Why Has ‘My Struggle’ Been Anointed a Literary Masterpiece?
In 2009, Norwegian state television broadcast “minute-for-minute” coverage of the seven-hour railway journey from Bergen to Oslo. The program was watched, at some point in its duration, by one-quarter of the Norwegian populace. In 2011, the ante was upped: 134 hours of continuous live coverage of the maritime Coastal Express. Half the country tuned in. Two years later came National Firewood Night: four hours of chopping, stacking and drying followed by eight hours of a live fireplace. The word of the year in Norwegian, it was announced that December, was sakte-TV, “slow TV.”
All this may help explain the overwhelming popularity, in his native country, of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume, 3,600-page autobiographical novel-in-name-only, My Struggle. His struggle? The book (published from 2009–2011, with installments of the English version now appearing at the rate of one a year) is not exactly a minute-by-minute account of the author’s life, with all the tedium that that implies, but it comes as close as you could wish—in fact, it comes a good bit closer. Volume I devotes some sixty pages to a New Year’s Eve the year the author turns 16: putzing around at home until it’s time to get going, smuggling beer with a friend, hitching to a lousy party, getting the brush-off from a popular girl. Volume II gives almost forty pages to a toddler’s birthday gathering: squabbles, diapers, crying, cake.
It’s not that nothing happens. There are plenty of great novels in which “nothing happens”—most obviously, Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway, each of which recounts the activities of an ordinary person over the course of a single day. A lot of people thought that nothing happens in Jane Austen when her novels began to appear, and a lot of people still do. What children get up to at birthday parties, or adolescents on New Year’s Eve, are perfectly valid as subjects for fiction. The problem with My Struggle is that nothing happens in the writing. The prose consists, for the most part, of a flat record of superficial detail, unenlivened by the touch of literary art: by simile or metaphor, syntactic complexity or linguistic compression, the development of symbols or elaboration of structures—by beauty, density or form. Nothing happens, for the most part, in the thinking, either—no insight into the situations being described, no penetration of the characters involved, no unexpected angles or perspectives:
The parents standing along the wall smiled, the children on the floor shouted and laughed. The next second Benjamin yanked at his rod, and a red and white Hemköp goodie bag came flying over the sheet, attached by a clothes pin. He removed it and took a few steps away to open the bag in peace and quiet while the next child, Theresa, grabbed the fishing rod, helped by her mother. I wound my scarf around my neck and buttoned up the reefer jacket I had bought on sale last spring at Paul Smith in Stockholm, put on the hat I bought at the same place, bent down over the pile of shoes by the wall, found mine, a pair of black Wrangler shoes with yellow laces I’d bought in Copenhagen when I was at the book fair, and which I had never liked, not even when I bought them, and which furthermore were now tainted by the thought of the catastrophe that had befallen me there, as I had been incapable of answering sensibly a single question the enthusiastic and insightful interviewer had asked me on the stage. The reason I hadn’t thrown them out long ago rested exclusively on the fact that we were hard up. And the laces were so yellow!
If you like that sort of thing, then this is the book for you.
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So why are we even talking about it? Because My Struggle is in the process of being anointed as a literary masterpiece, and not just in Norway. “Karl Ove Knausgaard Is Your Favorite Author’s Favorite Author” went a recent headline in The New Republic. The article cites Jeffrey Eugenides, Zadie Smith and Jonathan Lethem among the devotees and adds that Knausgaard, who turns 46 this year, is already being touted for the Nobel Prize. James Wood, in The New Yorker, has called the novel “ceaselessly compelling.” Leland de la Durantaye, in The New York Times Book Review, has pronounced it “breathtakingly good.” “Everywhere I’ve gone this past year,” wrote Smith last December in The New York Review of Books, “the talk, amongst bookish people, has been of this Norwegian.”
That talk, it’s fair to guess from the reviews, has centered on a single theme: the book is often boring, yes, the writing often artless, but despite it all—or rather, for those very reasons—Knausgaard manages something unprecedented. He immerses us completely in his own experience. “You live his life with him,” writes Smith. “You don’t simply ‘identify’ with the character, effectively you ‘become’ them.” Knausgaard’s life may be mundane, the thinking goes, but so is yours. His existence may be full of petty chores and cares, but so is everyone’s. And his renunciation of art—his apparent refusal, as Wood expresses it, to shape or select—is the very thing that draws us in. The prose becomes transparent, “as if the writing and the living,” Smith says, “are happening simultaneously.” The writing and the living, and thus the reading and the living. “A narrative claustrophobia is at work,” she goes on, “with no distance permitted between reader and protagonist.”
Well, I’m not so sure. Everyone must judge for themselves, but my own experience was very different. Far from drawing me in, Knausgaard’s method kept shutting me out. I was constantly thrown back upon my own awareness—ousted from the readerly trance, since nothing was holding me in it. Instead of thinking about the character, I was thinking about the author, and the fact that they were the same individual only made it worse. Who cares? I kept wondering. Why is he telling me this? Who is he to think his life is worth this kind of treatment? I wasn’t just bored (even his fans are bored), I was angry about being bored. I felt my time was being wasted. “Knausgaard’s boredom,” Smith remarks, “has many elaborations: the boredom of children’s parties, of buying beers, of being married, writing, being oneself, dealing with one’s family.” But the issue isn’t Knausgaard’s boredom—which needn’t be boring to read about—the issue is ours. And that has no variety at all. Every interesting book is interesting in its own way, but every boring book is more or less the same.
You don’t identify with Knausgaard, Smith says, you become him. But this is a distinction without a difference. Identifying is “becoming,” in the metaphoric sense she has in mind. All she means, it seems, is that our identification here—or hers, in any case—is especially intense. But what is it that makes for identification, that most essential and mysterious of readerly phenomena? What charms away the barrier between a character and us? For me, at least, it hinges on emotion: on a writer’s ability to make us feel the feelings the figure is living through. Knausgaard certainly feels a lot of things: shame, contempt, self-hatred, frustration, now and then a bit of joy. I know, because he’s constantly telling us. But invocation isn’t evocation. You know that you’re in trouble when a writer resorts to interjections, the verbal equivalent of emoticons. “Mmm” (for pleasure). “Oh” (for exuberance). Oy.
As for how you get from one to the other, from naming an emotion to creating it, the means are legion, not excluding (as Hemingway knew) the bald presentation of narrative facts. But Knausgaard gives us too many facts—or rather, he gives them at the wrong speed. It feels absurd to say as much, but his writing, far from being too slow, is actually way too fast. Nothing, in all the profusion of detail, is lingered over; nothing is given time to settle or sink in. Everything feels hastened through—every scene or dialogue, every description, no matter how verbose—with no effort to explore its implications. I can’t think of another writer in which there is so little implication, so little attempt to draw us in by leaving our imaginations room to operate. One of Knausgaard’s incessant themes is meaninglessness: the meaninglessness of our existence in a modern, desacralized world; the meaninglessness of his existence as he humps his way through middle age. But it’s not surprising that there isn’t any meaning, if you can’t be bothered to look for it.