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!