My Struggle Book 2: A Man in Love

 Admittedly, I had abandoned the book months ago, having burned through 470 pages or so; abandoned with a willful intention to not finish the series. Overhyped. Pretentious. Boring. Adjectives I would never have used to describe my journey through Book 1.

Then on Saturday, after arriving home from a vacation, I picked it up again. It was like having picked up a video game and remembering exactly what everything in your inventory did and exactly where everything was in the world. And even if I didn’t remember everything, there were enough clues along the way to make me remember. Before having picked it up, there were so many moments to remember, and upon picking it up again, the original magic that struck me when I read the first pages of Book 1 was upon me again.

It was great.

There are two section specifically that almost seemed to be written for my girlfriend and me. The first occurs on page 505, where Karl Ove, an already exhibited consumer of music and books, goes out for another excursion and spends (probably) way too much money.

After I had paid for the books I went down to the lower section of Sergels torg, to the music and film shop, where I bought three DVDs and fice CDs, next up to Akademi bookstore, where I found a dissertation on Swedenborg published by Atlantis, which I bought along with a couple of journals. I wouldn’t get around to reading much of this, which did not prevent me from feeling good, however.

A mind looking for some enlightened distraction and also something to write about. Over these last few months, it had become apparent to me just how much I needed to simplify. There were too many things I was putting in front of myself to consume, like an entire weeks meals cooked up and expecting to be eaten on a Friday night. And it was stressful.

But why include this in the book, along with any number of seemingly incidental details throughout? Why not stick to the task at hand? Tell us, Karl Ove, of a “Man in Love”.

And after the questions are out and one has zero to five answers, one remembers that the entire book is written this way. He is building a world, as banal as the ones any of us – the Western middle class – are living, whether we be artists, nurses, out-of-work actors, soon-to-be-published writers, teachers. How serendipitous to have picked up the book again just as I was having feelings of being overwhelmed by my own possessions.

There isn’t any magic in it, though. Not in the coincidence of me picking up the book again to have it read some life parallel out (I don’t believe in coincidence). Not in the way Karl Ove writes almost structure-less yet reels you in. It’s all magic, but there are no tricks. No apparent illusions. Just a life. Yet there it is, on the page, written almost as if you yourself could be living it.

What is that worth? Does it make the book a masterpiece? To some perhaps. To Karl Ove though:

If I have learned one thing over these years that seems to me immensely important, particularly in an era such as ours, overflowing with such mediocrity, it is the following:

Don’t believe you are anybody.

Do not fucking believe you are somebody.

Because you are not. You’re just a smug, mediocre little shit.

Do not believe that you’re anything special. Do not believe that you’re worth anything, because you aren’t. You’re just a little shit.

So keep your head down and work, you little shit. Then, at least, you’ll get something out of it. Shut your mouth, keep your head down, work, and know that you’re not worth a shit.

This, more or less, was what I had learned.

Here we are, Reader. The book has sold, well, a lot of copies. I mean, he is a literary celebrity.

So why had I abandoned it? Well, one gets tired of talking to the same person for months on end. Some people burn through a series after being seduced by the first volume. My Struggle for me is a series (maybe all series for someone like me) who needs a break every now and then.

Then, it’s possible to see all the happy, magic accidents of his mother speaking about love regarding Karl Ove’s alcoholic father, maybe the villain of this book, if this were the type of book to have villains. How it perfectly parallels the end of the first book, the father on a slab. How it matter-of-factly yet still subtly comments on Karl’s own relationship with Linda. And Karl is a father now, too.

So many echoes. So many literary tricks that aren’t tricks at all.

I can’t wait to start book 3. I’ve already started waiting.

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My Struggle: Book 1 – Detail of a Life

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.

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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:

“The Shame of Writing About Myself” – The Guardian

 

 

 

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