You’ve heard of Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian writing sensation? I’ve read several reviews of his six-part memoir, My Struggle (Min Kamp, in Norwegian, which itself caused great controversy, sounding so much like Hitler’s Mein Kampf), and have finally got round to start reading his work.
It’s mesmerizing, really, his day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour account of his youth in rural Norway, his erotic coming of age, his marriage and vocation as writer in Stockholm, Sweden.
It’s hard to account for the pull and power of this work in some ways, as it’s not (quite) fiction and not (quite) narrative. Rather, it’s a memoir comprising meditation and narrative, a melange of forms that seems to derive power from the minute details of the day and how the author reacts to these stimuli. Things that most of us would not notice, or bother reporting, Knausgaard dwells on and develops. His father’s tics and temper, for example. The details of the rocky, wooded topography near his boyhood home. The subterfuges he and his best friend employed, at age 16, to get out of the house and drink beer.
Things that we would repress, too, he hauls up and examines. Indeed, the first volume begins with a macabre meditation on death, the physiology and anatomy of death, the pooling of blood in the nether regions, the “dark, soft patch on ever whitening skin,” the smuggling of the corpse into the morgue, the hiding away of this dark, dirty secret, “the collective act of repression symbolized by the concealment of our dead.”
After the account of his youth in rural Norway, Knausgaard tells of his struggles as an emerging writer. How he gets up, sleepless, in the middle of the night, in Stockholm, while his wife Linda is pregnant and about to have their first child, and sees the police raid the porno store below him. Knausgaard describes how furtive men, attempting to appear normal both coming and going, file into the basement store and then file out. He thinks of the strange communal ritual, though the men don’t seem to acknowledge each other, of plunging down into this underground, selecting a film and a booth, watching the porno, jerking off, using Kleenex to mop up. This too, it seems, is part of the ritual of repression, of avoiding mentioning or publicizing our drives — and our drives’ end(s).
And all the while he’s recounting his struggle to become a writer, Knausgaard is using details of struggles, others’ and his own, as part of his material. There’s some sort of odd parallel between these struggles, in fact. Perhaps he’s saying masturbation for most men is some kind of equivalent of writing for him, or vice versa? Or, more accurately, the longings and dissatisfactions that most of us may take out on our penis, he takes out on, or with, his pen.
Knausgaard has an office 20 minutes from home and, even when Linda is expecting any time, reports dutifully to his office, unpacks his laptop, keeps chugging along on the novel he’s been writing for five years without success.
Is this novel something that he finally abandoned? Did it give way at last to this dreamy, fiction-like memoir we’re reading now? Is that K’s struggle? While others are pounding their puds or their dismal, vain, unpublishable novels, Knausgaard is pounding his head against the wall trying to find the subject that will make him? And discovers only after years of futility that his subject is, after all, immediately at hand? Is himself, the details of his own life?
Of course, all of us have these details at hand. But how many of us make anything of them? We’re not all gifted writers, or painters, or thinkers. We can’t grasp these fleeting moments, before the blood pools, and make sense of them. We’re ordinary mortals, that’s all, with ordinary lives. If only we knew how to tell these lives, not just dart into porno stores, not just scribble nonsense that who would want to read? Who in his right mind? In his busy, dismal, unpublishable life? Who? Who?