When I think about the books that have most affected me, or otherwise loom significant in my memory, it’s the longest ones that come to mind first: the types of books whose girth and weight can make reading in bed a challenge, or get left behind on vacation because they didn’t fit in my carry-on bag. I’ll admit there is a certain pride to be gained by casually leaving a Big Ass Book on my nightstand or coffee table for guests to look upon with (what I can only presume to be) awe, but that’s not what makes them special. When I’m working my way through the pages of any book, I can feel its presence a little bit even when away from it; the characters and themes simmer quietly in the back of my mind while they wait to get picked up again, faintly coloring the rest of my waking life. And so, the experience of reading a book includes not just the moments when my eyes are passing over the pages, but to some degree the entire elapsed time between front and back covers. A longer book, that might takes months to complete, means that much more time spent dwelling within the book’s world, while events in the text and events in my actual life proceed along in parallel. And so memories of some books become memories of periods in my life, such as “the winter of my senior year of college when I was reading The Brothers Karamozov”, or “when I was juggling two bookmarks in Infinite Jest and questioning how much more of my 20s I wanted to spend living in Palo Alto”.
And with that preamble, I want to talk about My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard, a book that I began reading in 2014 and, 3,745 pages and six volumes later, finished on September 10th, 2019 (though much of this time was waiting on translated volumes to be released… I did briefly contemplate if just learning Norwegian would be faster). For five years, My Struggle has been a part of my life and now it’s over. I’m reminded of when I finished the last Harry Potter book and felt the closing of a loop between my then-teenage self and the child who had picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in third grade. Now, a loop is closed between my 30 and 25-year-old selves, which has is all the more salient because of one of the major themes of My Struggle: memory, and how the accretion of experiences form a life.
So now that I’ve spent all this time reading the book, I feel like it’s at least worth spending a little time to reflect back on what this thing was even about, and if there’s anything to learn from it.
(Let’s pause here and acknowledge that yes, there was also a notable German book named My Struggle that came out in the 1930s. I can’t really discern any relationship between the two and it remains confusing to me why Knausgaard would choose such a loaded title. Just to be edgy? I don’t know. Whatever, just move on from it.)
Put simply, My Struggle is an “autobiographical novel” (I think that’s what the author has called it) by the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard. Knausgaard grew up in a small town in Norway, had a difficult relationship with his father, aspired for a long time to be a writer, eventually did write a couple books that were decently well received within the Scandinavian literary scene, got married, moved to Sweden, got remarried, had a few kids. Overall, not a particularly remarkable life, and, considered just as a life story it’s honestly kind of boring. Substantial portions of the book describe the minutia of his life, like his strategies for eating a bowl of cereal so as to consume it at the optimal level of sogginess, or that one time that he went to cafe by himself and smoked a cigarette (!). So why is this book interesting?
Book 1 begins with a memory of a young Karl Ove stepping outside his childhood home to tell his father about something he saw on television; his father mostly dismisses him, and resumes working in the garden. For whatever reason, this scene stuck with Karl Ove. Cool, I have random memories from childhood too. He then continues to reflect on the memory:
I was eight years old that evening, my father thirty-two. Even though I still can’t say that I understand him or know what kind of person he was, the fact that I am now seven years older than he was then makes it easier for me to grasp some things. For example, how great the difference was between our days. While my days were jam-packed with meaning, when each step opened a new opportunity, and when every opportunity filled me to the brim, in a way which now is actually incomprehensible, the meaning of his days was not concentrated in individual events but spread over such large areas that it was not possible to comprehend them in anything other than abstract terms… It was not until I myself reached the same age that I understood there was indeed a price to pay for this. As your perspective of the world increases not only is the pain it inflicts on you less but also its meaning. Understanding the world requires that you take a certain distance from it… Throughout our childhood and teenage years, we strive to attain the correct distance to objects and phenomena. We read, we learn, we experience, we make adjustments. Then one day we reach the point where all the necessary distances have been set, all the necessary systems have been put in place. That is when time begins to pick up speed. It no longer meets any obstacles, everything is set, time races through out lives, the days pass by in a flash and before we know what is happening we are forty, fifty, sixty… My picture of my father on that evening in 1976 is, in other words, twofold: on the one hand I see him as I saw him at that time, through the eyes of an eight-year-old: unpredictable and frightening; on the other hand, I see him as a peer through whose lifetime time is blowing and unremittingly sweeping large chunks of meaning along with it.
When I first read this passage, I felt like I had been struck by a bolt of electricity: that such a mundane reflection could be used as the catalyst for a meditation on phenomenology, the great arc of life, and memory. I was hooked.
Throughout My Struggle, the narrative veers, often unexpectedly, between streams of interconnected memories and the author’s philosophical commentary. It gives the book a stream of consciousness feeling, a reminder that this is not a book about the past, but rather the very present activity of remembering experience. I feel right there with him as he is writing the book, with one memory evoking another, which evokes another, which perhaps reminds him of a Talking Heads song, and then let’s take a moment to compare/contrast David Byrne’s creative process to some Norwegian poet I’ve never heard of, and on and on. Admittedly, some of these musings are a little half baked… e.g. the claim that humans are unique among animals in that they walk on two legs, and apparently this has some profound significance, the existence of emus notwithstanding (yeah I don’t know where that one came from). I can imagine Knausgaard binge-writing entire volumes of the book onto a giant continuous scroll, Jack Keruoac style, had he been using a typewriter.
In an interview with Tyler Cowen, Knausgaard says that “I wasn’t interested in writing a novel. I was interested in trying to get the language from my experience of the world”. The impetus for My Struggle was that, despite the moderate success he had found with his first few novels, Knausgaard feared that deep down he was a phony, a hack, a coward. Only by writing about his own subjective experience, the only thing that is unquestionably true, and by getting as close to the world as possible, could he do something maximally authentic.
Yes, my hands trembled at the very thought, that I could actually describe everything as it was. That all I had to do was just go ahead and do it.
There are internal monologues, rationalizations, and self-talk that depict Knausgaard’s interior life in a way that’s so matter of fact. What’s seen of that interior life is not very flattering: Knausgaard is self-centered, insecure, anxious, self-hating, pretentious, and reactionary. And he would likely agree with that assessment. He doesn’t apologize or self-deprecate, just tries to present the truth of his experience: these are the thoughts that he thought at the time, and these are the things that he did. It is was it is. I think most writers shirk away from that level of vulnerability (and honesty, it did make me negatively judge of his character) but it’s what makes the book so instantly relatable and intoxicating and allowed me to take in his life like a river flowing over me. I admire the bravery of it, being so vulnerable. It’s almost like there are these little secrets that everyone has, not secrets in the sense of being actively concealed, but secrets in that they exist only in our private lives and don’t rise to the surface of social consciousness, yet are instantly recognizable, sort of like the fodder of observational comics: “Yes! That is my weird internal logic for whether I throw my clothes on the floor or fold them at the end of the day! Exactly!“. Et cetera, et cetera, but writ XXL. I found Knausgaard’s realism startlingly recognizable, like I was living inside someone else’s mind. Do other people have the same reaction reading My Struggle? Is it just a wannabe-intellectual-white-het-cis-guy thing? Is it just a me thing?
Yes, a lot of what Knausgaard talks about is, at some level, boring, like long passages about going to the grocery store while trying to wrangle a kid in a stroller (there also are some real life highlights interspersed as well). But the banal is part of the reality of life, and in the everyday there is something universal. Knausgaard takes the quotidian and makes it transcendent.
What I didn’t know, or rather had absolutely no conception of, was that every step I took was defining me, every person I encountered leaving their mark on me, and that the life I was living at that particular time, boundlessly arbitrary as it seemed, was in fact my life. That one day I would look back on my life and this would be what I looked back on. What then had been insignificant, as weightless as air, a series of events dissolving in exactly the same way as the darkness dissolved in the mornings, would twenty years on seem laden with destiny and fate.
The accretion of minutes, hours, days. That’s what forms a life. The project of My Struggle could be viewed as an attempt to strip away as much as possible and hold close a life that had felt alienated. Every single day that passes is your life, despite so many of them melting by without notice. I think sometimes about the four years I was in college and how that time looms so large in my life history. Compared to say the previous four years, back then I was experiencing life harder, being so much closer to it. Yes, many people look back on their college years as formative and special, that’s not new. But I’ve started to think more about what causes some days to be more lived than others. How do you do that, live harder? Is it by creating a mind-expanding presentness that cuts through even the most mundane and routine days?
What is the “Struggle” that Knausgaard refers to, anyways? Knausgaard didn’t face any major adversity in his life, so at first pass the title seems a little bit self important. I think the answer is that when you really get down to reality as it’s lived, struggle is what you find. Trying to please a stern father as a child, the social anxiety of meeting new people at a party, questioning whether a girl could ever find you attractive enough to have sex with you, wondering what strangers assume about you based how you’re dressed. There’s a universality in this, a common human condition. I related deeply to the Knausgaard’s push-pull between interior and exterior life, the desire to be free and unencumbered by social relations while at the same time fearing being alone and needing other people to validate the realness of his experience. While I’m not sure Knausgaard necessarily intended “Struggle” in this way, I ended up thinking of it like the Buddhist concept that “life is suffering”. Knausgaard’s everyday trials are samsara, the wheel of birth and death and suffering that every living thing endures.
Even [my children’s] almost volcanic emotional outbursts I see in my terms, as irritating disturbances, desperate aberrations, obstacles in the way rather than as signs of distinct life inside them… Why do I organize my life like this? What do I want with this neutrality? Obviously it is to eliminate as much resistance as possible, to make the days slip past as easily and unobtrusively as possible. But why? Isn’t that synonymous with wanting to live as little as possible? With telling life to leave me in peace so that I can… yes, well, what? Read? Oh, but come on, what do I read about, if not life? Write? Same thing. I read and write about life. The only thing I don’t want life for is to live it.
For the most part, Knausgaard has a reactionary approach approach to the frustrations around him. He’s contemptuous of bourgeois complacency and progressive weaknesses (and Swedes). In the face of this, he fantasizes about moving to a cabin in the woods and just reading Hamsun until the end of his days… or something like that. I found it interesting that only response to the modern world that Knausgaard seems to consider is stepping backwards, to a simpler, more pastoral time. I sometimes felt that he set up false dichotomies between either acquiescing to the indignities of bourgeois life, or retreating backwards. But there’s no shortage of people who have defined new status quos for themselves. How has he not heard of counterculture? Turn on, tune in, drop out? Anything like that? I’m pretty surprised that despite living his adult life immersed in the arts and associated communities, Knausgaard has apparently never even met a person who has done a drug more interesting that hashish (at least according to the book). Now I’m definitely not saying Knausgaard should go live on some kind of rural artists’ commune, but for a man who seems to fancy himself a student of the human condition I would have thought he would be a little more curious about different ways of being.
Recommendation: Read books 1 and 2. They were my favorites and will give you plenty of flavor of what My Struggle is like. Each book stands pretty well on its own, so you don’t miss out on too much by not completing the series (though do read them in order). And if you like it, know there is more out there waiting to be picked up. If you make it to book six, you’ll find a like 500-page book within a book that rambles about poetry, the metaphysics of names, Hitler’s childhood, and other topics that for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how they were related - just skip this part.