Before I became a ridiculously over-zealous fan, I had no interest reading “My Struggle”, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s 3600-page fictional memoir. Who in the world would ever read something so long, much less write such a voluminous text? Brevity is key in this world of 140 character Twitter posts and pithy advertising copy. We want short, to the point, condensed nuggets. Not some self-obsessed writer droning on for pages. I’d heard of Knausgaard following my nerdy literary world of journals and book reviews, but I remained a hold-out, passing up the release of three out of six volumes (yeah SIX VOLUMES). I wasn’t that intrigued, and it always seems that literati has a penchant for male authors who write long diatribes, so I brushed him off as the newest David Foster Wallace. I favored reading contemporary women fiction writers because I had spent my youth devouring all the male literary giants, and so Knausgaard was exactly the opposite of what I wanted to read.
Then I happened upon “My Saga” a sort of travel piece he wrote for the New York Times Magazine about his adventure through North America. I noticed his pictures right away, and he is handsome, in that edgy chain-smoking way that should bore me by now. But what about his writing? I was hooked after I read a few paragraphs. His style is soft and flowing the opposite of Hemmingway but not quite with the frenetic energy of a Hunter J. Thompson rant. He can describe a mundane event page after page, with details and facts that you may or may not need to know. Then he makes a soft turn, very subtly infusing a statement that causes a slow pause, and you begin to understand the purpose of the details and want to know every moment. His scenes of everyday life, don’t necessary prove a point, but sometimes they do support his digressions, it just takes hundreds of pages for the reader to make the connection. In My Saga, I was pulled into a story about his lost backpack, and he writes,
There is a saying in Norway that he who loses money shall receive money, and I think that’s true, because when you lose things, it means you’re not on your guard, you’re not trying to control everything, you’re not being so anal all the time — and if you aren’t, but allow yourself to be open to the world instead, then anything at all might come to you.
I knew what he meant. I could relate, in a way when I was messier, I also had a different energy and felt more alive. Sure stuff got lost, but I wasn’t living in the grips of control. I kept on reading and found his whole botched adventure, insightful in a strange stoic, repressed yet observant, wryly humorous manner. But I didn’t think I’d read his books, it seemed too much of an investment. His stories are about events that are familiar, driving around America, or clogging up a toilet, but then he digresses with insights about literature and philosophy and then weaves his way back to the start.
But then in My Saga, Knausgaard relates a story to the photographer that he is traveling with, about meeting with a famous writer (he is unnamed in this piece, but later Jeffrey Eugenides outs himself). Knausgaard realizes that his silence may have offended the author, and the story picks up here;
Then I realized he must have taken my silence personally. He must have thought I didn’t find it worth my time talking to him.
I wrote back and asked him if he’d seen any Bergman movies? No one talks there either. And Finland was even worse; there, no one ever said anything to each other. I wrote that I’m always like this, that I never say anything to people I don’t know, even when they’re having dinner at our house. He never answered.
“Who was it?” Peter asked.
I told him.
“It’s deeply un-American, you know, not to make small talk. It’s a very important part of the culture of this country. You remind me a little of my dad. He didn’t know how to make small talk, either, when he first got here. Or maybe he didn’t want to. But he does now.”
Now I had no doubt that I must read “My Struggle”. He was pinpointing something that is relatable to me, the trials of an introvert, but he brings in observations that are distinctly not an American point of view. I have noticed this type of interaction and have wanted to write about this very theme. But he encapsulated this struggle, the quiet person versus the incessant American need for small talk, with an exchange and a short interlude to another story. I had to step into his Norwegian world, all 3600 pages!
Because of translation and publishing dates volumes come out in sporadic succession, but I went through the first three books rapidly. But the struggle of being introverted were one of many for the author, who is the main character of his fictionalized version of his memories. And what is a fictional memoir? If it’s confusing, you’re not alone. However, as you read you’re constantly asking yourself, is this his memory, or is it a fictionalized account? Of course, in true meta-fictional style, he as the narrator explores the very notion of memory and false memory. So you get the idea that he is playing with the past at the very same time he writes about his present life.
Aside from his life in Norway and Sweden, with scenes and discussions about the cultures and attitudes in these two countries, he also writes about his successes and struggles to be an author. He has all sorts of bourgeois baggage, that in itself is not that compelling. He has episodes of drinking problems, leaves his first wife, falls in love and marries again, has kids, his abusive father dies, he has a brother and relates long conversations with a close friend. But his intensity about his work, the malleability of identity, and his digressions that somehow touch upon these concepts, make his work compelling.
When I read Knausgaard I see a story every day, all around me, conversations on the bus, the interaction with my mom, my child, and husband. I notice small details, sounds, landscapes, and relationships, and I realize there is so much there, all around me. I kept thinking about all the scenes I wanted to write, connecting ideas or random thoughts. His struggle is inspiring, more so than overly positive affirmations that have become all the rage. When I posted the quote below on Facebook, a friend said, “Ouch.” But I get it, I understand. Right now, I’m more than disgusted with myself that I haven’t written enough and have so much more to write. So I needed this Knausgaardian kick in the seat because I can only be a writer if I write. Simple but harder than you think.
“If I have learned one thing over these years that seems to me immensely important, particularly in an era such as ours, overflowing with such mediocrity it is the following:
Don’t believe your are anybody.
Do not fucking believe your are somebody.
Because you are not. You’re just a smug, mediocre little shit.
Do not believe that you’re anything special. Do not believe that you’re worth anything, because you aren’t. You’re just a little shit.
So keep your head down and work, you little shit. Then, at least, you’ll get something out of it. Shut your mouth, keep your head down, work, and know that you’re not worth a shit.”