the struggle of meaninglessness: review of knausgaard’s my struggle book 1


My Struggle: Book OneMy Struggle: Book One by Karl Ove Knausgård
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As usual: don’t believe the critics. This lionized work from a Norwegian media star, while an odd and, in a voyeuristic way, oddly engrossing book, is also a failure. The confusion starts with the title – why choose Min Kamp, the Norwegian equivalent of Hitler’s magnum opus? – and accelerates with whether this is fiction or not. Part I of Book One, with its manic focus and documentary verisimilitude on childhood traumas, had me convinced it was memoir, but Knausgaard pulls a fast one at the start of Part II, which treats in exhaustive detail the lead up to his father’s funeral, after death by alcoholism:

Apart from one or two isolated events that [brother] Yngve and I had talked so often about they had almost assumed biblical proportions, I remembered hardly anything from my childhood. That is, I remembered hardly any of the events in it. [p.189]

Given the reality tv nature of Part I, this is hard to believe. I know these post-reality days of meta-narratives and such, one is not supposed to take things as they appear. So I won’t. If fiction, why according to the one profile of Knausgaard’s literary rocket burst, in the WSJ Magazine (Nov. 4, 2015), does it say several family members no longer speak to him?

Not that it really matters – the back cover book blurbs position it as fiction – but, still, it grates.

Regardless, Knausgaard’s objective is anything but modest. One of the first, of few, direct literary references is to Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Clearly, My Struggle is an attempted modernizing of the classic. On that basis alone, Book One (of six) fails.

While any book suffers in translation, there is no comparison between Proust’s beautiful, flowing prose, and Knausgaard’s raw footage, which piles up relentlessly.

True, the narrator/author has a disarming honesty, sharing all his warts and more (including his childhood fears of having, when at attention, a bent shaft). With what can only be called hyper-awareness, he describes his physical environment (the view, the weather, the objects) at every turn, giving everything equal weight while imbuing very little with meaning. Events, conversations, happenings, non-happenings are forever being broken up into the physicality of the narrator’s perceptions. Indeed, as noted by others, the language is jarringly unmetaphorical, with drops of observation as steady as Chinese water torture.

This obsession to show things as they truly are – the narrator’s credo – is manifested up front, in the book’s opening discourse on how society has no interest whatsoever is seeing/viewing corpses as they are: rotting, putrid lumps of cells. While this is an observation of Holden Caulfield profundity, the promise is that Knausgaard will tear back the false chimeras and show things as they truly are. (Book One circles around by its grisly end with a second, redundant visit to the deceased father in the morgue, literally to confirm his putridness.) Later, in Part II, the adult narrator claims, “Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows.” [p.190] So what is the essence of a corpse in a shadowy morgue?

The lack of metaphorical language and death-obsession are complimented by a spiritual deadness, for how can anything supernatural survive such a relentlessly empirical/materialist view of life?

This is curious, for the narrator professes belief early on during one of his bullying father’s attempts to mock him:

…I would have thought he was poking fun at me. He finds it rather embarrasing that I am a Christian; all he wants of me is that I do not stand out from the other kids, and of all the teeming mass of kids on the estate no one other than his youngest son calls himself a Christian. [p.13]

Yet after starting a long career in drinking (as it always made him feel “fantastic,” a word the narrator uses repeatedly) in his pre-teens, he admits:

Now and then I prayed to God, in whom I did not believe… Dear God, please let me stop growing, I prayed. [p.73]

The adult narrator puts the nail in the spiritual coffin, killing any divine presence this way:

Chaos is a kind of gravity, and the rhythm you can sense in history, of the rise and fall of civilizations, is perhaps caused by this. [p.192]

This is a shame, as the narrator deals incessantly with a terror of his father that, if not psychotic, is in essence spiritual. In fact, father-fear is about the only drama which keeps the mass of documentary evidence moving forward, particularly in Part I where nothing really untoward happens.

What is puzzling, these twenty-teens days, is an author apparently unaware of 12-step programs such as Al-Anon (the family disease part of alcoholism). The most rudimentary familiarity with it, or childhood trauma literature, would have lent the narrative some depth; as it is, such treatment as offered is surprisingly superficial.

For instance, the child’s obsession with his father’s moods is a familiar symptom called hyper-vigilance. The child of a dysfunctional household pays a laser-like attention to diseased, unstable parents as his survival depends on it. (Indeed, the child’s hyper-vigilance transforms into the author/narrator’s obsessive empiricism.) Yet instead of searching for the roots of the father’s drinking, the narrator denies any possible history: “we had no experience with alcoholics, there were none in the family” [p.236] Denial, of course, is yet another symptom of the family disease – but the author/narrator appears oblivious.

The child’s “constant feeling of humiliation” [p.200] – at the hands of the terrifying father whose terror-inducing acts are never really elucidated (only 267 pages in do we learn he raged and hit his sons with an undisclosed frequency); he is simply terrifying and hated, for life – transmogrifies into isolation and anxiety as an adult:

Had I ever initiated a conversation with a stranger?
No, never.
And there was no evidence to suggest I ever would. [p.246]

Just as well: the narrator’s pressure-cooker anger makes him fantasize about a car with buzz-saw wings cutting through all people and things with ease.

The narrator may also be one of the weepiest males in literature. While his older brother, Yngve, watches with concern, the narrator (named Karl Ove, like the author) bursts into tears constantly in Part II, while dealing with the funeral arrangements of the father they both hated. Glancing at Constable paintings does the same: “I didn’t need to do any more than let my eyes skim over them before I was moved to tears.” [p.204] Ah, the salvation of Art!

So, yes, writing a 3,600 page stream-of-consciousness, closer to Kerouac than Proust, may be good therapy for Karl Ove, but why subject the rest of us, particularly when there is so little substantive insight?

The narrator’s cluelessness regarding alcoholism is emphasized when the brothers encounter their emaciated grandmother in her house which the boozer-father had literally trashed in his last years. Catatonic grandma at first appears in shock from having found her bloated son dead in his own excrement, but over several days the grandsons realize that she is only desperate for a drink. So they all proceed to get drunk/high, which becomes a nightly habit prior to the funeral. Young Karl Ove admits repeatedly to the transformative power of alcohol while growing up in Norway. Nope. No alcoholics here.

Yet Karl Ove’s obtuseness about himself carries over into lack of sympathy with others – not a helpful attribute for any author. Here he is describing sober, grieving grandma:

What could she be thinking?
Nothing. There was nothing in her mind. Couldn’t be. It was just cold and dark inside. [p.283]

The only redeeming character in Parts I and II is brother Yngve, yet Karl Ove confesses: “We never touched, we didn’t even shake hands when we met, and we rarely looked each other in the eyes.” [p.337] Ouch.

Poor Karl Ove. He admits to becoming “fervently anti-Christian” [p.153] and “way out on the left” [p.178]. So it is no surprise he discovers the meaninglessness of his universe:

The world was the same, yet it wasn’t, for its meaning had been displaced, and was still being displaced, approaching closer and closer to meaninglessness. [p.353]

The narrator/author in his fiction/non-fiction does appear bracingly honest, as confessions of his flaws and failures pile up. Yet it becomes disturbingly voyeuristic to spectate this page after page after page.

Called a “global literary star” by the fawning WSJ puff-piece “Karl Ove Knausgaard,” he “is quite probably in line to receive a Nobel Prize in literature for his epic saga of what he describes as ‘the tormented inner life of one male’,” the epic itself “one of the 21st century’s greatest literary sensations.” Did we read the same book?

My favorite back cover blurb is from an ever-cosmopolitan New Yorker reviewer: “Intense and vital…so alive to death.” So many paradoxes, so much reading time! It is almost a relief to confirm the culture of death is alive and thriving in northern Europe.

Yet, here on more hopeful coasts, one has to wonder if such reality tv “literature” is our future. Spare me the other 3,200 pages.

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