Review by Jack Dunleavy
What a glorious novel this is! What a revelation! 21st century literature has a saviour! His name is Marcel Proust, or, in the original Norwegian, Karl Ove Knausgaard. The book that has saved us all? My Struggle, or, in the original Norwegian, Min Kamp (one wonders how it’ll be marketed in Germany…) six volumes of memoir detailing the life of the author from the early seventies till the present in meticulous detail. And it is meticulous, maybe not quite as meticulous as other reviewers have hailed it as being, but very very detailed all the same. An example: should you ever find yourself in mid-1970s Norway, tasked with identifying the correct method to eat a dinner of “brown goat’s cheese,” “ordinary cheese,” “sardines with tomato sauce” and “clove cheese” (to say nothing of madeleines dipped in tea) so as to successfully mask/avoid the disgusting parts of the meal without letting your father know you’ve done so, this book will guide you through the process step by scrutinous step. My Struggle book one, A Death in the Family, is full of such glorious and revelatory details.
Part of the sensation My Struggle has caused has been because of the inclusion of such microscopically studied, seemingly irrelevant moments. Writers such as Zadie Smith, Rachel Cusk and Jonathan Lethem have all come out as admirers of the series. In a review for the second volume of the series, A Man in Love, Smith applauds Knausgaard’s rendering of ‘a marriage in as much detail as any human can bear’. Jonathan Lethem went so far as to write an article in The Guardian entitled “My hero: Karl Ove Knausgaard,” in which he refers to the author as “a living hero who landed on greatness by abandoning every typical literary feint, an emperor whose nakedness surpasses royal finery.”
Lavish praise, but does the book live up to it? Knausgaard has admitted in an interview that the comparison with Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu doesn’t go much further than the two series length and subject matter, and the meticulous record of everyday life falls a long way short of the diaries of someone like Robert Shields, who for twenty five years chronicled every five minutes of his existence in a series of diaries which reached 37.5 million words at the time of his death. Knausgaard isn’t the only contemporary writer to chronicle the banal either; Tai Pei by Tao Lin, published last year, is a nauseating register of the pills, thrills and failures in a young man’s life, which lets the reader get right under the characters’ skins, though the experience isn’t quite as pleasant as in Min Kamp.
The attention Knausgaard pays to detail is extensive, but it is still essentially a highlights reel. In the first volume there is only one reference to toilet use that I could find (and that to pissing, not shitting), and though Knausgaard presumably spent a significant portion of his life asleep, can every second of it have been filled with the symbolic and significant dreams he relates? Long passages detailing washing up dishes or fetching logs from a woodshed are perhaps uncommon in literature, but certainly not unprecedented. Likewise, the book’s applauded honesty is also somewhat overblown. Knausgaard’s life isn’t easy but, at least in volume one, he isn’t particularly reprehensible. Anyone who has lived the kind of normal life described in the book would have to admit that there is a serious amount of shameful stuff the author has decided to edit out; a few references to masturbation and casual bullying at school are not tantamount to unprecedented literary confession.
But as anyone who attempts the series will soon find out, there is definitely something going on in Min Kamp, it’s hard to say what it is, but there’s a good chance its literary genius. Why? One possible reason is that Knausgaard, by going into the minutiae of his existence, is writing the book every reader wishes they could write; a long, deep memoir describing the minor dramas and loves of their every experience, conveyed in such a way that anyone reading feels the power of the moment felt first hand. People often complain of being bored hearing someone else describe their dreams, or the complications of their love life, but when Knausgaard does it he draws comparisons to Proust.
The experiences of the young Karl Ove, his fumbling sexual beginnings, his failed attempt to crash a New Year’s Eve Party, his frustration in knowing that his and his friend’s band is terrible all seem to resonate deeply with readers. Another source of the book’s power is the way it makes the reader reflect on their own life, and see the symbolism and poetry in their own experiences. Reading the book I was suddenly reminded of an afternoon I had spent on Primrose Hill after being romantically rejected, when no less than twelve magpies landed in front of me; not three boys, certainly not four girls nor two “golds,” but twelve sorrows all lined up next to each other. By stirring up such memories inside of us, Knausgaard seems to imply that you too could write such a masterpiece, that your existence is just as interesting, if only you had the discipline to write it down.
It would be false to suggest that the reason for Knausgaard’s success is due to some kind of unintentional magic quality however, or that the genius of Min Kamp is actually the reader’s own genius that the book illuminates. Knausgaard is a deeply perceptive writer, from the opening pages he manages to evoke the characters of his family and the circumstances of their lives so vividly it is, as Zadie Smith puts it, “as if the writing and the living are happening simultaneously[…]you live his life with him.” In an amazing passage at the beginning of the second part of A Death in the Family he describes the moments when the project first occurred to him: “when I got up ten minutes later and went over to the kettle and filled it with water, I suddenly remembered something that had happened one evening a long time ago.” So far, so Proust, but Knausgaard goes on to describe “the atmosphere of that time[…]and with the atmosphere an almost controllable longing.” Knausgaard’s epiphany stays with him and soon he is out on the street, describing the “shouts from the school playground[…] the workmen gathering in cafes and bakeries[…] the nurses and auxiliaries the buses disgorged in front of the hospital” and a dozen other details, all revealed by the author to be part of a mysterious, synchronised quasi-mechanical and hugely affecting (when you stop to consider it) system of motions that make up everyday life.
What is remarkable about this book is how it manages to infect the reader with this sense of epiphany. After reading A Death in the Family for a couple of hours, a walk down the most mundane street suddenly feels like a scene from a musical. Knausgaard has the ability to convey to his readers the beauty of the world as he sees it, the same as any good writer, but what makes him unique is that that feeling doesn’t go away. At the beginning of the book, the idea of five more like it may seem daunting, but by the end, the next volume couldn’t come quickly enough. Perhaps this is an exaggeration, but read attentively Min Kamp gives the reader the chance to live a parallel life, the life of Karl Ove. Perhaps that is an exaggeration, perhaps it isn’t.
Jack Dunleavy is a third year English & History of Art student at the University of York.