A life, a story, an agony: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s MY STRUGGLE, Book 1

One must wonder—tongue in cheek—how KOK finds the time to live a life to write about. His detail is so fine and often so mundane as noticing suddenly that the sun is setting and lighting up the sky over the five story apartment building going up across one arm of Lake Merritt. Yet once launched into the story as he tells it, you’re nearly shedding tears of thanks to him, letting you into his life, his pains, his loves, his hates, his fears, artistic musings, and philosophical flourishes. This book and the five of the same name that follow if are not for the faint-hearted, must-have-page-turner American reader. Since the translations run apace, though, there must be a market here and in Britain and in the English reading world as a whole.

It is a little early for me to prognosticate, but I see a big prize at the end of this tunnel, one with an N on its snout.

Want to get to know someone perhaps better than your best friend? No, perhaps better than a spouse, or maybe better than you know yourself? Well, dig in and be patient. You will get to know Karl Ove Knausgaard well, very well.

Book 1 of My Struggle focuses on KOK’s father: how he feared and hated him in adolescence. How he evaded and avoided dad, usually without much success since KOK carried dad with him everywhere he went and in every enterprise he attempted. That’s not unusual for a son, or for a son with a dominant father and absent or semi-absent mother such as KOK seems—so he indicates—to have had. She was nice, loving, but not around a great deal.

As he grows older, KOK declares more independence and eventually after high school leaves town to return only for his father’s funeral. Often the narrative is intense and interesting: KOK spends 35 pages getting ready to drink to drunkenness on his 14th new years eve; he spills ink over five pages of discussion of the role science has played in our conception and expectations of art, painting mostly, and a full third of the book relates the preparations Ingve, KOK’s brother and sometime hero and nemesis, and he perform in advance of the funeral. And, hey, we never (at least in Book 1) get to the funeral, or near the funeral, or getting ready for the actual funeral, for, first, the brothers must clean the house of their deceased, alcoholic, secretive father and who commandeered his own mother’s house (it isn’t even his) in which to devolve, disintegrate, and die. KOK’s grandmother is in the sorriest state of affairs. That is what must be dealt with.

Oh, what a mess. Oh, what a tragedy. And through it all the author is open, plain spoken, truthful, and compelling without pulling sentimental punches or taking unfair advantage.

Knausgaard earns his reader’s respect, wins it fairly with Norwegian hard work and a keen eye for minutae which tells the story so well. It is as if he continuously tells us—were he Californian or American—where he was, what he was doing, who he was with, and what he was thinking when Oakland burned, when the Bay Bridge collapsed, or when the Trade Towers fell. Knausgaard’s fire, earthquake, and terror attack are personal, but that does not mean that we, all of us, haven’t suffered the same.

And that commonality is what Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle exalts.

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