It’s taken me a few more days than I’d hoped, but I’ve just finished reading the fifth book of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six volume epic, Min Kamp, or, My Struggle.
I’ve been an advocate of Knausgaard for years. I read about A Death in the Afternoon in a literary magazine I bought at the start of 2012 and waited with anticipation for the publication. The first online literary review I ever posted was a YouTube spoken word piece about that book (here, but quality poor, though look at that full head of hair!), and I spoke about Knausgaard with such contagious energy during my Masters degree that one of my lecturers (who had not read Knausgaard before) has reviewed every volume published since then for the Guardian*. This is a relevant, because Book 5 is Knausgaard writing about being an English Lit and Creative Writing student, SOMETHING I’VE BEEN. It is also Knausgaard writing about directionlessness following graduation, about jealousy of the success of others and about the importance of inspiration. There’s also a lot about sex and death and the Norwegian literary scene. Plus so much smoking that I am convinced Knausgaard was trying to give up the nicotine as he ploughed through this volume, which was published in the original Norwegian way back in 2010 and written during an intense eight weeks at some point just before then.
I feel that with Book 5 Knausgaard’s vision for the project has clearly come to the foreground. This is the fifth book of a wider volume, this is part of a singular work.
The first book, yes, that could’ve been read on its own, as could Book 3 and – just about – the fourth. But with this, we are deep within a world of people and events that have ripples and repercussions across all we have read before. Structurally, this one is linear (like 3 and 4), but it is far more erratic in where it chooses to focus, and there are multiple overlaps/revisits that echo passages from not just Min Kamp‘s first two books, but also the heart-shatteringly unexpected ending of A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven.
As his reader, we have seen Knausgaard’s childhood in great detail in the volume published in English as Boyhood Island, and we’ve swept through his teenage years and gap yaar through the double whammy of Books 1 and 4. With the second volume, we saw Knausgaard going from lonely successful novelist running away from his first wife to a happily married man with multiple children, whilst in the first we encountered a man in his early thirties dealing with the death of his father, a man whose degradation and decline at the end of his life is a constant source of shame and fear throughout these texts, for Knausgaard’s own self-harming, self-sabotaging and abuse of alcohol mirrors his father’s. Though he does the excess at a more usual life stage to do it and, yeah, he’s ended up fine, not dead in a pile of his own shit, blood and vomit.
Book 5** opens with Knausgaard informing us that he burnt the diaries he kept during the period of his life about to be discussed, and from there we are skyrocketed down to the Med, to a short hitch-hiking trip running down to Antiparos in Greece via the highlights of Italy. Knausgaard returns to Norway, to Bergen, where he crashes with Yngve (his older brother) for a few weeks before he starts his Writing Course.
From the age of 18 onwards, Knausgaard lives in the same town, jumping between degrees and courses and classes and women and temp jobs and pub bands for well over a decade, and in that time he writes his first novel, gets married, goes through the death of most of his grandparents and his father, travels to Africa, Paris, Greece (again) and Norwich***, reads a lot, writes a lot, fucks a lot, drinks a lot, drums a lot… This is the portion of Knausgaard’s life where excess was key, and it shows in the prose as much as in the plot: this is My Struggle at its zenith, as good as the first two volumes and honouring the broadly-shared critical fact that the very best one is the sixth. This is another cracking book from Knausgaard and it had me laughing and weeping with great regularity.
We see again the end of his father’s life, but with the gift of context, for we know the man he once was. The man’s tragedy, as K describes it, was that he was a strict, well-behaved, model citizen only on the surface, but when he tried “loosening up”, he found no happiness, merely the loss of all self-respect, which for him was irrecoverable.
Knausgaard does some self-destructive things: he cheats on his partners, he steals bicycles, he is aggressive, he vandalises items, he ends up in the drunk tank a couple of times… But he also writes riveting essays that get published in national newspapers. The weight attributed to the reconstructions of the drinking and infidelity feel – when Knausgaard is writing about his student self – a little over-exagerrated. “Oh no, he got drunk and fell over/had a fight/cheated on a girl he dated almost thirty years ago who we (the reader) know is neither his first nor his second wife… Big deal.”
To expand on that thought, though, we know he is a successful novelist, so there’s little drama in waiting for his publishing deal to come through; we know the circumstances of his poppa’s death; we know he leaves his wife and his country when he leaves Bergen; we know he doesn’t become a rock star drummer; we know he’s going to get inspired by death; we know he’s going to start elevating personal experience to a literary level.
We know all this, and yet it is the most compelling 700 page book I’ve read in months.
Knausgaard retells his father’s death for – what, the eighth time? – and it is still heartbreaking.
He writes about the breakdown of his first marriage, again, and it still makes me weep.
He describes the joy of music and books and art and wanking and sex and being young with a heart-warming intensity. He writes about the outdoors, about indoors, about the natural world and the professional world. He writes it all and it shines, it fucking shines.
Highlights are descriptions of:
- Masturbating in a university library to a book of renaissance nudes;
- Working as a construction worker on an oil rig;
- Feeling more alone the more people are around;
- The agonising sense of failure;
- Unexpected success;
- Honesty. Honesty Honesty Honesty.
Knausgaard feels rawer here, even more honest. Things that were skimmed over in Book 2 are revisited in detail, he constructs himself as an often unlikeable man: homophobic, sexist, smug, self-important… but all this is cut through by an overwhelming understanding and awareness of his flaws, an understanding that renders his flaws as traits. Min Kamp is an honest and an open evocation of an actual person, not an idealised notion of a man.
Knausgaard is writing Knausgaard, and whether the titular struggle is an actual one (i.e. the struggle to become a writer or to not become an alcoholic) or if it is a wider one (i.e. the struggle to live), the task he is succeeding at, with no struggle at all is this: rendering a life on the page, its memories and its omissions and its confusions and contradictions together, complete, real.
I hooted with laughter, I cried in howls of deep resounding pain. And I took great solace from the fact that he didn’t get his first novel published until he was 30.
I’m not dead yet. I AM NOT DEAD YET.
Highly fucking recommended, as good as the first two books.
Read Knausgaard, he’s the best of his type.
Interesting aside: Halfway through this volume, we are greeted with a page break and then the phrase “Part Seven” covering an otherwise blank page. “What is this referring to?” I asked, but then went back and did my research. Book 1 is split into two parts, which means that Knausgaard views Book 2 as Part 3, Book 3 as Part 4, Book 4 as Part 5 and the first half of Book 5 as Part 6, all of which is unannounced. Will have to check Norwegian editions, but nothing to indicate that in the hardbacks I have in English. I found this disconcerting.
* No credit or commission for me, though. And nor will it come if I continue in this fucking literary dead end. This is my output, Jesus.
** I’m not going to use the titles that the books are published under in English as they are additions that’ve come from the publishers, not (though I’m sure there was some consolation) from Knausgaard himself.
*** Drawing brilliant parallels with a fantastic quiz that once existed on the internet (but now seems to have gone) comparing quotations from Min Kamp with I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan, the autobiography of fictional British Norwich-based mixed media personality, Alan Partridge.