Much has been made of Karl Ove Knausgård’s autobiographical “My Struggle,” which made its English debut about a year ago, to clamorous positive reviews. There have been comparisons to Ibsen, suggestions of a Norwegian Proust, promotions using words like “harrowing” and “startling”, and a few lawsuits made against the author for libel.
This is all more or less to say that Knausgård’s autobiography, the first volume at any rate, is very much unlike many other biographies you’ve ever read. There is little to no pandering to readers, by which I mean that Knausgård isn’t so much concerned with presenting insights about his life as he is wrestling with it, searching through his memories piecemeal until they give up their meaning. For the most part, he succeeds, though only after he has worked his way, painstakingly, through each one of his scenes. The result is like a math assignment in which the credit is given for showing work and not necessarily for finding the correct sum.
It goes without saying that this has an interesting appearance on the page. Knausgård’s biography, for all its detail, doesn’t meander; you get the feeling that, while the author may not be fully aware of where the scenes are headed when he begins to write them, he knows their destination and has an idea of how to achieve it. “After eating I went up to my room, switched on the amplifier, plugged in the guitar, and sat down to play a little. I loved the smell the amplifier gave off when it got warm, I could play for that reason alone, almost. I also loved the accessories guitar-playing involved, the fuzz box, the chorus pedal, the leads, the plugs, the plectrums, and the small packet of strings…” the author writes, pulling the scene out delicately as if it were a wad of chewed gum stuck underneath a desk.
But there’s a purpose to such scenes, and in the case of the first volume of “My Struggle” (the second of six volumes was released at the beginning of May), all roads lead to Knausgård’s father and more specifically, to his death. Which is why Knausgård gives us his life in segments, the first half of the book devoted towards his childhood and such scenes as the one of the author playing in a band with his chums or hanging out with his girlfriend, and the latter half fixated on the days following his father’s death with occasional asides of the present day.
Here is the author in 2003, “I unscrewed the lid of the coffee tin, put two spoonfuls in my cup, and poured in the water, which rose up the sides, black and steaming, then I got dressed.” One is tempted to wonder why we need this minutia, the explanation of making coffee and the routine of the morning are surely things that the reader doesn’t need explained to her, but you’re interested in the facts enough to keep reading. “Before going out I stood in such a way that I could see [a] face in the wooden flooring. And it really was Christ. The face half-averted, as though in pain, eyes downcast, the crown of thorns on his head. The remarkable thing was not that the face should be visible here, nor that I had once seen a face in the sea in the mid-seventies, the remarkable thing was that I had forgotten it and now remembered.” It stands to the author’s credit that he is able to inspire something near-revelatory in the same paragraph devoted to two spoonfuls of coffee and getting dressed, but this is the power of Knausgård’s writing: the idea that if you just keep going you’ll eventually find something.
There’s something biological about this, as though the world and the living are both in a constant state of expansion undulating in rhythm with the author’s observations. At other times, Knausgård seems desperate to take ahold of that life and wrestle the meaning out of it himself, which leads the author to some of his most compelling discourse. “That night I couldn’t sleep,” one passage begins, “Usually I fell asleep within minutes, regardless of how tumultuous the day had been.” Such are the necessary verbal calisthenics, which give way to tentative development, “After the age of twenty I had hardly ever dreamed about anything that had a bearing on my life. It was as though in dreams I had not grown up, I was still a child surrounded by the same people and placed I had been surrounded by in childhood. And even though the events that occurred there were new every night, the feeling they left me with was always the same. The constant feeling of humiliation.” And finally, the sweeping insight: “What does anyone in their twenties really get out of a longing for their childhood years? For their own youth? It’s like an illness.”
What’s remarkable about Knausgård’s biography isn’t just the ingenuity of the sentences, but the revelations the author is able to pull from them and his memories. His life hardly seems the stuff of literary genius that the book’s reviews have suggested—in his childhood the author does not display the usual precocity or depth of insight that has traditionally separated artists from the run-of-the mill: he gets drunk, listens to music, has a girlfriend. What’s more, Knausgård’s first novel appeared when the author was 30. It’s tempting then to label “My Struggle” as another celebration of life: another project to extol the beauty of the every day.
This it is not. Knausgård doesn’t glorify life so much as he tries to come to terms with death. It would not spoil the work to say that, in the end, he fails. Life, death, humanity, the world are more dense and complex than we can fathom. Make your insights and support them with all the detail and evidence you can, Knausgård’s book suggests, but understand the impossible margin of doubt.