Struggling Through Karl Ove Knausgaard

Let’s be clear. There is no way I’m reading all 3500-plus pages of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-part novelistic memoir—there are, simply, too few reading hours in the day to devote such a share to a single writer. I did make it through the first 200 pages, about halfway through the first volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle—a title which has to be tongue-in-cheek, because, duh, Hitler, and, not to mention the fact that over the first 200 pages, Knausgaard doesn’t struggle much—oh, his parents decide to divorce around page 170, so I guess that’s some struggle, but other than that his youth is pretty ordinary, with the exception that he lives in this ancient, familial house in the lonesome and cold, white-washed Norwegian countryside.

My partner and I read the first 50 pages of book one, aloud to each other in the park. “It’s supposed to be really good,” I told her. The English translation was a New Yorker book of the year and sold like Beyoncé in 21 of the 22 languages it was translated to, the exception being French, a language with a literary tradition of autofiction, making Knausgaard’s novel/memoir hybrid seem less…novel.

The cover of book one is compelling: a closely cropped shot of Knausgaard’s brooding face, deep creases set into his brow, a streak of grey in his untamed mane. This man had struggled. If the title hadn’t announced it, the author’s worn, wise, and yes, still very handsome face promised as much.

Page one of 3500 begins strong, with Knausgaard waxing philosophically on life and death: “For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can.” After a few pages of this, the book devolves into a painstaking account of the daily rhythms of boyhood, including a long discussion about the different ways his parents prepared lunch, his father fixing sandwiches one way (“Dad did everything: when we came into the kitchen there were two glasses of milk and two plates, each with four slices of bread plus toppings waiting for us.”) while his mother prepared them a different way (“If Mom was at home there was a selection of meats, cheeses, jars on the table, hers and ours, and this small touch, which allowed us to choose what would be on the table or on our sandwiches, in addition to the bread being at room temperature, this was sufficient to engender a sense of freedom in us.”).

At this point, my partner suggested we take a break from reading.

“Are you bored,” I asked.

Yes,” she said. “It’s really boring.”

“It’s the most boring thing I’ve ever read,” I said.

Karl Ove Snoozegaard, we joked. This was the type of writing that would get torn apart in a workshop. Cut 10 percent? Try 30 or 40 percent. Knausgaard’s face on the cover no longer brooded, it mocked: “I can write about the kind of sandwiches I ate as a boy and still this book will sell. Still your favorite authors will worship at my altar.”

I read a bit more on my own. When was this guy going to start struggling? I demanded to know and so I kept reading—just last night, I couldn’t sleep, too much coffee too late in the day, and, given the option of popping in an old VHS of Seinfeld or getting up out of my bed, walking across the room to my desk and finding the copy of Knausgaard, well, I chose the latter, returning to Knausgaard’s bore-core, reading about the first time Karl Ove smoked a cigarette in front of his father and how as a teenager he couldn’t open a beer bottle with a lighter—a source of great shame for him—instead using his molars to wrench off the cap. As I read, I developed an insatiable thirst for Knausgaard’s patient, plodding storytelling.

“I just read 200 pages and I need the next volume like crack,” Zadie Smith tweeted about the first installment of My Struggle.

I have just read 200 pages, greedily, and have come to a screeching halt. What am I doing reading about this guy’s life? I should be writing about my own life. What am I doing wasting all this time? (Even now, a voice begs, Please, stop writing this review. Go. Write. Tell your story. You must. There is so much to tell and so little time. There isn’t enough time. 3500 pages. One could write endlessly about their life, my God!).

And this is why every writer needs to read Knausgaard, if even just 200 pages. Reading his work becomes generative. “My Struggle” is a six-volume lesson in mining your life for material. Knausgaard picks up where Proust left off, reminding us of the detail at which we can imagine and re-imagine the narrative or our own existence, reminding us of our own private reservoir of memory and story waiting to be tapped.

Jason Thayer is the co-Editor-in-Chief of Blue Mesa Review. His fiction has won contests judged by Antonya Nelson and Bret Lott, respectively. You can read his stories published in Hobart and The Rumpus. When he isn’t writing, he is recording bleak and unusual hip-hop. 

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Jason Thayer