An absolutely exhilarating ride through one man’s memoirs that breaks as many conventions as it makes up on the spot. Karl Ove Knausgaard, you may have heard, is Norway’s literary cause célèbre – though, having myself lived in Norway for 15 weeks this most recent summer, the reports of him being omnipresent and discussed ad nauseum there are fully overblown. Most people don’t read good books, remember? That said, his “Min Kamp” - yes, that means “My Struggle,”, and yes, he’s well aware how the title helped drive much of the book’s initial hoopla - series of six volumes of personal memoirs had sold extremely well there. As of this writing, the first three volumes are available in English and are getting raves everywhere, including from me. This book is straight-up my favorite thing I’ve read in two years, easily.
Let’s marvel at it all a bit before digging in. Knausgaard wasn’t, before these book, famous in any way; his experiences in “My Struggle, Book One” aren’t particularly unique nor exceptional; and the guy’s even younger than I am by a couple of years, having been born in the very late sixties. Yet his prose is absolutely pulse-quickening no matter how prosaic the subject matter. Knausgaard brings details of his childhood and current life as a parent of three children into being by hypnotically weaving in everything from his life’s most minute details to grand theories of death, art and existence. Death, in fact, is the key theme of the book – mainly our hypocrisies in how we describe it, sanctify it and shrink from it. The second half of the book is almost entirely about his own father’s death by alcoholism, and how Knausgaard and his brother Yngve worked to bring some closure and order to the house in which he violently died. Detours are taken throughout, without warning, sometimes returning to a theme being explored, sometimes not. One goes deep into an unrequited teenage love affair, another into early life as a cultural aesthete, trying to be cool and yet a stolid “writer” in the Norwegian city of Bergen, and still another into his utter terror of his father’s judgment and reproach while growing up.
His somewhat masochistic relationship with his brother, whom he adores, is especially poignant, and arguably the best part of a nearly perfect book. Visiting Yngve at his university in Bergen while Karl Ove was still in high school is utterly life-changing, and the distance between his idealized self there vs. the reality of his humdrum life back in Kristiansand is mammoth – which helps set him, clumsily, onto the literary path he ultimately followed. Taking place in the 80s as much of this does, Knausgaard is even a bit of new waver, and self-consciously styles himself after Ian McCullough from Echo and the Bunnyman. Once in Bergen, he writes for various music and literary magazines, and interviews bands like Wall of Voodoo and Tuxedomoon. One story of interviewing Norwegian poet Olav Hauge is hilariously tense; a tale of three college kids trying to wrest information from a cantankerous literary lion that somehow comes out all right in the end.
There are several things working for Knausgaard in Book One that make his stories so wildly compelling. First, their universality. He describes teenage years in ways so familiar, I frequently wished I’d been taking notes on all the things I’ve been slowly forgetting over the years, in hopes of trying to wrestle the same action-packed punch from the seemingly mundane. Second, his own character. This is a man who fails, tries to learn from it, fails again, and yet he does not suffer from false modesty on many fronts – nor is his book a litany of problems. Quite the opposite. He loves his children, but in a riveting section of this book enumerates his own shortcomings and the nerve-rattling impatience his own brood bestows upon him. He mostly does the right thing by his wife and his family, but lays out some of his frustrations for having done so out on the page. His father drank himself to death, and he’s horrified by its circumstances – but also hints of his own issues with alcohol, which one assumes will be a subject in later volumes. One gets the sense of an ethical, introverted, exceptionally smart everyman who happens to have immersed himself in culture and ideas without at all being a pompous prick nor a navel-gazing mess. The moment I finished “My Struggle, Book One” I put it down and headed to the laptop to order “Book Two”, which I plan to devour as soon as it arrives. I shall report on it in this very space, presently.