It’s a sunny winter day. Sky is blue, but the trees partially in view from my kitchen and living room windows on either side of my apartment are bare, thin vein branches sprouting. The sunlight makes a guillotine blade down my unclean windows. There’s a green piece of machinery across the way in the empty lot where the condominiums have been scheduled to go up for what seems like a long time. Any day now, they’ll appear though, and the current inhabitants of this residential block will grow accustomed to the reality of a building that seems as if it appeared out of nowhere, no time having passed at all between it’s nonexistence into existence.
That paragraph might seem totally unnecessary in this “review” of Karl Ove Knaussgard’s first part of My Struggle; however, the book has many passages of the author doing the very same thing: describing skies and small Norwegian cityscapes with seemingly unnecessary detail.
It would be inaccurate to say that these descriptions (forecasts?) of sky, earth, and city make up a bulk of the book. It would also be inaccurate to say that they don’t figure prominently, breaking up other more significant details about Knaussgard’s mother, grandmother, friends, teenage rock band, and of course, his father, the main antagonist in the book.
My Struggle starts and ends with philosophical waxing on death:
For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops. Sooner or later, one day, this pounding action will cease of its own accord, and the blood will begin to run toward the body’s lowest point, where it will collect in a small pool, visible from outside as a dark, soft patch on ever whitening skin, as the temperature sinks, the limbs stiffen and the intestines drain.
The rest of the book is written with just as much visceral detail, whether describing external or internal states. His father, often described as a hard man for Knaussgard to feel comfortable around, is compared to his mother. With few details about her, Knaussgard gets around to the idea that dinner with her is much more open and free-flowing, one in which neither he nor his brother have to be on guard. All of this is shown by the way the opposing parents prepare dinner, his father preparing with formality and the feel of contraction.
As Knaussgard details his upbringing and journey through adolescence, his father ducks and weaves and grows and decays in ways that make it hard to get a bead on the man. He’s a mystery that both the reader and the author are trying to make meaning of. His father is his “problem parent.”
Although the rest of the series cover different phases of Knaussgard’s life (the second in the series goes into more detail about his own role as a father and husband), his father centers around all of it, according to the author. Branching and radiating outward from this central conflict are moments of Knaussgard forming a teenage rock band and playing at a local shopping center. He pursues love with the savage lust of youth, breaking the heart of one girl because he’s interested in her sister. He goes to parties, visits his brother.
It’s a book very much interested in the painstaking mystery of human existence, and Knaussgard explores both the joys and tragedies, the awkwardness and the grace of it all. He does it all in a mostly plainspoken way, which makes it all feel quite accessible. All of this is written in a lyrical yet lucid, down-to-earth tone. Knaussgard waxes philosophical and has a distinct world view, but this is no political or philosophical doctrine on living (perhaps he’s saving this for a future book). The second half of the book, indeed is a doctrine and account of his father’s death.
Knaussgard is much more interested in detailing the little mundane things in life, bringing forth the things that those of us in the modern world have been living for the last half century. The narrative is driven less by plot order and more by the whims and necessity of his intuition. Details emerge out of the blue, including a passage about his father passed out drunk on the couch with the television still on, or the revelation about a dead cousin at a party after his father’s remarriage. The old man starts to cry, and while wearing colorful clothing ill-suited to the man Knaussgard used to know, both the reader and the narrator are surprised.
Who was his father? And who are any of us in relationship to our fathers and mothers, and their father and mothers? Identity is born out of memory or the imagination of the reader’s mind. An image recently released in a piece written by Knaussgard for The Guardian even contradicts any images I have in my head of his father. Then that identity shifts, and it dies off in a graveyard of bottles and depravity.
My Struggle has made Knaussgard a literary celebrity. There are certainly people who loath the book, or at least are puzzle by the appeal, while many others have caught glimpses of their own inner conflicts, their own sufferings. Why has this book made as much of an impact on modern literature as it has? A woman at the bookstore said one of her co-workers said he’d gotten halfway through the book before saying, “My Struggle? Okay…I have struggles…you have struggles…” Right, but how many people have taken the time to explore their own sufferings, much less the sufferings of others? In many ways, this seemingly ordinary, recorded life is a license to do so without it feeling like an indulgence or frivolity.
For further interest: