Monday, March 9, 2015

My Struggle, Volume I by Karl Ove Knausgaard

I hadn’t really thought to read this despite it being “the” book of 2012, but I read the article he wrote for the March 1, 2015 NYT Sunday magazine, Part I(!) It was the funniest thing I’d ever read. Here is an author whose linked novel/memoirs has taken the literary world by storm and he is showing his utter unpreparedness for that world and the interactions it requires. I wanted to see if that tongue-in-cheek droll self-awareness was his constant subject.

As it turns out, Volume One of his six-volume memoir cum fiction is much more than that. It has a vibrancy, truth-telling honesty, and relevance far beyond anything I expected. And the writing…well, the writing was involving and exacting…and addictive. For a man who doesn’t like to talk to strangers, he does an awful lot of talking to strangers.

My Struggle Volume I begins with a discussion about death and how the dead have been removed from our purview, we lucky ones in the Western world who do not experience street conflict. This is precisely the thing I have been mulling over lately, so he drew me in with his talk of death rather than put me off. Without even a pause or a section break from our dip into death’s icy waters in the first pages, Knausgaard relates a news event in his childhood he watched on television, in which some newscasters showed the waters of a fjord, explaining that some Nordic fishermen were lost on a ship that sunk without a trace. His parents had laughed at his eight-years-old imagination that he had seen a face in the waves on the newscaster’s film shot. He returns to that humiliation again and again as he grows older, for the sense of having seen something and the shame of having been laughed at never leave him.

There is a circular momentum to his narrative (a circling-the-drain quality, all facetiousness aside), for he returns to the death of his father in the second half of Volume One. But first we learn his age (39 years), and learn of his marriage, his children, his attempt to create something important, circling back to begin at the beginning, his birth and childhood. Knausgaard as a teen is not to be missed. The second half of the book is consumed with his father’s death, which occurred just before he turned thirty. When viewing his father's corpse he writes: "The idea that I could scrutinize this face unhindered for the first time was almost unbearable." Unhindered? What a remarkable thing to say. But, he goes on to say, "I was no longer looking at a person but something that resembled a person." His father, with all his personality, strengths and failures, was gone.

The very ordinariness of his days, and of his detail about those days makes the novel/memoir something extraordinary. Knausgaard says in a Paris Review interview that he was trying to get the detail "as close to life as possible," so we shouldn’t feel surprised to experience a palpable peristalsis of boredom followed by intense interest and inescapable need. The interminable house cleaning and grass mowing…we feel those details in our exhaustion, repugnance, and need to escape. The accretion of detail, the structure, the language…all of it add up to something impossible to put down and impossible to forget.
"But as anyone with the least knowledge of literature and writing—maybe art in general—will know, concealing what is shameful to you will never lead to anything of value."--Paris Review interview

Karl Ove, the narrator, shows us how he is his father’s son. He claimed to hate his father, but he loved him, too, and was more like him in his reserve than he dares mention. But we see it. We never get a clear or complete picture of his father--his father as son, his father as husband, as teacher, as neighbor--but the moments of his tenderness and of his decline flash from the book like beacons.
"But still, there is much more to a relationship than what you can say. You just take one more step back into yourself. I’ve never understood psychoanalysis. Mentioning things doesn’t change anything, doesn’t help anything, it’s just words. There is something much more deep and profound to a relationship than that. Revealing stories and quarrels—that’s just words. Love, that’s something else."--Paris Review interview

Observing Knausgaard’s intense reluctance to self-reveal in ordinary day-to-day interactions and conversation, one has to ask why Knausgaard wrote a book like this. The answer comes in a thousand ways, but it revolves around the breaking of accepted patterns, of standing outside so as to observe and understand more deeply, of the spaces between things, like language…what it doesn’t describe, what it can’t catch. "Writing is more about destroying than creating." He seeks to make an experience, rather than just describe one. Well, he’s done something provocative here, and it is absolutely an experience reading this book.

Review of Volume 2
Review of Volume 3
Review of Volume 4

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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