Why Has ‘My Struggle’ Been Anointed a Literary Masterpiece?

Why Has ‘My Struggle’ Been Anointed a Literary Masterpiece?

Why Has ‘My Struggle’ Been Anointed a Literary Masterpiece?

With its lack of art and absence of thought, the blockbuster Norwegian novel disappoints.


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.

* * *

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.

There is also the question of what constitutes the real and how to represent it. Knausgaard is invariably praised for his realism—indeed, his “hyperrealism.” “Come with me,” Smith says his book implies, “come into this life…. It might not be pretty—but this is life.” Is it really, though? I don’t mean that other people’s lives are more interesting than Knausgaard’s. I’m willing to stipulate that most of what we do, most of the time, is pretty banal. The issue is more about realism than reality. Is an exhaustive scan of the visual surface, rendered in colorless language, really the best way to represent “life”? I happen to be reading Updike at the moment. Here is his description of a young woman in an unfamiliar surrounding: “She is serious, a serious small-faced animal sniffing out her new lair.” We don’t just see her; we see into her. Here is Knausgaard’s description of a girl he liked at age 11, his first serious crush, as emotion-saturated an experience as one can imagine: “She wasn’t very tall and she was wearing a pink jacket, a light-blue skirt, and thin, white stockings. Her nose was small, her mouth large, and she had a little cleft in her chin.” And that’s the first time that he catches sight of her, no less. I’m almost ready to fall in love myself.

Is Knausgaard’s description more realistic than Updike’s? Does it bring us closer to “life”? Or does it rather leave us on the outside of life? The term “hyperrealism” derives from the visual arts, where it refers to paintings that are designed to look like photographs. To call writing like Knausgaard’s hyperrealistic, to enthrone it as the apotheosis of realism, is to cede reality to the camera. It is to surrender everything that makes literature distinct from the photographic and the televisual: its ability to tell us what things look like, not to the eye, but to the mind, to the heart. What they feel like; what they mean. The camera believes in surfaces, but the real is more than what we can see, more than what we can hear, smell, taste and touch.

The modernists were also realists, in the truest sense of the term. They were also searching for techniques to represent the real, only their conception of that entity was somewhat more expansive. It was Virginia Woolf who said, about the realism of her own day—so complete in its detail that if all its “figures were to come to life they would find themselves dressed down to the last button of their coats in the fashion of the hour”—that the one thing that escapes is life itself. Eugenides believes that Knausgaard “broke the sound barrier of the autobiographical novel.” Smith has said she needs his books “like crack.” Lethem calls him “a living hero who landed on greatness by abandoning every typical literary feint.” How sad it is to imagine that some of our most prominent novelists look at My Struggle and think, That’s the book I wish I could have written. How depressing to suppose that just as modernism culminated in Joyce, Proust and Woolf, the literature of our own time has been leading up to… Knausgaard.

* * *

To be fair, My Struggle consists of more than just the minutiae of its author’s past and present life. Around the scenes of childhood, adolescence and adulthood—the humiliations of an ogrish father, the chafing urges of the teenage years, the travails of couplehood and fatherdom—Knausgaard weaves a set of ruminations on the big themes: art, time, memory—above all, death. These, too, have become a point of acclaim. De la Durantaye speaks of Knausgaard’s “tremendous essayistic talent”; Lethem, of the book’s “remorseless, questing curiosity towards the problem of existence.” Wood and Smith agree that Knausgaard is one of the rare contemporary writers who are willing to confront the reality of death: the beauty of life, however mundane, and the tragedy of its inevitable end.

I am less persuaded. Yes, the novel’s essayistic passages are generally more compelling (and better written) than its narrative ones. Yes, Knausgaard produces some beautiful formulations, especially when it comes to the subject of mortality:

For humans are merely one form among many, which the world produces over and over again, not only in everything that lives but also in everything that does not live, drawn in sand, stone, and water. 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.

For the most part, though, Knausgaard’s ideas, like his language, tend to run toward cliché: the expulsion of the numinous has drained the world of meaning; modern art is emptily self-referential; we are surrounded by death but everywhere conceal it—the familiar educated talking points.

More important, these interludes bear little relation to the story that surrounds them. They don’t grow out of it; they grow away from it. The meanings they bespeak are precisely those the story, for the most part, fails to express. Volume III, which takes up the author’s childhood, begins with an interesting handful of pages about the historical context in which his family was formed, the changes in Norwegian life as the country embraced social democracy during the decades after the war. The promise is that the ensuing episodes will embody that kind of consciousness—that, like Scott or Balzac, Knausgaard will show us a self being shaped by the time and place in which it lives. No such luck. Plus or minus a few brand names, the story could occur at any point within a wide chronological and demographic swath. It’s pretty much generic Western boyhood: comics, sports and school; crying, teasing and bullying; pyromania, petting and porn. “Around us, on all sides,” Knausgaard remembers to tell us some 250 pages later, “it is the seventies”—a lazy thought (as well as an absurd one when attributed to a then-9-year-old protagonist), and largely all that Knausgaard manages to supply of that proffered historical awareness.

The novel also supplements its surface story in another, more significant respect—Knausgaard’s reflections, largely tormented, not on abstract themes but on his own existence, especially his present existence as a writer, husband and father:

How was it possible to waste your life getting angry about housework? How was it possible?

I wanted the maximum amount of time for myself, with the fewest disturbances possible. I wanted Linda, who was already at home looking after Heidi, to take care of everything that concerned Vanja so that I could work…. If I couldn’t write because of her and her demands, I would leave her, it was as simple as that…. The way I took my revenge was to give her everything she wanted, that is, I took care of the children, I cleaned the floors, I washed the clothes, I did the food shopping, I cooked and I earned all the money so that she had nothing tangible to complain about, as far as I and my role in the family were concerned. The only thing I didn’t give her, and it was the only thing she wanted, was my love.

It is Knausgaard’s candor, above all, that has earned the esteem of his peers. “Where many contemporary writers would reflexively turn to irony,” Wood says, “Knausgaard is intense and utterly honest, unafraid to voice universal anxieties, unafraid to appear naïve or awkward.” Lethem speaks of a “helplessly undisguised narrator” and remarks that Knausgaard is “an emperor whose nakedness surpasses royal finery.” When he calls him a living hero, it is this, I think, he has in mind—his moral stature even more than his artistic one.

* * *

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?

* * *

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.

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