame Raquin-esque figure in Karl Ove’s grandmother. It was in reading the parts where she was present that I nearly forgot I was reading an autobiography. Her sleepwalking, repressed alcoholism, enigmatic air and steady “unraveling” all transform her into an utterly unforgettable character that is not so much unlike the lonely women we meet in fiction.

It’s astonishing how Knausgaard tells all and recalls all with such thoroughness. At one point in the novel, Knausgaard reveals how his adolescent policy of drinking generally revolved around the “go hard go home concept.” The same could be said for his writing. Remarkable detail fills up The Struggle. For example, Knausgaard manages to evoke so much Norwegian culture and childhood nostalgia in just a simple span of pages when he describes the fish his family used to eat. All this detail has earned Knausgaard both praise – and trouble. The price of being honest in an autobiography means, of course, that those written about can get hurt.

“His wife had agreed to be included, telling him only: "Don't make me boring," and he gave her the manuscript to read on a long train journey. Having finished it, she called him three times. The first time she said she thought it was OK, but that she didn't like it. The second time, she told him that their life could never be romantic again. Finally, she called him and wept.” http://www.theguardian.com/theobserve...

Nonetheless, we are left with a lot of questions at the end of the autobiography. How did Knausgaard end up leaving his first wife? How exactly did the father die??? At what point in his life did he and his mother really grow apart? The desire to know is maddening!

No wonder My Struggle is so wildly popular.

P.S. more discussion on the struggle itself will come after I finish books 2-6.

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