“Seems like in death, we all become our perfect self.”
-Stereomud, “Perfect Self”
I finished My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard. It was exhausting. It was an accomplishment.
At the end of the sixth book, the Norwegian author stated, “I am no longer a writer” (p. 1052).
I am no longer an ordinary reader.
My Struggle, or Min Kamp, should not be confused or compared to the most recognized European work with the same title, Mein Kampf. Knausgaard’s struggle has nothing to do with Adolf Hitler’s struggle from a philosophical aspect, so you’re able to continue at your leisure. Phew.
There are, however, two curious similarities. First, the style must be addressed. They are both autobiographical. Second, the key antagonist, if we were to classify a real-life character as such, is the father.
The controversy surrounding the book isn’t in its title, but rather the full disclosure of the author throughout the text, and the inclusion of his family and friends as the cast. Knausgaard’s My Struggle is a series of six volumes forming one immense piece of work. The books were published in Norway from 2009-2011, and have been translated into 35 languages. More than half a million copies of the 3,600-page novel have been sold in Norway alone.
In 2012, the books began to appear in English and each volume was released in year increments. By 2018, the sixth and final installment was made available and I instantly purchased my hardback copy. However, with grad school set to begin in 2019, and with the looming combination of academic text and heavy autobiographical philosophy, I decided to pause my reading of the latter.
Two winters and a global pandemic later, I started the end of this specific literary journey. It took me nearly three months to complete My Struggle Book Six, but the eagerness was worth the overwhelming distraction, the sometimes dreadful anxiety was relieved with small situational climaxes, and the closure, well, it will always remain a thought.
Though the struggle the reader absorbs is Knausgaard’s, there is relation in the prose. Not specifically or literally per se, but rather one’s comparison to the stressors of daily life and how an upbringing shapes an individual.
Whenever I read a volume, timing was everything, and I was enthralled from the beginning. It seemed to move with my life, or at least the lasting memories, current idiosyncrasies and future perspectives. For example, in book six, my wife and I had just been discussing what traveling with two children would be like after we are comfortable battling the tail end of the pandemic, and, sure enough, the section I read the next day involved Knausgaard, his wife at the time, Linda, and their children navigating through an airport.
That, however, is just coincidentally anecdotal. But such is life. Major similarities include the dialectal closeness of our names, the fact that we are both authors (one being much better than the other), we are both fans of soccer and have both broken our collarbones playing the sport. Not to mention our obsession with music, the minuscule and immense aspirations of adolescence, complete existentialism and death.
Perhaps the reason I latched on to Knausgaard’s journey was because I was always given a fitting line at the perfect time. Or perhaps I see a common bond through my own literary fiction—or my own life.
I’m more of an author than a reader, and that has nothing to do with desire and motivation, but rather time. I am one who is always battling time. Therefore, I know what genres I’m genuinely drawn toward. Autobiographies are one of said genres.
My Struggle has been labeled as autobiographical fiction. This is part of the names used and perhaps the jumbled memories of the author. However, it’s not a fantasy, everything is based on Knausgaard’s life as he remembers it. If you can find me a person who says they remember every precise detail of their life, then you have found me a liar.
In episode six (how delightfully accidental) of the television series Clarice, a therapist says to the mentally-damaged young FBI agent, “Everything is tinged with experience.”
In other words, experience may slightly alter fact because it can tend to be viewed subjectively. That raises the question: Is anything truly an autobiography then? Which also raises another question: Is most literary fiction autobiographical? Authors tend to take situations from real life and insert it into their prose when the genre calls for it. However, it’s safe to say the answers to both are yes and no.
That didn’t clear anything up.
Knausgaard’s style can be maddening to some readers. Some become exasperated with the excessive use of minute details, but there is valid reasoning to such confidence in filler and fluff. The strange double standard is that over-describing is allowed in some genres and not others. I’ve heard readers complain about autobiographies or literary fiction having too much detail, but then they love epic fantasy. Each involves a world you nothing about and yearn to discover, so why should it be stereotyped, and therefore only permissible in one genre or the other? Writing is writing. Creativity is creativity.
As an author, I believe that every single word matters to a story, and you must love every word or it doesn’t belong. In a discussion I had with esteemed novelist Leslie Epstein, he said, “About cutting, you can be ruthless. Look closely at the passages you love the most; the reason you love them may be because, like one’s favorite child, they are the weakest. Out they go! Just make sure the storyline is clear and that reader will never be confused.”
Epstein also shared a quote from Rudyard Kipling, “It’s like poking a fire, no one knows you have done it but when people enter the room the flames are burning so much more brightly.”
Sometimes the fire is a bonfire, or a massive blaze consuming a city in the case of My Struggle. Every word is needed, and it is intimate to the author no matter what Knausgaard claims.
Book six is a different animal than books one through five. Knausgaard’s life was on full display in the prior volumes and it led readers to this point—the point of publication and revelation. We followed him through his adolescent years, adulthood, childhood, the various phases of fresh independence when life’s complexity is commonly exaggerated—which continues until maturity settles the fire.
Readers know everything about Knausgaard, from his reliance on cigarettes and coffee to the daily paths he strolls and the views he observes to even the most personal and intimate details of his life such as how successful his bathroom breaks and battles with sexual desire are. We become him, but he is us.
The main difference between books one through five and six is he was a nobody, just like us, and now he is writing as a somebody, unlike us. Yet, though that would seemingly eradicate this bond that had been formed between reader and author, person and person, Knausgaard’s style keeps him exactly as we know him in book six: human.
This is why the finite details are so important and should not be considered fluff or filler. He must prove that he isn’t an esteemed author, but rather just a man. It’s almost as if he is guilty, as if he abandoned humility, and us in the process, and must maintain and prove his worth as an everyday person. It would be daring to call it Christ-like, but wrong to leave that comparison out.
This is also something Knausgaard is used to doing: self-modulation. Strangely enough, and to counter my own point, self-modulation is actually the opposite of how people view their lives in the modern era of being “social.”
That is beside the point, however. The middle section of book six is where we find an unnecessary exaggeration by Knausgaard to prove said worth. We experience his love of literary analysis first-hand, which is greatly appreciated. As he works us through Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Hamsun, Mann, Faulkner, Dostoevsky and Dante, and inserts Hamlet and Don Quixote comparisons wherever he can, we delve more into not only his life in the literary world, but his passion.
Yet, he still downplays his importance in that very world by stating, “This is the novel’s basic constraint, chained as it is to life in the social domain, the way people are to each other, and the minute the novel departs from that human world and ventures into the nonhuman or the beyond-human of the divine, it dies.
Music can express it, and painting too, since their forms are wordless, their language another and nameless, as removed from the ‘I’ that employs it and the ‘I’ that perceives it as figures in a mathematical formula. Reading a novel after having listened to Bach’s cello suites is like leaving a sunset to descend into a cellar. The novel is the form of the small life, and when it’s not it is because it’s being deceitful and is no true novel at all, since no ‘I’ exists that isn’t small too” (pp. 425-426).
He’s implying that he is small life. Then, he takes something he isn’t strong at, analyzing poetry, and dissects the importance of individual entities in a a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, which leads to another analysis of a Paul Celan work which transitions the word “ash” from literary line to tragic representation—which then leads the reader to the most controversial part of the entire six-book journey: Hitler and the Holocaust.
Yes, Knausgaard analyzes and picks apart Mein Kampf, but not only the words, but rather the life of the author.
He said of the work, “I usually always sniff the books I buy, the new ones as well as the old, putting my nose to the pages and breathing in their smell because I associated that smell, and the smell of old books in particular, with something good, that element of childhood that was unconditionally pleasurable. The adventure, the abandoning oneself to other worlds. But I could not do that with Mein Kampf. The book was evil, in some indefinable way.
Hitler’s book is no longer literature. What later happened, what he later did, the axioms of which are meticulously laid out in that book, is such that it transforms the literature into something evil. Hitler’s Mein Kampf is literature’s only unmentionable work” (p. 493).
It was a heavy experience for there were excerpts shared and history remembered. It went on for 353 pages and felt like an academic text. As Knausgaard searched for the meaning of evil, “you” and “I,” he wasn’t necessarily providing us with his exceptional analytical talents, but rather his defense. In his analysis of “I,” he is the literal and figurative “I” in every form. He needed to prove to himself, not us, that he could review and understand poetry; he needed to prove to himself, not us, that there’s no ideological similarity between Min Kamp and Mein Kampf; he needed to prove to himself, not us, that his novel, his glorious accomplishment, was truly relevant and remained chained to life in the social domain.
He needed to prove to himself, not us, that he’s just a man living his life.
And that’s why this book is beloved. He is us.
What is on the surface, a simple tale about a life that not many people would consider fascinating, is somewhat what My Struggle can be considered even after dedicating your time, part of your life to his 3,600 pages.
I always remember when I ordered the fourth volume from Barnes & Noble. The woman who was checking me out said with sarcasm on full display with no intention to be hidden, “Still going on about his struggle I see.”
Reference my aforementioned counter-point.
These unnecessary exaggerations to prove one’s worth aren’t actually a counter-point, you see. We all self-modulate below the book cover. It’s life. Knausgaard is infected with self-doubt from an insignificant being to the limelight and spent anxious years writing a book about him and his father.
There’s not much to analyze because of the way My Struggle is written. Knausgaard puts everything out there for the world to absorb—attempting to make analysis almost impermissible—similar to what we experience on social networking, but in single form. In the “I” form. He is constantly on the defense, guarded, vulnerable, as if he was on trial as we all seem to be.
My Struggle is needed. It’s brilliant because it’s human. Yes, it was about the “I” but it became “us.” What Knausgaard did for himself, what he did for the world, is greatly appreciated and will go down as one of the most significant pieces of literature in our history.
Thank you, Karl Ove Knausgaard.