I’ve started reading the six volume tome My Struggle written by the Norwegian Karl Knausgaard. Many people laud the work as a modern classic. Just as many are thankful for the expensive toilet paper. I’m posting as I read, dividing the work into chunks for easy digestion. Please note that I am reading the English language version titled My Struggle, Book 1, translated by Dan Bartlett and published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
We’ve already had one fight. That’s one sign of a good book. If the reviews can be believed, it’s to be expected. For everyone who loves My Struggle, it seems that there is someone else burning it. People pay big money for press like that.
I read a review of the recently published Book 4 in the NY Times, checked out Amazon reviews, and traipsed straight to Barnes and Noble to buy Book 1. No Nook download this time. I wanted to hold the book and have something I could talk to and scribble in. Something to save as a record. When I brought it home and started reading Mal wanted to know what the fuss was. I gave her the elevator pitch and when I set the book down she picked it up, read a couple paragraphs, and got that glow in her eyes. The glow that makes the kids clean their room without complaint and without being asked.
“I know you. I know how you get wrapped up in a book and an author and everything he talks about.” There was that edge in her voice to let me know that this was not a two way conversation: I know you.
“But I…what?” I forget easy. Time to listen, not talk.
“I know you. If you think that you’re going to start living like this, acting like this, if you think that you’re going to start being some pained art recluse…well I’m telling you right now that you might as well put that damned book away. I’d put it down before it just gets you in trouble.”
My special look was met by her special and more ominous look. “But hon.. I’ve read about eight pages.
She’d made up her mind. “Well as far as I can tell, that’s about eight pages too many.”
Conversation over and she’s looking for matches.
What is Knausgaard’s struggle? Three themes stand out in the first hundred pages. The first, which is never explicitly mentioned but permeates the writing like a Norwegian fog, is his relationship with his father. His father is at home as much as any other parent but never connects. He appears surprised when he even remembers that he has a son taking up space in his home. Still, he is pleasant but distant and uninvolved. On the one night that he makes an effort to be fatherly, he goes to Parents Night at school, has a bad experience, and comes home announcing that he will never return. Karl’s mother is mostly away. She is in school, studying for her Masters, far enough away so that she can only return on holidays and breaks. She evokes the same distant and unconnected response from her husband. There is nothing overtly ominous or remarkable is the Father’s behavior, instead, there is a general coldness. it’s like people who live together from habit without either animosity nor passion. Knausgaard writes about his father in the same tone that his father speaks to him. He has an angst-filled indifference that, I think, belies a much deeper hurt and confusion. I’m interested to see where this goes since I’ve learned that mothers can be crazy but it usually takes a father to really screw someone up.
Knausgaard is unabashed about his goal to be a great writer. Not just a writer who writes great lines, but a famed novelist who is revered and recognized. A national treasure. A central part of his struggle is anxiety about his apparent mediocrity. He has sold a few pieces over the five years that he has been a professional writer but not enough to load his bank or his ego. He blames his family for this. He requires a large and uncluttered expanse for careful thoughts, for selecting just the right word, for crafting an exceptional sentence. He needs space and time. Instead, he has diaper duty through the daytime hours with breakfast and lunch to serve and clean. He must shop. Comb hair. Cart the children to school. All wastes of time that steal him from his calling.
Like any honest story about growing up, Knausgaard admits to a full portion of teenage confusion and proverbial sex, drugs, and rock and roll. I’m interested to see if this carries through or if he just presents a slice of life from his his teenage years. His ‘rock band’ disintegrates within moments of the first power chords of their first live show. They’re playing at a mall parking lot and the mall manager, running toward them with his face contorted and his hands over his ears, thrusts their meager pay at them a tells them to pack up. With weeks, his band mates are all doing different things. He hides beer in the woods and smokes. He loves the feeling of laughing hilarity that rolls over him when he drinks at parties. Until the hilarity gives way to vomiting and passing out. He learns about love. Maybe not love but certainly the glories of naked breasts. But, as in all things it seems, in just a few pages, he moves from kissing to sex to boredom.
It is inside this milieu that he writes My Struggle. Burdened with familial chores and feelings of mediocrity, he finally loses the taste for writing literature and searches for something – anything – to slog through. Something to force him to put pen to paper, to make letters into words, and words into sentences. He decides to write the story of his life so far. He will write plainly and honestly. He will name names. Who cares? No one will ever read these scribbles. He will fillet his heart and ego and expose what is good and what is not. And each day he will call his agent and read what he wrote just to prove that he is still writing. He never imagined that this would be his best and most famous work work. Friends and family were just as surprised with his honest telling of it and of his popularity:- many have refused him the time of day since My Struggle has been published.
At a hundred pages in what can be said? He is any kid. He is my kid. He is me. Yet he writes my story in a way that makes me want to read more. (Is that it? Is the secret to Knausgaard’s struggle that it was my struggle as well?) So far, there is no epiphany. No secrets revealed. Just the everyday life of a normal, angst ridden, rock star wannabe teenager in love with bare breasts.
At this point I couldn’t agree more with the reviewer on the back cover:
I can’t stop. I want to stop. I can’t stop, just one more page, then I will cook dinner, just one more page…
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