For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops.
– Karl Ove Knausgård, Min Kamp
It seems, beyond all reasonable conjecture, that the latest literary sensation is not epic fantasy or young adult drama or even adult colouring books, but something altogether new and unexpected — a Nordic fictional memoir in six volumes.
You heard right. A six-volume memoir. Why, you may ask, would anyone’s life be worth six volumes of text, let alone someone who is only several decades into his life? And then, more to the point, why on earth would anyone want to read the whole damn thing?
This puzzle, it seems, is as much a key to the appeal of the series as anything else. The curiousity. The bewilderment. The furrowed brows.
I’m talking about the rather subversively titled My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgård, the fifth book of which has just been translated into English, and it has the literary world all a-flurry. Because anyone who reads it is quickly absorbed, Harry-Potter-style, into committing obsessively to the entire oeuvre whether they want to or not.
There is something curiously addictive about Knausgård’s bare-faced yet lyrical approach to retelling his own life, where the most innocuous of childhood events, such as seeing a story on the news or making a pot of tea, becomes an enchanting tribute to the beauty and mystery of the everyday, strung into a long-form narrative that veers at times into complex philosophical musing and at others into simple recitation. You could say reading My Struggle is akin to watching autumn leaves twirl in the breeze, if now and then the autumn leaves paused to reflect on the existential metaphors of their own behaviour.
Knausgård roughly centres the series around the death of his father and the ongoing evolution of his relationship with the man, even after the event, while also chronicling his own journey into adulthood, negotiating the twin torments of self-destructive addiction and vast literary ambition. In writing so vividly about his close friends and family Knausgård attracted immense controversy after publication of the first two volumes (in 2009), and the fallout from the media exposure had significant impact on many of these people. This in turn informed on the development of the later volumes, so the series became a strange sort of real-time literary Ouroboros.
In reading this monumental work of intimate disclosure, the old cliché becomes starkly unavoidable. You cannot help but see yourself in the text — in the insecurities, faux-pas, self-vilification and small, precious victories of Knausgård’s journey, equal parts painful and profound. His unadorned vignettes will help you understand your own shrouded motivations and personal flaws in much clearer prose than you could find in your own journal.
However, the consummate grace of My Struggle is that it provides an all too necessary antidote to the emotional over-manipulation of the bleak thrillers, bloody crime, spun-out fantasy or erotic voyeurism that dominate today’s bookshelves. It is a breath of fresh air in an increasingly smoggy literary atmosphere, and well worth its (considerable) weight in gold. Do yourself a favour and settle down for an immersive, Proustian experience. Preferably with pancakes. You won’t regret it.