I don’t remember where I was when I first read about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, but I do remember that it was in a copy of the New Yorker, lol.
I remember reading an article about the forthcoming English translation of the first part of a six-volume, allegedly life-wrecking piece of massive autobiographical writing and thinking, ‘Yes! Yes! Yes! This is for me!’
As soon as My Struggle: 1 was published (as A Death in the Family in the UK) I rushed out and bought a copy and I absolutely fucking loved it. I read and read and I wept and wept and I thought it was the best piece of prose I’d ever fucking encountered. Touching and honest and powerful and moving and funny and discursive and arrogant and self-depreciating and clever and stupid and wise all at the same time. I read Knausgaard’s previously translated, earlier, novel too, and thought that was wonderful also, then I got hold of the second volume of My Struggle as soon as I could and loved that. Though I enjoyed the third and fourth volumes a lot, too, it was only when the fifth volume turned things back towards less straightforward uses of chronology that I found myself utterly under Knausgaard’s spell again. I rushed out to read a tiny pamphlet he had published in an obscure high-end magazine and then rushed out to read Home and Away (his co-authored book on football) and that was when… well… that was when my Knausgaard high very suddenly faded…
I don’t know if it’s a real idiom or something I think is an idiom, but Home and Away made me recall (or invent) the observation that “A man is rarely improved by success.” Knausgaard embodied that in his first published book written after the massive global success of My Struggle. The six books that comprise the novel were written (in Norwegian) between 2008 and 2011, and though they were acclaimed on release, it wasn’t for another couple of years that Knausgaard-fever hit the world. And it was a couple of years after that when rumours about Knausgaard’s personal life began to elicit eye-rolling smirks. (The only gossip on my blog is about my own oscillating mental health situation, hahaha!)
Success didn’t make Knausgaard reflect on himself further, in fact, quite the opposite. Here was a handsome, talented man in his mid-forties who suddenly became a global superstar. Of course, that’s going to increase the ego. Thankfully, though, this final volume of My Struggle was written before the growth of the disappointingly unimaginative small c-conservative opinions and behaviours that seem to characterise Knausgaard’s more recent output. Maybe I’m wrong, I haven’t read it all. It’s something I will definitely test, though, as I enjoyed this almost-1200 page whopper like I haven’t enjoyed a book for a while. Though it was, of course, too long.
If you haven’t read any Knausgaard, this is not the place to start, although the middle section of this volume – a book-length essay titled ‘The Name and the Number’ might well be, if it ever gets published separately.
This essay is a typically Knausgaardian piece on Hamlet, Hitler and the Holocaust: on the beginnings of modernity and industry and the efficacy of propaganda. It is about the importance of names and numbers, and how that famous number related to the Holocaust – six million – is too big to comprehend, and how the act of describing those many deaths as an easily-quoted number robs each death of its tragedy, and is a hangover of the very mindset that allowed it to happen.
In great detail, Knausgaard traces the early life of Hitler, seeking an explanation or a key towards the paths his life would take in later life. Hitler was homeless for a bit, Hitler was inconsistently lazy and directionless and didn’t have a back-up when his artsy dreams failed to materialise: Hitler, Knausgaard writes, was like many young men who want to be writers or artists or musicians. Until he joined the army, Hitler’s life was unremarkable: he was an outsider within society, he was unpopular and sexually repressed, he wanted an artistic career but didn’t have the drive slash the connections slash the talent to force it through. But, obviously, his response to early-life frustrations was fucking obscene, so to make comparisons between young Hitler and the thousands of people with similar youths (including myself and many of my friends lolololol) is unfair. Knausgaard explores tragic types and the way literature changed over the course of hundreds of years, how the arts responded to the machine age, to globalisation, to mechanised war, to the Holocaust and beyond. This essay – which flirts with the personal, but not as much as the other sections of the book – is engaging, powerful and important, bar an extended section on the poetry of Paul Celan (a Holocaust survivor), which felt like it was included merely as a balancing counterpoint before the knowingly-bad taste textual study of Mein Kampf.
This volume deals a lot with the fallout of the publication of the first parts of My Struggle, how it affected the lives of the people Knausgaard wrote about and how – often – their disproportionate reactions impacted back on Knausgaard and his family. Is his writing about his friends and family an invasion of privacy? Can you invade your own privacy? Certainly you can expose yourself in a way that makes others uncomfortable, and that is what Knausgaard did, has done, here.
His writing is deeply human, his love for his children is apparent, though his love for his wife less so: their marriage, by this stage in his book and life, comes across more as duty and dependency, rather than as romantic and exciting. This is sad: Knausgaard cares for his wife, but he clearly is no longer in love with her, and making this clear in his writing contributes towards the serious mental collapse his wife has towards the end of the time he spent writing My Struggle, after the second volume had been published.
Elsewhere, here, there’s a sense of doubling down on things Knausgaard has been criticised for, which is the characteristic I found most disappointing in that problematic football book. Maybe the globally successful man Knausgaard was shortly to become was being born in these pages, but that is a shadow, a hint, rather than a deep presence or an overwhelming hole. This is Knausgaard at his engaging, emotive, excessive, best: if you’ve enjoyed the earlier volumes of My Struggle, it’s definitely worth seeing it to the end: when this volume is good, it’s fucking phenomenal, and when it’s at its worst it’s not bad, it’s just a tiny bit boring.
Knausgaard on Shakespeare, Cervantes, the Nazis and art, on poetry and politics and the horrific Utøya massacre, on publishing and gardening, on parenting and shopping and friendship and responsibility… it’s a massive book – as a whole it’s a fucking massive novel – but if you have the time and the inclination I think it’s a massively valid use of your attention.
Will I dabble again with Knausgaard’s more recent writing? I’d love to say that I won’t, remembering how painful that first disappointment was, but when he’s great he’s doing literature exactly how I like literature to be done, so I’ll probably find myself risking it all and buying his book about Munch some time I’m vulnerable, in a bookshop and have a job again.
This was wonderful. Long, heavy, tiring, draining, but exactly what I’d hoped it would be. Thank you. Thank you thank you thank you.
NB it’s translated by Don Bartlett and Martin Aitken.
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