It surprises people – even people who have read the books – that Knausgaard’s My Struggle is meant to be fiction. Knausgaard considers his opus to be one novel divided into six parts. He originally offered it to his publisher with only 1,200 pages but while the powers sat and deliberated about publishing it as a serial over twelve months, Karl Ove sat at his desk and churned out another 2500 pages and changed the game.
But the work is obviously memoir. Memoirish. Or at least a truthful exploration. This question of fiction or memoir provides a useful dividing line. A memoir tells a story. It’s a sales pitch for a person. But Knausgaard has repeatedly stated that he was not interested in telling a story. He is interested in truth. In universals. In whys. He writes for himself and about himself to explore and to understand the ways of thoughts and decisions. Even so, a consistent and accurate criticism is how little introspection he does. Instead, he writes what happens and lets the reader figure it out. Or apply it. Maybe a recipe for genius? I can’t be sure.
How does fiction serve truth and why use this format?
- An obvious reason he writes using this method is a desire to protect the identities of the people involved. Knausgaard famously or infamously ignores this and anyone who shares his last name is now famous in Norway. Many family members aren’t exactly happy about the fame or the telling and several have tried to block further publication. The question of including bad behavior of friends and family in writing is a difficult one for authors. Should I tell the truth? Should I risk relationships? Is publication the best venue to air grievances? Though meant to be fiction, Knausgaard makes the decision to ignore their questions.
- An equally obvious reason is to increase the entertainment value. Lots of non-fiction is boring. Often memoirs are simply handed out to friends and supporters as a PR stunt. No one reads them. Memoir is your story. And unless your story is fascinating – and not many are – it will likely never be published. Knausgaard skirts this limitation and uses fiction and the framework of his experience to write a larger story that is putatively in search of universal truths within the mundane acts of daily living.
- Then there is the business of writing and sales. No one expected this doorstop of a book to catapult its author into worldwide literary fame. But imagine if it sat in the memoir section of Barnes and Noble. What would separate it from every other memoir except that it’s about someone that nary a soul has heard of? How many people are spending their Saturday night cruising the aisles for biographies about failed Norwegian writers?
- So Knausgaard uses autofiction to explore his life and themes. He rejects the exploration of themes across different eras or locations, saying that he couldn’t have written the novel in another time. It is a culmination of his era, his family, and his education: of all the things that make him who he is. It is borne out of his personal terroir, the intangible atmosphere of every person. It comes out in voice and in word choice. In innuendo.
But if Knausgaard writes this as a modern story then how can it be called universal? Isn’t this like calling The Catcher in the Rye only an American story? It’s too confining. I’ve written before about how all stories about dying are really stories about how to live. The same concept applies here. There is always a bigger picture in fiction. The story’s framework might not apply – think of science fiction – but the search for universals always does.
Even without personal introspection, this search for universals is the key to the success of My Struggle. Knausgaard claims that he writes fiction to tell the truth. In memoir, a writer is hindered by history. There is a tacit agreement between writer and reader that the writer tells the story just as it happened. But that focus confines Knausgaard. He wants to explore. To emphasize certain aspects and to downplay others. To funnel personalities or expand them at will. He uses fiction to make this story of one struggling writer in Scandinavia a story of all people everywhere.
But what about all those conversations? Hiding beer in the woods? The clothes his father wore? Knausgaard laughs and says that he remembers nothing of conversations or daily interactions of his childhood. They are all recreated from what he remembers about doing every day. Is this fair? Is it fair to say that he is exploring truth and at the same time admitting that he can’t remember details of what he writes about? I think so. We all think like this. I don’t remember a word of what best-friend Alfred and I talked about riding our bikes up the hill to swipe candy from the grocery. But I know we talked about girls, about school, about stupid things that don’t need remembering. But it would be easy to fill in the blanks between our house and the store. Recreating the details isn’t important. And it fits. Knausgaard isn’t concerned about the bullet-points of his life. He writes a half page about the birth of one of his children and spends ten writing about walking to his office on the morning of the birth. The quarry to be mined lies between the peaks.
As I read through My Struggle I’m reminded of the movie The Vanishing. Jeff Bridges plays the lead as a passer-by who saves a boy from drowning and becomes a local hero. But instead of taking the pat on the back he begins to wonder about what drives him. He concludes that he can only wear the Hero Crown if he acted willfully and voluntarily. He decides that he must willfully take a life in order to prove that he is noble enough to willfully save one. (A good movie that takes place in my backyard.) Knausgaard explores these same decisions on a smaller scale. Why do I feel this way? Why this decision? What drove my father to that instead of this?
As you read through My Struggle or other novels do you agree that fiction is the better way to tell the truth? Is telling the truth always worth the cost?
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