A Life Digressed

Last week I finished a year-long project to work my way through all 6 volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle”. As one of the blurbs inside the book asks: why read a 3,600 page Norwegian novel about a man writing a 3,600 page Norwegian novel? “Because it’s awesome”

I’d read the occasional review over the years as each volume was translated into English, each one describing each volume’s combination of beauty and banality, aiming not to describe life as it should be, but rather life as it is lived and as it is remembered. Nonetheless, it was only re-stumbling across his wondering 2015 article describing a journey to witness an awake craniotomy in Albania that led me to place an order for volume 1, A Death in the Family.

To get things out of the way first, “My Struggle” blew my mind, unlike any novel I’ve ever read before. Knausgaard is not a great man, perhaps not even a good man, but rather a deeply flawed man. Despite his claim near the end of volume 6 that the project has been a failure because he has never come close to saying what he really means or describing what he really feels, he is able to meander through the minutiae of life, minutiae that while specific to Knausgaard are the banality that we all experience, and from the minutiae to jump out to moments of incredible beauty, humour, and insight in a way that I have never experienced before in a work of literature.

While heavily fictionalized in the details (who can really remember what cereal they ate for breakfast on Oct 15, 1993), the novel nonetheless purports to describe his life exactly as remembered. Without so much as a chapter break, he describes scenes of his life, each one leading to thoughts and digressions down other memories and connections to other works, effortlessly shifting between different times, frequently regaining the original line of thought only hundreds of pages later. Although some people call it plotless, I found each volume to be tightly structured, using a specific event in his life — his father’s death, his first divorce, his entry to writing school, etc — to begin a journey into memory, art, friendship, shame, and the simply act of living.

Through this, the novel is full of moments that are burned deep into my memory, from the twist at the midpoint of volume 1 when he visits his grandmother’s place following his father’s death, to his revelation in volume 3 that he has only a single goal as a parent, that his children do not grow up afraid of him, to the moment in volume 5 when he enters his living room to find his brother perusing the book of artful nudes that he’d ordered, to the moment near the end of book 6 when he realizes that he’s the only person who hasn’t clued in that his wife has been institutionalized.

The volumes of the novel range widely in quality. Ranked from best to worst:

Volume 1: A Death in the Family — A masterpiece. The first pages are among the best writing I’ve had the pleasure of reading (“For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops”), and the twist, as it were, near the middle of the book is up there with the twist at the midpoint of the movie “Parasite” in its quality and ability to completely shift the mood of a work of art from light to dead serious.

Volume 6: The End — The masterpiece culmination of the novel, it’s a 1,150 page tome but nonetheless a masterpiece. The first third is plain Knausgaard, nothing too special, as it describes the events around the publication of Volume 1 and his fight to be able to use his family’s real names, and after reminiscing on a priest’s admonition at his father’s funeral to “fasten one’s gaze” and see life for what it is, leads into the boldest move I’ve ever seen in a novel: a 400+ page digression (“The name and the number”) on the significance of names, a deep reading of the poetry of Jewish holocaust poet Paul Celan, the work of Victor Klemperer, followed by a reading of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, analyzing it as the work of a disaffected 20-something year old, putting aside knowledge of what he would eventually become. Once this digression is complete, he powers through the final third of the volume, describing his wife’s mental breakdown, reminiscing on the long term damage done by his project of putting everything out in the open, and concluding his thoughts on the meaning of a name, in a remarkable unexpected twist reveals one last detail about his father.

Volume 5: Some Rain Must Fall — Knausgaard goes to writing school, struggles as the youngest person in the class, works odd jobs like as an attendant at a mental institution, meets his first wife, and lives as a young man in Bergen. The first two thirds are typical Knausgaard. Life. Raw. The final third accelerates into a thriller, as in quick succession his father dies (retelling some of the situation of the volume 1), his first marriage falls apart (setting up the opening to volume 2), and his debut novel is released to widespread acclaim. My favourite line is when an interviewer asks “On the cover it says the book’s about male shame. Could you say a few words about that?”, to be met with “I didn’t know it was about shame until I read the cover”

Volume 2: A Man in Love — The tenderest volume, a description of a man having just left his wife, moving to a city in a new country, meeting new friends, and raises three young children. The blunt descriptions were part of inciting his wife’s depression and breakdown in volume 6, but there is much here that anyone with children or knows people with children can relate to.

Volume 4: Dancing in the Dark — Perhaps the most fictionalized, in this case to protect the identities of the teen’s that he taught, this is the description of a young man grappling with living in a remote town, only a couple years older than the pupils he’s charged with instructing. Well written and kept me going, but like volume 3, largely devoid of tension or deeper insight into life.

Volume 3: Boyhood Island — I guess he had to do this. Describe life as a child. It’s well written as always, but never really reaches any deeper truths or insights except for the one already mentioned, when the memories lead him to realize that for his children to grow up unafraid of him is his only goal.

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