It took me four months, but I finally finished Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume autobiographical novel My Struggle. For the uninitiated, Knausgaard’s magnum opus is 3,700 pages long, making it the longest book I have read to date. It is also one of the twenty or thirty best, most compelling books I’ve ever encountered over the course of my lifetime as a reader.
Knausgaard’s mission in writing My Struggle is simple. He wishes to write his life story in meticulous detail while also inflecting his prose with a style usually reserved for fiction. Due to the scope of this epic work, Knausgaard is often compared by reviewers and critics to Marcel Proust. It seems to me that, at least stylistically, the two have little in common. Knausgaard’s short, usually comma-spliced statements when recalling his life are the furthest thing from Proust’s long, flowing, grammatically tight sentence structure. But in terms of their shared interests in memory, detail, and how life events can or cannot be encapsulated in a piece of writing, Knausgaard is clearly the Proust of our age, if Proust had long hair and listened to Echo and the Bunnymen.
For Christmas last year, my longtime girlfriend got me a copy of Volume One. I quickly read the first anecdote of the book, wherein Knausgaard describes an evening he spent as a child, frustrated that his parents did not see the same unusual image on a television newscast as he did. It is impossible for me to explain why this scene affected me in such a profound way, and to do justice to Knausgaard’s unapologetically long-winded descriptions would be impossible for a short-format blog like this one. All you need to know is that I was hooked. From that point on, I devoured every stage of Knausgaard’s life with a great deal of interest and often intense emotional reactions. The frustrations of one’s personal shortcomings as an inexperienced writer, the thrill of moving into one’s own apartment for the first time, the gut-wrenching horror of playing in an amateur rock band to an unenthusiastic crowd and an angry stage manager—every reader will likely have a different set of Knausgaard’s memories they find to be the most entertaining, but I suppose that is because when we read about the milestones of Knausgaard’s own life, we are inevitably reminded of our own similar struggles and successes.
Knausgaard holds nothing back and frequently includes thoughts, feelings, opinions, and actions from over the course of his life that reveal him to be a selfish, unfaithful, and often unethical person. My Struggle contains within it a great deal about the ethics of literary representation and about the author’s role in including his peers’ positive and negative traits in a bestselling book for all to see. For example, Knausgaard recounts the ongoing legal battles against his own family for disparaging his father in his memoirs. We should not read My Struggle looking for some moral yardstick by which to come to a conclusion about what constitutes moral human behavior. What makes My Struggle a masterpiece is not its author’s personal decisions but rather his ability to capture the totality of one’s individual lived experience with all of its highs and lows, its formative experiences and trivial mundane occurrences, and trivial mundane occurrences, and its constant shifts back and forth between feelings of optimism and hopelessness. For this reason alone, it must be read.
Due to the breadth of Knausgaard’s focus, I feel that I now know the man better than I know some of my good friends. He has somehow figured out a way to divulge every detail of his life while making it compulsively readable in spite of the huge commitment it takes for the reader to go along for the ride. Anyone interested in how to write memorably about one’s own interiority would do well to sit down with Volume One and see if they find the intimidating reading experience to be one worth struggling through.