#Culture “Book 2 of ‘My Struggle,’ by Karl Ove Knausgaard ” + Press Review

27 Jun
 
 

Book 2 of ‘My Struggle,’ by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Beowulf Sheehan/PEN American Center

Karl Ove Knausgaard

By LELAND de la DURANTAYE
Published: June 21, 2013

 

Why would you read a six-­volume, 3,600-page Norwegian novel about a man writing a six-­volume, 3,600-page Norwegian novel? The short answer is that it is breathtakingly good, and so you cannot stop yourself, and would not want to.

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MY STRUGGLE

Book 2: A Man in Love

By Karl Ove Knausgaard

Translated by Don Bartlett

573 pp. Archipelago Books. $26.

Book 1 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” — published in English last year — begins with an arrestingly beautiful reflection on death which moves seamlessly into the life of a troubled child. (If you are in any uncertainty as to whether the book is for you, simply read this paragraph; if you find nothing there for you then you can set it aside in all tranquillity.) Just as Book 1 of “My Struggle” was about death and family, so too is this second volume, subtitled “A Man in Love.” In it, the master theme of death remains hauntingly present, but it comes to be paired with another: birth and what precedes it. While “A Man in Love” tells of the rapture and intoxication of love, it also turns a cold and at times clinical eye on romantic ecstasy and the marital equation, relating in painstaking — at points ­agonizing — detail the fading of the first flush of love, the cooling and contracting of feeling. Whereas Book 1 was concerned with childhood and adolescence, with learning what death is and what living can be, Book 2 centers on what its narrator calls “the middle of life.” He is careful to point out that while his age (mid-30s to 40) reflects a chronological or probabilistic midpoint, he means the midst of life as much as its midpoint. He is not only well advanced in life, he is surrounded and at times submerged by it, with a growing family: a wife and three small children, each wonderful, each with problems, each with demands. And he is, as we all are, in the midst of life’s minutiae — from cigarette rolling to coffee drinking, diaper changing to dish washing. This wealth of hyper-realistic detail places us in the midst of a life, and gives relief to its moments of passion and despair, insight and confusion, anger and love. Not only this, however, it also presents to the reader the real struggle: how to take all this shifting, teeming minutiae and in it find, and give, meaning.

There have not been very many ­multivolume multithousand-page novels about themselves. But there has been at least one — and a great one: Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.” This precedent finds its place early on in “My Struggle” as an inspiration to the narrator. And, indeed, Knausgaard’s work resembles Proust’s in more ways than one. Early reviews of Proust’s novel praised its writing and reflections and criticized its seeming lack of structure, its digressive meanderings, its interminable dinners. As if in silent homage to that technique, there is a dinner that begins on Page 119 of “A Man in Love,” and on Page 280 the main course (lobster) is still being served. A subtle structure can be mistaken for none at all, a search for lost time taken for random reminiscence, and this subtlety of structure is something Knausgaard’s work shares with Proust’s.

More immediately striking, however, is another parallel concerning the ways in which fiction is born of fact, and the question whether this is fiction at all. As in Proust’s novel, the narrator of “My Struggle” has the same name as the author and seems to have lived much the same life, to have been preoccupied by much the same concerns and to be, as was Proust’s narrator, in search of a subject for his story, which subject turns out to be that very search. Proust changed a great deal — invented or amalgamated places (like the “Combray” of the book’s opening section), people (like the jealously held Albertine) and events (like the dipping of a madeleine in tea, presumably). Knausgaard, it appears, has not — and this has led to threats of legal action on the part of family members and a level of national and international attention such that a number of Norwegian companies have declared Knausgaard-free days during which debate is to be suspended in the name of some modicum of productivity. It is estimated that something approaching 1 in 10 Norwegians have read the book.

Knausgaard has a tremendous essayistic talent, and Book 2, like Book 1, is rich in reflections on everything from the sociology of death to the psychopathology of everyday life. As with all great writers, the ideas or theories are woven into the story, dramatized, and this is as true of the question of what gives meaning as of any other question in the book. Reflecting on the history of conceptions of life and death, Knausgaard asks: “What was man on this earth other than an insect among other insects, a life-form among other life-forms, which might just as well take the form of algae in a lake or fungi on the forest floor, roe in a fish’s stomach, rats in a nest or a cluster of mussels on a reef?” This lowering or leveling of human life is not simply a logical deduction, a search for rational balance, but an intensely emotional expression of fear, uncertainty and longing. If we see ourselves simply as one life form among others, born only to die, “why should we do one thing rather than another when there was no goal anyway, nor any direction in life, apart from to huddle together, live and then die?” At this point Knausgaard’s reflection leads back to its starting place, which is the starting place of “My Struggle,” as the narrator notes that “there were other perspectives on this same world,” and asks, “Couldn’t it be seen as a miracle of cool rivers and vast forests, whorled snail shells and deep potholes, veins and gray matter, deserted planets and expanding galaxies?” It could, he concludes, “because meaning is not something we are given, but which we give. Death makes life meaningless because everything we have ever striven for ceases when life does, and it makes life meaningful, too, because its presence makes the little we have of it indispensable, every moment precious.”

Death can indeed confer meaning this way — as can art. Near the end of Proust’s novel, with what feels to the narrator like death on all sides, he says something exceedingly strange: “Real life, life finally discovered and explained, and thus the only life truly worth living, is literature.” This statement makes sense only if literature is understood in a larger sense than words on a page, volumes on a shelf, but as the making and sharing of meaning. The real and immediate struggle not limited to literature is in giving such meaning — not only the attention and imagination demanded to see the miracles of cool rivers and whorled snail shells, of love found and love lost, death feared and death faced, but the limitless everyday mystery of all that is around, and within, us.

Leland de la Durantaye is a professor of literature at Claremont ­McKenna College.

 
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Reviews of My Struggle: Book One:

 

Winner of the Brage Award, the Book of the Year Prize in Morgenbladet, the P2 Listeners’ Prize, and the Norwegian Critics’ Prize

Nominated for the Nordic Council Literary Prize

A Norwegian Marcel Proust. This nerve-striking, addictive piece of hyper-realism, by the Norwegian Critics’ Prize-winning author of A Time For Everything, has created a phenomenon throughout Scandinavia.

Almost ten years have passed since Karl Ove Knausgaard’s father drank himself to death. Vulnerable and assailed by doubts, he is now embarking on a new novel. With an uncanny eye for detail, Knausgaard breaks down his own life story down to its elementary particles, reliving memories, reopening wounds, and examining with candor the turbulence and the epiphanies that emerge from his own experience of fatherhood, the fallout in the wake of his father’s death, and his visceral connection to music, art, and literature. Negotiating intimacy, love, and fear lie at the heart of his movements and mind as he moves from self-deprecation to self-absorption, from craving solitude to exposing an insatiable need for love and admiration, from alienation to harmony. Karl Ove’s dilemmas strike nerves that give us raw glimpses of our particular moment in history as we witness what happens to the sensitive and churning mind of a young man trying- as if his very life depended on it- to find his place in the disjointed world around him. This Proustian masterpiece opens a window into one of the most original minds writing today.

Listen to the songs that Knausgaard listens to throughout My Struggle.

AUTHOR TOUR: San Francisco, CA; Los Angeles, CA; Seattle, WA; Minneapolis, MN; New York, NY

Listen to the Library of Congress’ webcast featuring Karl Ove Knausgaard reading from My Struggle and discussing contemporary Norwegian literature.

“If I had known then what I know now, then no, definitely no, I wouldn’t dare [write the book],” Knausgaard says in a profile in The Guardian. “But I’m glad I did. I will never do anything like this again, though, for sure. I have given away my soul, in a way.”

Listen to Knausgaard’s conversation with Siri Hustvedt at the NYC launch event.

 

Knausgaard on The Leonard Lopate ShowNorwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard discusses his book My Struggle with WNYC’s Leonard Lopate.

“Intense and vital . . . So powerfully alive to death . . . Where many contemporary writers would reflexively turn to irony, Knausgaard is intense and utterly honest, unafraid to voice universal anxieties. . . The need for totality . . . brings superb, lingering, celestial passages . . . He wants us to inhabit the ordinariness of life, which is sometimes vivid, sometimes banal, and sometimes momentous, but all of it perforce ordinary because it happens in the course of a life, and happens, in different forms, to everyone. . . The concluding sentences of the book [are] placid, plain, achieved. They have what Walter Benjamin called ‘the epic side of truth, wisdom.’


James Wood, The New Yorker

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