My Struggle – Min Kamp in Norwegian – is Karl Ove Knausgård's six volume, 4,000-page autobiographical novel about his very ordinary Norwegian life. People who like this book love it; the Guardian's reviewer called it "the most important literary project of our time." Other reviewers have written that it is like crack, compulsively addictive and impossible to put down. It is by far the best-selling novel in Norwegian history, selling 450,000 copies in a nation of 5 million people.
When I first heard about My Struggle, I wasn't interested. It seemed narcissistic to me, a book for the sort of people who read memoirs about therapy and whatnot. What got me interested was a book review by Knausgård, I think in the TLS. Knausgård was asked to review a new Italian novel. He agreed, even though he had never read anything by this somewhat famous writer. He soon discovered that this was a reaction of sorts to famous Italian novel of a century or so ago, which he had also never read. So he went and read that, and he laid out in a marvelous way what that novel was about and why people are still interested in it. He then explained with remarkable clarity in what way the new novel was a retelling of the old, and what made it interesting. It was an astonishing performance. The prose was perfectly clear, perhaps the most lucid exposition of difficult literature I have ever read. The essay was absolutely devoid of pretension or cant. Knausgård came across as someone who just loves literature and wants to help you appreciate it, and not as a professor but as a friend; after all he begins by cheerfully admitting that he has not read any of the other books by this famous contemporary Italian or the older books that influenced him. But that's ok, he says, we can fix that, let's just start reading and see what we find out. I was entranced.
When Book V of My Struggle appeared on the new books shelf of my public library, I snapped it up, thinking I might as well give it a try. One reason I was not averse to starting in the middle was that I had vaguely heard that Knausgård wrote a lot about his childhood with an alcoholic, abusive father, not the sort of thing I like reading about. Actually, as I have now learned, it is Book III that focuses on Knausgård's childhood, but anyway Book V is where I began.
I started reading this 624-page tome last Wednesday, and I finished it today. There is, as people have said, something addictive about it. Once I had started I read it intensely until I was done. And yet after all that I am not at all sure how I feel about it.
This volume covers Knausgård between the ages of 20 and 33, from 1988 to 2001. On the basis of a single short story, he is admitted to a year-long writing program at the university in Bergen. He spends the next five years or so hanging around Bergen, going in and out of school and enjoying the student scene. He plays in a couple of bands, falls in and out of love with girls, tries to write and mostly fails, works as an orderly in a psychiatric hospital, works at a radio station, develops a drinking problem and starts waking up on roofs of strange buildings with no idea how he got there. Through all of this he struggles to become a writer. He describes himself as loving literature and having a facility with words, but completely lacking imagination. He can't think of stories. Although he was enough of a prodigy to be the youngest person in the literary seminar, two of his friends publish novels before he has written anything he thinks is worthwhile.
It feels very real. Nothing happens that is in any way unbelievable or even unusual. Knausgård is neither remarkably good nor remarkably bad, and he never comes up with the sort of perfect line that the hero of a novel might produce at some crucial moment. He says ordinary things, halting and bumbling as he says them. In fact after two hundred pages he does and says pretty much what you expect him to do and say. He observes the world in an intelligent way but has no remarkable insights. Nor does he ever do anything remarkable; the most unusual thing he does during this period, a trip to Africa, is not described at all.
Why do people read it? Why did I read it? For one thing there is the writing: clear, unpretentious, completely free of gimmicks. There is also the simple fact of seeing the contemporary world described in such an unsparingly honest way. Yes, I kept feeling, this is what life is like. I think to me the most compelling thing is the sense of really knowing and understanding another human being. I imagine that by the time I have finished all 3500 pages I will know Karl Ove Knausgård better than I know all but a very few other people.
I have thought, reading this, how a narrative of my own life would be different. If I told my own story, it would be as much about what I think about as what I do. If I try to recall a day from last week, I am much more likely to remember what I thought about while walking through Rose Park at lunchtime than what I did at work or at home. My story would first of all be very much taken up with the past, since I think about history as much as I think about the contemporary world. It would be full of things I have imagined, from the Dinosaur Planet of my childhood to the gaming worlds I created in high school to the novel I am writing now. It would be full of politics and science, of Mars missions and Hubble photos, of bog bodies and battles and tombs full of gold. There is very little of that sort of thing in My Struggle. Which makes me wonder: is Knausgård that different from me, or has he chosen to focus on the everyday details of his life, rather than his flights of fancy, because those things will be shared by more readers?
If you feel like getting to know a charming, bumbling Norwegian like you have never known any other stranger, or if you want to see how someone else experiences the world of our time, you might like My Struggle. But be careful, because if you start you might not be able to stop until you finish. Did I mention that I have already started reading Volume I?