For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops.
These first two lines of My Struggle Book 1 by Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard caught my interest, such that I read the book over the holidays till the first week of January, when I stopped on p. 350- the scene in which the author and his older brother remove garbage and feces their recently dead father left behind in their incontinent grandmother’s house- after finding it too depressing to continue.
Here are some more lines that express the author’s worldview:
…but what I learned was that also our ludicrously inconsequential lives, in which we could not attain anything of what we wanted, nothing, in which everything was beyond our abilities and power, had a part in this world, and thus also in the supreme, for books existed, you only had to read them, no one but myself could exclude me from them. You just had to reach up.
One transcends the dreariness, pain and meaninglessness of everyday life by writing (and reading) about it, Knausgaard seems to say. And write about his life he did: My Struggle consists of six volumes or books, 2,600 pages all in all. Although described on the back cover of Book 1 as fiction, the author who is now in his forties has revealed in interviews that the series is autobiographical, filtered by memory but still based on actual people, places, and events in his life. He has said My Struggle is “kind of a midlife-crisis novel.”
Book 1 describes stages in his life that he develops in the subsequent five volumes: his late childhood, when he was cruelly teased by his father for a speech defect (not being able to roll his “r”s); his adolescence, during which he often got drunk on beer and experienced premature ejaculation while making out; his parents’ divorce (he suspected his mother was physically abused); college, when he felt he had no friends and followed his older brother around; and adulthood with the dissatisfaction caused by having kids to look after while trying to find salvation in writing.
Beyond the first person point of view, My Struggle is similar to Sterne’s Tristram Shandy in the way it plays with the concepts of time and consciousness. Knausgaard doesn’t follow a strictly chronological narrative. He lingers over details of some events (such as his juvenile attempts not to get caught drinking alcohol one New Year’s Eve) and just briefly mentions others (like the time his mother kicked him out of the house after her divorce). The narrators of both books also claim to have written them quickly without much editing.
My Struggle seems to have gotten inspiration from Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past that Knausgaard mentions in Book 1.
Knausgaard’s vivid and easy-to-read descriptions of his external and inner worlds make up for his anxious, depressing tone. Take this description of the Betamax that transported me back to the 1980s:
He pressed STOP and then REWIND….
The video machine click-clacked a few times while emitting some tiny hydraulic whines until it was ready to start, and the tape began to whir backwards with ever-increasing speed and volume until it came to a stop well before the end, whereafter the last part rotated extremely slowly, in a manner reminiscent of a plane which after flying at breakneck speed through the air approaches the ground at reduced speed and brakes on the runway, and then calmly and carefully taxis toward the terminal building.
Perhaps when I’ve already achieved calm with two months of daily Zen sitting, I can finally sit down and read the last 90 pages of Book 1.