You Need to Read My Struggle: Volume 1 A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard

June 3, 2013

Book recommendation: My Struggle, Book One

Continuing with my intermittent attempts to blog about the best books I read this year, today I am recommending the first volume of the English-language edition of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s colossal work My Struggle. Yeah, you read that correctly. My struggle. It sounds worse in Norwegian: Min kamp.

Ouch. No, I assure you, the title is not what you’re thinking. 

What is there for me to write, though, other than “go read it?” I feel it might be somewhat within the spirit of the novel to torture you with a hundreds-or-thousands-words-long blog post first. Briefly, the book is the first of a six-volume series concerning Knausgaard’s first forty-odd years of life; the first volume, called A Death in the Family concerns both Knausgaard’s youth and the later death of his father.

But bear with me. Even as the popular media seems to regard with suspicion the institution of books that are difficult and devoid of sparkly vampire romance, I, at least, still strongly believe in the value of those nearly-intractable books that one must work at in order to understand.

And that’s why I think you should read My Struggle. The one-sentence summary, which is by necessity vapid, would describe this work as a six-volume attempt to describe, in almost excruciating detail, his own struggle: with his consciousness, mostly, though also with his family, self, society, etc. There is also an implicit struggle, that of the reader with the text and him or herself, which I’ll discuss later. 

The six-volume series, of which volume two came out in English in early May, has been compared to both Proust and Hitler, which is actually really impressive if you think about it. However, the similarities are obviously superficial. First, the title is, obviously, deliberately provocative and has otherwise nothing in common with Hitler’s prison memoir.  Second, while Proust’s and Knausgaard’s projects are about the – forgive me – struggle to depict the vagaries of consciousness, Knausgaard has little in common with Proust other than the fact that both are European writers whom very few would categorize as minimalists.  

Much has been made in the media of the “Faustian bargain” Knausgaard allegedly struck by depicting in unsparing detail his family. Reviewers, I have noticed, seem obsessed with either pigeonholing the book into the category of overly long, abstruse European books (and this is the only gee-shucks-it’s-long comment I’ll make: it is awfully hard to pigeonhole a 3500-page work into anything) or into the category of autobiography. I feel this reductive assessment does the book something of a disservice. Instead, I’ll do it a disservice all my own!

One of the strengths of Knausgaard’s writing, I believe, lies not on its sheer breadth or depth, but in how by amassing detail on this scale, Knausgaard seems to make his episodic narrative seem effortless. Superficially, it may seem as though the book is an overstuffed exercise in shameful excess, yet considering the authorial choices Knausgaard made regarding what to include – a cat stretching, his own extremely detailed tossing and turning – the book begins to feel almost cinematic. That is, not in the way so much recent fiction has  – by this I mean fiction evoking the cinema, if not cynically with a book deal in mind in terms of pacing, character descriptions, etc., but a fiction that takes its storytelling conventions from cinema more than from the tradition of the written word. But with Knausgaard, that which would otherwise seem a haphazard jungle of detail becomes part of an elegant and strategically-planned opus.

 Instead, My Struggle seems to evoke a dreamy aesthetic evocative of Rohmer or Fassbinder in its lingering, unforgiving gaze, an aesthetic with an inverted time-content curve. The book is far more Jeanne Dielman* than Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I enjoyed so much of My Struggle, but when I started thinking of it as a cinematic book in the style of “European” cinema, I felt something click. So much of the pleasure of the novel resides in being inside someone’s deeply uncomfortable mind and in looking until it becomes uncomfortable. This framework made me feel like I “got” what it was Knausgaard was trying to do.

Much has been made of the affinities the book shares with our culture of oversharing and reality television. We accept now with relatively little fuss the exhaustive celebrity pabulum that passes for news in this culture, and with only the slightest bit of derision do we welcome new trends in social networking and surveillance. Much of asserting one’s identity within a certain socio-cultural class these days seems to revolve around emphasizing one’s non-participation in these phenomena. One could then make an argument about taste politics here: what makes My Struggle interesting is its engagement – as a piece of “high-brow” literature – with the dynamic that functions as an engine of “low-brow” culture (i.e., reality television). In that sense, the title could refer to the struggle felt by the typical overeducated, socially conscious, insufferably liberal reader (i.e., myself). Here one could return to the NYTimes piece linked earlier, of which I’m not a fan (although that is a shambolic rant for another day). How can a reasonably aware, socially and politically conscious, pseudo-intellectual reader struggle with reconciling the basest human tendencies of voyeurism in an oversaturated media culture and attempting to – in a bowdlerization of this very blog’s tagline – nourish one’s mind with challenging literature?

Obviously, my solution to this struggle was to write a less elegantly-planned-but-similarly-overlong blog post. 

I think it could then be said that My Struggle transcends these taste cultures (which themselves might be cultures of social class) in a very subtly confrontational way, and for that reason, I consider it essential reading. But don’t take my words for it. 

Have you read My Struggle (Vol. 1)? If so, what did you think?

(For a full list of everything I’ve read this year, and to be social networking friends, see Goodreads).

* “Plot keywords: meat loaf.” I LOL-IRL’ed

Advertisements