For the past month or so I have been immersed in reading an unusual six-part autobiography entitled My Struggle by a Norwegian author, Karl Ove Knausgaard. I had heard or read interesting comments about him on the radio, in the NY Times, in the NY Times Book Review and the New Yorker. Most recently he wrote a piece in the NY Times Sunday Magazine about observing an operation on someone’s brain.
Some readers/reviewers describe him as completely self-obsessed; others are mesmerized and can’t put him down.”Brilliant…Breaks down everything we thought we knew about personal narrative,” says David L. Ulin of the Los Angeles Times. I feel both ways about him: I am both attracted and repelled by his megalomania. And I, too, can’t put him down. I have read the first three volumes, cover to cover, each in a space of a day or two. Granted, his writing is “stream of consciousness” so it kind of flows like a river. You can just get in a “mental inner tube” and go with the flow, or not. I can imagine many readers saying “What the f… is this supposed to be? Am I supposed to be interested in the minutiae of the daily life of a fairly miserable, depressive stranger?”
It’s probably important to say at this point that last winter, while recovering from cancer, I read Volume I of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, which is also not everyone’s idea of a good read. I am a francophile, so this weighty tome has long been on my bucket list. I believe I wasn’t really ready to appreciate it a decade or two ago, so I’m glad I read it more recently. It’s elegant, perverse, spellbinding and often very tedious to read. It’s all about timing and perspective, but isn’t everything really?
I think what has kept me glued to Knausgaard’s books are my fascination with life in other cultures and how it compares with ours. I love the details: what people ate, how they dressed, their pasttimes, their family life…all of it. And Knausgaard gives me a lot of details to absorb. But I also love that his books are about the Big Picture. He shows us how all the details in our daily lives add up to a lifetime.
I read the first volume about his childhood voraciously. I was less enamored of the second volume which is about having a relationship and becoming a father. The third, a marvelous meditation on preadolescence is a bit redundant but is spot on about the anxieties and ecstasies of pre-puberty. Will I get through the next three volumes (which are being translated into English)?
The reader must be patient with his pace, which is almost like time standing still. If you are patient, you are rewarded by the end of each of the novels. Each gives us deep insight into a stage of life lived unconsciously; then later eviscerated by the author; then finally embraced as inevitable.
Is it edge-of-the-seat writing? No, but it’s the kind of writing that causes us to pause and reflect on our own life stages in all their glorious and inglorious detail.