Why Has ‘My Struggle’ Been Anointed a Literary Masterpiece?
Knausgaard’s honesty is undeniably courageous, and it produces some writing of great immediacy and force. But that isn’t the end of the question. For one thing, while My Struggle may be, as Eugenides says, a breakthrough for the autobiographical novel, such candor is hardly new within the wider culture. If anything, we are awash in self-lacerating confessionalism, at least at lower levels of the aesthetic hierarchy, including memoirs and personal essays and stand-up comedy. Giving up your secrets, even at the cost of looking ugly, was revolutionary when Montaigne and Rousseau were doing it; it is no longer so today. Being cold to your wife, resentful of your children, indifferent toward your friends: these, if anything, are pretty venial sins by current standards.
We also didn’t need 3,600 pages for this. Most of it, at least through Volumes I–III, is concentrated in the second book, A Man in Love, the story of the author’s (second) courtship and marriage, and even then, it floats in a lake of minutiae. In Volume I, the secrets are those of his father—an inflexible patriarch during the first half of the installment, he leaves his family when the author is 16 and spends the next dozen years or so drinking himself to death—as well as of his father’s relatives. The volumes caused a roaring controversy in the author’s native country: denunciation by Knausgaard’s uncle and first wife, among others; endless public self-flagellation on the part of the author himself. Shaken, Knausgaard retreated in Volumes III–V, which are weaker efforts by his own admission. (Volume III is certainly far below the level even of I and II: almost no philosophical interludes, no presence of the author’s adult persona, no chronological complexity—just a long string of short vignettes.) Volume VI returns to the original candor, but it also runs to something like 1,200 pages, including a 400-page excursus on Adolf Hitler, the source of Knausgaard’s title, Min Kamp. Caveat lector.
Note also that the force of Knausgaard’s candor depends on recognizing that this autobiographical novel is not really a novel at all. The author himself is not coy about this, either in his public statements or in the book itself. He doesn’t even bother to change people’s names, for the most part. This is not a technicality. It means that Knausgaard’s honesty is not a literary fact; it is a biographical one—a fact about the author, not the character. It is, in other words, a piece of gossip. It doesn’t tell us anything about the novel as a work of art, about its meanings or its value. Saul Bellow’s Herzog, say, is not a greater book for containing so large a confessional aspect, nor is it a lesser one for hiding it behind a scrim of fiction. Every novel worth its salt confesses: confesses our human transgressions, which its author knows perforce with guilty knowledge. Novels matter because of what they have to tell us about people in general, not about the people who write them.
I, for one, don’t care about the author, any author—not, at least, until I care about his book, and not even very much then—but in drawing our attention in precisely that direction, My Struggle encourages the swerve, characteristic of our time, from things (art, politics), to the people involved in those things. Gossiping about books is appealing, because it saves you from having to think about them. Knausgaard makes it even easier. His book arrives, as it were, pre-gossiped. It already gossips about itself.
Some of this may help explain why writers, in particular, are so enamored of it. The spectacle of a fellow author’s self-revelation, especially in an age when the term “autobiographical fiction” is edging toward redundancy, has obvious professional significance. But it is more than that. It may be that you need to be a writer to be interested in every moment of a writer’s life (or to think that it merits such treatment). At least, it clearly helps. When you enter Knausgaard’s world, says Smith, “it looks a lot like the one you yourself are living in,” but, she adds, this is “[e]specially true if, like Karl Ove, you happen to be a married writer. Such people are susceptible to the peculiar charms of Karl Ove.” One wonders if they’d find all that minutiae so compelling if it didn’t lend itself so easily to self-projection—if the protagonist were a bachelor accountant, for example, instead of a married writer. Perhaps this sheds light on Smith’s remark that you “become” him. Maybe that can happen only if “you” already are him.
The issue isn’t only self-projection, though. Creative writers, who derive their material from within themselves, are apt to experience domestic life as a drain, not simply on their time but on their souls: the feeling that lies at the center of My Struggle, the reason that it is, in fact, a “struggle.” Lethem describes the protagonist thus: “a stroller-dad, navigating a mundane world of nappies and tantrums on train platforms, who suspects he is the possessor of literary genius, and finds these selves bitterly incommensurate.” Yes, it’s so hard to suspect yourself of genius and still have to deal with your children’s petty needs. But who, amid the detritus of Legos and manuscripts, would not be inclined to share the suspicion?
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