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Thursday, June 09, 2016

My Struggle, Book 1

Okay, this is almost too amazing to be true--a Norwegian writer of little acclaim, Karl Ove Knausgaard, having writer's block about a novel about his father, proceeded to write his autobiography, which takes up six volumes and 3,500 pages. He titles it My Struggle, the same title Adolph Hitler used for his autobiography. It becomes a sensation in Norway, where one out of nine people have bought it. It was translated into several languages, including English, and after hearing about it I finally got around to reading the first volume.

I will say this--Knausgaard is a terrific writer of prose. But he didn't exactly lead a life that requires six volumes. I suppose anyone's story of their life could be made interesting, if the writing is good enough, but in the long run Knausgaard's experiences are just a bit too banal. Book 1 is basically his relationship with his father, who is kind of a bastard.

The first half concerns Knausgaard as a child. He begins with a memory as a small child, seeing the image of a face in the water on TV, and tells his father about it. Later, he will spend many pages chronicling a New Year's Eve when he is a teenager, trying to get beer to a party.

The second half is about his father's funeral. He and his brother go to their grandmother's house, which his father ruined with his sloth. Knausgaard hated his father and wanted him dead, but can't help keep from crying. '

The books are called "autobiographical novels," which is key, because there is no way they could be the gospel truth. At more than one occasion Knausgaard mentions he has a bad memory, but if these were to be taken as strict autobiography the writer would have to have a photographic memory. I have forgotten complete chunks of my life, especially my teenage years, but he writes as if they happened yesterday, complete with dialogue and minute-by-minute events. But in reading about the work, it is clear that he has filled in the gaps with fiction, and changed some names and eliminated characters. But still, he overdoes it with details. Consider: "Twenty minutes later I was in my office. I hung up my coat and scarf on the hook, put my shoes on the mat, made a cup of coffee, connected my computer and sat drinking coffee and looking at the title page until the screen saver kicked in and filled the screen with a myriad of bright dots." This can get to be very exhausting.

Still, Knausgaard can take one's breath away at times. He writes about visiting a funeral home and finding a box of Kleenex: "Practical of course, but how cynical it seemed! Seeing it, you visualized all the bereaved relatives who had come here and wept in the course of the day and you realized that your grief was not unique, not even exceptional, and ultimately not particularly precious. The box of Kleenex was a sign that here weeping and death had undergone inflation."

I also easily believe some of his childhood remembrances, because I can remember having similar memories, such as: "Another fantasy I had at that time was that there were two enormous saw blades sticking out from the side of the car, chopping off everything as we drove past. Trees and streetlamps, houses and outhouses, but also people and animals. If someone was waiting for a bus they would be sliced through the middle, their to half falling like a felled tree, leaving feet and waist standing and the wound bleeding."

As stated, though, this is a book about his relationship with his father, which is certainly complex. His father was a cold man, died fairly young of alcoholism, and he and his brother spend much of the book cleaning up the disgusting mess he left. "My father was an idiot, I wanted nothing to do with him, and it cost me nothing to keep well away from him. It wasn't a question of keeping away from something, it was a question of the something not existing, nothing about him touched me. That was how it had been, but then I had sat down to write, and the tears poured forth."

I doubt I will read any of the other volumes in this story. Knausgaard's My Struggle has been compared to Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, and I didn't much care for that, either, and stopped at the first volume. I think if you want to write a multi-volume autobiography, it's got to be more interesting and less navel-gazing.

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