Karl Ove Knausgaard’s novel, My Struggle, runs over 3,000 pages, and has become the sensation of the literary world. Despite his massive output, the author isn't so different from you and me. Knausgaard is the main character of his own colossal novel, just as we are stars of our self-produced reality series now airing on Facebook and Twitter. But the absorption required to produce masterful work is not the bourgeois’ self-absorption. Knausgaard's interest is redemption, not promotion, and he eschews many conceits readers associate with novelists. Instead of creating fictional characters, the names of people in Knausgaard’s novels are as they appear in real life.
A husband and father to four young children (his wife and children are star characters in the novel), the 45-year-old writer previously published two novels to acclaim in his native Norway, where one out of 10 citizens has purchased at least one volume of My Struggle. But it is his opus that has garnered global attention. Often described as a 21st-century Proust, Knausgaard, with his prose style shorn of Proustian ornament, can now boast of an oeuvre of the Frenchman’s scope and scale. His publisher has divided the novel into a more reader-friendly, six-volume series. Translated from Norwegian by the dauntless Don Bartlett, translations in English have appeared annually since 2012 and will continue through 2017. Book Three: Boyhood was released at the end of May, coinciding with Knausgaard’s arrival in the United States for a book tour. Easily relatable rather than aloof or complicated, Knausgaard’s writing is characterized by its affectless style. He details the banal and tedious tasks of fatherhood and the long slog to maturity, but he appears vulnerable and naked throughout. We learn, for example, that Knausgaard bears the stigmata of abuse inflicted by his father; his wounds are visible and through them you can see straight to his soul.
Knausgaard began My Struggle in 2009 as a novel about his menacing father. Having written two conventional though highly imaginative works of fiction while composing what would become My Struggle, the author “was met with the thought, ‘But you’re just making this up. It has no value.” Knausgaard begins writing instead in prose redolent of a child’s joyful, digressive storytelling. Dozens of pages pass as the narrator, 40-something and smoking a cigarette on a park bench, confides in us a memory of how a beer tasted decades before. This seemingly effortless flashback is an achievement once exclusive to bards like the Greek Hesiod; it is, in this way, that Knausgaard’s fiction is arguably more similar to this reality, where we exist in a present while constructing memories of the past, than any other fiction we previously praise for their “realism.” Knausgaard writes about life as it is truly lived. Meditating on the decision, the author acknowledged: “I want to evoke all the things that are a part of our lives, but not of our stories—the washing up, the changing of diapers, the in-between things—and make them glow.” Indeed, one of the most commonly referred to scenes from Book Three is an atomizing reflection on soggy cornflakes worthy of the classic Roman poet Lucretius. Knausgaard took a maxim of the poet Phillip Larkin who said don’t “be afraid of the obvious” and crafted a monumental work of autobiographical fiction.
Knausgaard even dowses for memories and the resulting prose invokes nostalgia, just as a Joseph Cornell box or a Norman Rockwell painting harken back to the halcyon days, or the most traumatic incidents, embedded in our psyche. Throughout the series, Knausgaard’s concerns are our own: how to have selfless personal relationships, how to raise one’s children, how to be a good person. “For Christ’s sake,” he asks, is “that beyond me?” the author asks in Book One. He treats such questions like an anesthesiologist—locally and with unmatched precision. He loathes much about the age he lives in, his position in it as a father and artist whose masculinity, he suggests, has been broadsided by successive waves of feminism and socialized welfare. In Book 3 Knausgaard confronts his first ontological dilemma—how to grow from a boy into a man. When we were young, Knausgaard writes, “Everything was happening for the first time. We never considered the possibility that feelings were also old, perhaps not as old as water or the earth, but as old as humanity. Oh no, why would we? The feelings running through our breasts, which made us shout and scream, laugh and cry, were just part of who we were.”
But in an otherwise pastoral and ideal boyhood, Karl Ove’s father obstructs and hinders his emotional maturity. From the first two books of My Struggle we learn Knausgaard’s father died prematurely from alcoholism, and in this third volume the author lays the rails for his father’s breakdown and death. Knausgaard expounds on the abuse, physical and emotional, that he endured at the hands of his father. It causes the author to reflect, “The instant I was in the same room as he was, everything crumbled, he was my father, a grown man, so much bigger than me that everything had to bend to his will. He bent my will as if it were nothing.” Perhaps due to the abuses rendered by his father, and the fact that his boyhood town had been occupied by German forces during World War II, Knausgaard also relates to and sympathizes with the victimized.
Translated into German, My Struggle is Mein Kampf, the same title as Adolf Hitler’s autobiography, a bestseller for many years. What could be viewed as an example of the unswerving punctuality of chance is, in fact, not. The last volume of My Struggle features a 400-page essay on Hitler and a discussion of Anders Breivik’s 2011 shooting rampage on Norway’s Utoya Island, which occurred during the writing of the last novel and resulted in the deaths of 69 youths. In a December 2013 interview with The Paris Review Knausgaard conceded, “My book is completely anti-ideology, in all senses. It is about the opposite of ideology. It’s about the little and the small, where in life we are. But it ends with the collision of that world with ideology, which is why I wrote about Nazism and those kinds of things. That’s why it ends there.” It is through this act of joinery, the interplay of micro and macro elements of Knausgaard’s writing that redeems.
Knausgaard’s writings and reflections on youth ultimately bring to mind the memorable passage from In Search of Lost Time where Proust writes, “I went sleep-walking into the days of my childhood, resuming, easily as a glove, those sensations which by one’s tenth year are irreparably mislaid—insignificant sensations that we would be so happy to feel again, as the man who knows he will not live to see another summer will yearn even for the indoor buzz of flies that tells of the hot sun without, or for the whine of mosquitoes that tells of the scented night.” After a childhood under the glare of an abusive father who punctured a sensitive son’s sense of self, Knausgaard has emerged with a host of memories he has crafted into a series inimitable books. Knausgaard now has his own children, and with them he has “tried to achieve only one aim: that they shouldn’t be afraid of their father.” In the words of an old elegy, “O boys that grow, snows that melt.”
Illustration by Madeline Gobbo. Photography by Asbjorn Jensen