Why Has ‘My Struggle’ Been Anointed a Literary Masterpiece?
My Struggle began, Knausgaard tells us, in the depths of that crevasse. He was 39, had two novels to his credit, both highly acclaimed, but had been struggling for years to get the next one under way. Now he had three small children and a looming sense of domestic crisis. Late one evening, after he and his wife agree that they need to find a way to break the impasse, he sits down at his computer and begins to write. “The idea was to get as close as possible to my life.” He writes five, ten, twenty pages a day. He wants to get everything in. Four months later, he’s completed Volume I. This is the middle of 2008. By 2011, he has published the entire work: 3,600 pages, in something like thirty-six months.
With its subject and size, My Struggle has invariably drawn comparisons to Proust’s Recherche, the great prose epic of the self remembered—comparisons the book itself does much to invite. But here are some things that the Recherche contains that Min Kamp does not: wit, satire, comedy, verbal and symbolic complexity, psychological penetration, sociological reach, the ability to render complicated situations, a genuine engagement with the subtleties of memory, the power to convey the slow unfolding of the self. And here is something that Proust did that Knausgaard did not: he took his time. The Recherche, only fractionally longer than Min Kamp, was labored at for thirteen years. About a page a day of finished prose appears to be the speed limit for a sustained work of competent literary fiction. You want to write shit? Write fast.
Smith sees Knausgaard’s attention to the world around him as a rebuke to today’s distractibility. But his work is all too typical of our technology-assisted culture. The novel strikes me as a giant selfie, a 3,600-page blogologue. Like mumblecore or reality television, it’s premised on the notion that all you need to do is point your camera at the world and shoot. Like all these genres and more, it tells us that breadth is preferable to depth, that art is best created in a spirit of hurried amateurism, that the only valid subject is the self.
Knausgaard may be attentive to what he sees and feels, but by his own admission, he is utterly insensible to other people. “For a long time I also believed I was good at reading others,” he says, “but I was not, wherever I turned I saw only myself.” The last seven words could constitute the novel’s epigraph, and nothing in My Struggle contradicts them. All the other characters are flat, and none of them exist except in relation to him. The novel opens with an incident that happens when Knausgaard is 8. He is watching the news; a fishing crew has drowned the night before. “I stare at the surface of the sea without listening to what the reporter says, and suddenly the outline of a face emerges.” The moment is mysterious, mystical, an intimation of divinity. A thousand pages later, he sits down to start the book. The first sentence he writes is this: “In the window before me I can vaguely see the image of my face.” The divine has been displaced by the self. Lionel Trilling wrote some fifty years ago about “the modern self-consciousness and the modern self-pity.” Today he’d also say, the modern self-inflation. I’m Hitler! I’m Proust! I don’t see Knausgaard as a hero. I see him as a man-child who’s mistaken his frustrations for existential conundrums. Death is a tragedy; changing diapers is not a tragedy.
Nor do I agree with Smith and Wood that Knausgaard’s method constitutes a stay against oblivion. “Writing promises to rescue moments from the march of time,” says Wood, but Knausgaard’s approach to arresting the flux resembles yet another tech-enabled practice, common now especially among parents: he photographs everything, as if everything could be saved, and as if such a record were sufficient in itself. His book is like a box of snapshots—no, a steamer trunk, a shipping container. Their very profusion makes each of them null. What’s needed is attention of a different kind. One painting, not a hundred thousand pictures. The patience to create the beauty that in turn creates significance.
If Knausgaard really thought that time is precious, he would have a little more respect for ours. To ask us to devote 100 hours of our lives, 120 hours, to reading about his own is to make a promise that My Struggle does not even try to fulfill. But we do have a choice, after all. We do not have to read the thing.