I’m finally doing this, I’m writing up what I thought of the multi-volume My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgård, translated from Norwegian into English by Don Bartlett (mostly) and Martin Aitken, even though I haven’t finished reading volume 6 and it’s likely I never will. I really thought I was going to be one of those readers who would plough through all the thousands of pages, eagerly waiting for the translation of every single volume. The reason I gave up in the end was that although the first two books bowled me over and blew my mind, the magic slowly became diluted over the following books. There, that was the short version of my take on My Struggle.
Here is the longer version, with the positives first.
To me, books 1 and 2 were magical, page-turners to beat all page-tuners and I read them in quick succession. In fact, so keen was I to zip through them that I can’t remember there being an actual break between the first two parts of this mammoth literary undertaking, a pompous but accurate description I feel.
Even in the first few pages, I got the sense that I was embarking on a new reading experience with this book, combining many autobiographical elements and general musings on life, literature and relationships. Stated like that, you might think, well yes, it’s a novel, plenty of novels (most of them probably) draw on the author’s life and experiences and expound on profound topics along the way. However, what became quickly apparent on reading this extraordinary, weighty opus was the quality of precision in the narration – every single action, word and thought is transcribed in exhaustive detail, with the result that in many cases, I felt I was not so much reading as engaging in an act of voyeurism.
As a reader, I was constantly looking over Knausgård’s shoulder as he filmed/recorded/transcribed scene after scene of his relationship with his father, especially in the early volumes, and with his wife and their children, brother, friends etc. I’m sure that the searing depiction of a conversation with his grandmother towards the end of book 1 has been etched in the memory of many readers, not just mine. The mastery displayed there was, I felt, breath-taking. I just couldn’t get enough of it (Zadie Smith put it this way: “I need the next volume like crack”.) My husband commented that I had never spoken so much about any other book I had read. Yes, I was a KOK junkie.
There are many such brilliant scenes and although I wouldn’t place humour as the most characteristic feature of his writing here, I did laugh out loud at the description of the music-for-toddlers session that his wife asked him to take his young daughter to. Karl Ove, one of the three dads in the midst of mums, hates everything about the session and endures agonies of resentment and humiliation, from his tall size (“Everything was gentle and friendly and nice, all the movements were tiny, and I sat huddled on a cushion”) to the fact he would in other circumstances happily have shagged the teacher. (She asks his name: “The attractive young woman looked at me and sent me a smile of encouragement.-Karl Ove, I said sombrely. -Then let’s start with our welcome song.”) You can see the teacher’s bright smile so clearly, the seriously involved parents and the little ones being little ones, the whole thing reeking of a middle class lifestyle.
More typical are idle thoughts, in the most prosaic situations, that shine a light on discomforting truths about our perceptions, the judgments we make and the embarrassment we often experience when we acknowledge their truth. Take this shopping situation, where the author is pondering the best way to pay for an item of small value. “But this time I had no change on me, and it was ridiculous to use my card for such a small sum. On the other hand, did it matter what she thought about me? She was so fat.”
And just as cuttingly, and I would be the sort of person who is being judged here, this is what Knausgård says about “a nice place (…) full of plants with a fountain, where you could sit in the summer (…) The only downside was the clientele, which for the most part consisted in cultured women in their fifties and sixties”.
It’s the strangest of things: the books compel readers to devour them … and readers to squirm (well me, at least).
It’s obviously a very fine balancing act but at what point does squirming and feeling voyeuristic turn you off a book? I mean, when you’re reading about a young teenager who disastrously misunderstands or chooses to ignore the obvious (obvious to anyone else of course) “I like you” signals from a nice girl prepared “to take things further” with him, that makes for realistic but in a way quite sweet tale. However, recalling how he voted for himself to be class delegate, didn’t engage with a parent at the school he was teaching to help the “odd one out” student, not to mention his struggles with premature ejaculation, all these incidents hit the too-much-cringe-inducing-information barrier for me. Of course, everyone will have their own threshold and I guess the point is that Knausgård chose to set all these self-inflicted humiliations out. Fair enough. (And of course, he is writer, so he may have simply chosen to write out these incidents, real or not. This might be even more weird, but it could be so. Also, we should always remember that people, and in this case, protagonists in the books, remember trivial and important events in very different ways…)
I admit that reading these books has shaped/warped my view of Scandinavia somewhat. I say Scandinavia because in my mind I lazily lump them and Denmark, Finland and Iceland together on this. Probably because I don’t know these countries… Anyway, two things struck me particularly.
First was the accent placed on the quantities of alcohol consumed and the damage it inflicts, a fact faced unflinchingly through the stories of various characters, including the author’s. I knew of course that alcoholism, together with high rates of suicides and divorce were meant to be particularly prevalent in places where light is absent for a long period of time, although I’m not so sure that more southern places fare better to be honest, (but I’m not going to check right now, I would probably have to sift through far too many statistics). However, the seeming inevitability of the need for drunkenness does seem to mark many characters. Alcohol is also a key character in these narratives.
Second was the weirdest teacher training programme ever. I thought Scandinavians had the most enlightened education systems barring none but here is Karl Ove sent off to a middle school in the north of the country to teach teenagers barely older than himself (he is 18), with no experience whatsoever and what reads like rudimentary mentoring. I remember discussing this with a Norwegian lady I met once, who agreed with me when I reminded her of the episodes in book 4 (It turns out she knew Knausgård from school but hadn’t kept in touch.)
Now for the negatives.
I’ve not given book 6 a chance, despite the very nicely worded “reading guide” by Penguin (a nice change when I think how many blurbs are badly written/give away too much, and don’t get me started on “Questions for a book club discussion” at the end of books – shudders) encouraging me to do so. And I do allow myself to not finish a book, or in this case a sixth book. But pretty much from the start, I thought “the publishers haven’t dared to touch this sacred cow”. Even if that were the case, the publishers may have decided that they were owed nothing at this point. In any case, the author had free rein to lengthily describe the effect his books had on his family, especially his uncle and his first wife and also the impact it had on him, as some of the Knausgårds reacted very negatively. Once again, the shame and the angst are dwelt upon.
But fundamentally, perhaps there was just too much of a wait between the last two volumes. The huge acclaim of the earlier books certainly added another dimension to the series and without a doubt contributed to the delay in publishing the last, huge book. In other words, for me, “le soufflé était tombé” (loose translation: the magic had fizzled out). Of course, if I do read the final volume, I may change my mind and if so, I will make amends in an addendum to this blog.
Also, I can’t help myself, I’m going to say something negative about a living person. I find Karl Ove Knausgård, as depicted in these five and a bit books and several long articles by him that I have read, an intensely irritating person.
In one article published in the New York Times, where he describes the loss then recovery of his backpack, complete with laptop, he explains that “when you lose things, it means you’re not on your guard, you’re not trying to control everything, you’re not being so anal all the time — and if you aren’t, but allow yourself to be open to the world instead, then anything at all might come to you.” Even if he does add “I know that’s true, but at the same time I also know that the reason I say it is to turn all my faults and weaknesses into strengths (…) That means I’m a writer, I think I’m not so focused on worldly matters, which in turn means that some day I just might write a masterpiece.” I want to scream. I want to yell that being a good writer is not synonymous with being useless about looking after stuff! Likewise in book 1, where he notes that he sees “families who successfully organize themselves in this way. The children are clean, their clothes nice (…) They go on weekend trips, rent cottages in Normandy, and their fridges are never empty. They work in banks and hospitals, in IT companies or on the local council (…) Why should the fact that I am a writer exclude me from that world?”
Er, well Karl Ove, it doesn’t necessarily, you know, so tell me, why do you think it should exactly? The irony of course, is that all these families do “turn up at the nursery with crazed eyes and a face stiffened into a mask of frustration” every now and then too. And your work life is a thundering success, so…
Still, it’s easy to observe others, harder to observe oneself, unless you write about you in over 3,500 pages perhaps?