on May 1, 2012
Knausgård's first volume in his 6 volume My Struggle has finally been published in English. This is one of the most successful books ever published in Norway and deserves a wider audience. Book One introduces us to Knausgård's life with his recollections of his earliest memories through his teenage years. The second half, focused on arranging his father's funeral while finishing his first novel, deals with his complicated relationship and feelings about his very strange and pathetic father.
The series itself is a strange venture. On one level it is simply a memoir by a 40 year old writer who has achieved great acclaim in Norway (but is almost unknown outside the Scandinavian countries). On a more lurid level, it is a "reality show" in book form, its essence being a brutally honest intrusion into the author's life, and more notably, the lives of everyone around him. But the value and genius of this book is that Knausgård has an extraordinary ability to articulate the feelings and perceptions of ordinary people as they live their ordinary lives, make choices, and deal with the consequences of those choices. His self-awareness is refreshing and hilarious. Poetry in prose.
The book was released this morning. I intended to read a few pages this morning, but was unable to put it down. It is that good.
I read a lot of Norwegian literature in translation and Don Bartlett, the translator, is one of the best. He has always impressed me with his focus on retaining the feel of the original language and did a great job with My Struggle.
Here's hoping Book Two is published soon.
on June 2, 2013
Novels are often autobiographical, and memoirs usually have as much fiction as fact. So what is Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle? It's clearly his personal story, told in a hyper-realistic manner. When I saw him in conversation with James Wood in September 2012 at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, he said yes, of course this is a novel, not a memoir: he uses the techniques of a novelist. But it's something simpler than that: it's an extremely effective piece of storytelling, the elemental kind that is how we make sense of our lives.
Why should readers care about the story of Karl Ove's life? It's not that it's in any way remarkable, though it certainly has its personal dramas. No, it's the almost guileless realism that drew me in--all the small details that make up our everyday lives that rarely get acknowledged in books, but which completely resonates at some deep inner level. And while there are passages where the writing is plain--no other word for it--often Knausgaard is employing the careful wordcraft of a skilled writer more concerned with telling his story than showing off his chops. In doing so, he gets to the heart of being in all its everyday ordinariness.
Knausgaard spares no one in his family in this portrayal, least of all himself. We see family scenes from his childhood, a long section from his teenage years that's blissfully free of moralizing or wallowing in self pity: it's simply life itself.
But ultimately the book is about death, and what that means for the living. My Struggle opens with a meditation on life's end, and the heart of the book recounts Karl Ove's week after learning of his father's death, most of it spent at his grandmother's fetid home in Kristiansand, a town on the southern coast of Norway. It was here that his father spent the last years of his life, slowly drinking himself to death. Karl Ove and his brother Yngve slowly clean out the stinking house, tossing reeking clothes and furniture, scrubbing for hours on end, and trying to understand their grandmother, who found their dead father, her dead son.
It doesn't sound like promising material, and should by rights be downright depressing, but it's not. Every detail is described with care; the story is more like a painting of an old Dutch master, rich in intricate and mundane detail, sparing nothing, engrossing us, leaving us wanting more.
Why does this book work so well? Why did I look forward to reading another 20 pages every evening? I think somehow Knausgaard has managed to make his struggle universal through all the small details that accumulate into the larger whole. That includes his own follies and failures, his self doubt and fears, and yet also a confidence that he will make it through to the next day, the ultimate struggle for all of us.
Each little moment he describes is a moment of awareness of the present. Perhaps that's why it captivated me: all too often, we go through our days unaware of the moments that make up our lives, lost in thought, focused on the future or the past. Knausgaard describes a relentless present, something that we mostly forget in our own daily struggles.
This definitely isn't a book for everyone; if you want plot development and action, look elsewhere. But for me it was rich, rewarding, thought-provoking, and ultimately moving.
on August 20, 2014
This series starts off gripping the reader: I was enthralled for the same reasons most other reviewers seem to indicate. As the pages flew by my interest started to wane slightly. I became mildly self-conscious. Am I a stereotypical American in need of constant neurotransmitter candy, clearly defined endings, a return to the tonic at every chapter's end? I loved Bolano and a handful of other 1000 page doorstops and prolix jeremiads. I soldiered on, and on, and on. Banal. Solipsistic. Ennui. The criticisms from other reviewer come to mind and echo my sentiments somewhere around the three-quarters point in the first book.
The writing is good, clever at times. Knausgaard can no doubt throw a yarn. The voice is honest - with the caveat that it is a first person narrative - and vulnerable at times. He's going to invite criticism: from people whose private moments are laid bare, from readers that have invested so much time and feel cheated, from readers that think his life is trivial, his problems typical, and his achievements modest. There is a fluidity to his writing that dupes the reader into persevering. Had there been technical halts in the writing, discontinuities (e.g. numerous chapters), visual hiccups (e.g. footnotes a la DFW), and other assorted non-linearity, I believe the growth in popularity would have stunted. The title was also a brilliant marketing tool. It forces a self-deprecating writing style lest the author is perceived as pompous. My Struggle isn't some auto-hagiography. Knausgaard avoids this with his honesty and introspection albeit as days turn into weeks turn into months.
In Information Theory there are ideas related to compression, complexity, and entropy that in simple terms say that the amount of order contained in something determines how much you can reduce it into something smaller and simpler. So, for instance, the simplest representation of a perfectly random string of characters may be the string itself. Conversely another string of the same length with non-random repeating elements may be able to be represented as a fraction of the length while preserving all of the original information. My feeling with the 3600 pages of My Struggle is that if we stuffed it into a black hole and let it try to chomp all the bits of information down until it was pure information we'd still be left with 3600 pages. However, if we tried the same experiment on the ideas contained in the novel we'd be left with a page. This is a microcosm of what the NSA must deal with everyday: the curse of dimensionality. Wanton context free information. The human brain has evolved over the millennia to parse and weed out information that isn't germane to survival. Writing has the difficult task of adding some of this mundane information back in to create plausible, colorful, dense, and engaging stories. Some writers are masters at talking about the color of a plant (cf Nabokov). When the sink is thrown in it might as well be what is sometimes called "f-you literature". Franzen's first rule is "The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator." Pynchon and Joyce can get away with throwing ciphers at the reader, making them feel stupid. In a similar way Knausgaard achieves the same alienation of the reader but via a totally different method: tedium.
on May 1, 2014
The first book of the autobiography is entitled A Death in the Family. The whole work is entitled "My Struggle" after Hitler's Mien Kamph. I understand why there is talk of the Nobel prize. And the talk of the Nobel prize is all the more piquant since Karl Ove thinks that to be awarded the Nobel prize for Literature is that greatest disgrace that can befall a writer. I really enjoyed it. It is full of thought about art, theology, beauty, philosophy and just life in general. He is a hyper-educated man. Self-educated as far as I can gather. He seems to have done a Fine arts Degree, but that is all as far as I have been able to discover. He looks as if he could kill small children with his deep wrinkles and "lived-in" looking face, wild eyes. The first book spends a lot of time describing his teenage-self. It is strangely, wonderfully ordinary. All the teenage things - like buying beer and trying to hide it from his parents etc. It is interesting and not at all pretentious. Yet, there is something about this child that is not at all ordinary. He records things. I showed a friend a section where he muses on paintings and I had a bit of trouble getting the book back from him. A meditation on Paintings and theology. Just fascinating.
I have finished the second volume. I just could put it down. The second volume starts describing his life as a young father. I just read it all night. I had about 2 hours sleep. It deals with changing nappies, pushing baby buggies around, going to nursery school with his toddlers and meeting the other parents. All the other parents he tries very hard to keep his distance from. He is a most fascinating person. He weeps like a child at the drop of a hat. Amazingly sensitive and yet so senseless and difficult. The reviews say that his first wife read about how he felt when he left her for his second wife along with the whole of Norway and she demanded that he do a public interview with her to answer her complaints. He did so and the article I was reading said "He did not acquit himself well." I looked it up on the net, but it is in Norwegian.
He reminds me of that series of interviews that Anthony Clare (the British Psychiatrist) did with a string of famous people. Germaine Greer, Ertha Kit, Ken Russell and others. Soon it became obvious that there was something very wrong with these high achieving people. They all claimed to experience shame, but they were ashamed only before themselves in a totally narcissistic way. No one else's opinion on the planet really mattered because they were locked into a battle with themselves. They thought it perfectly sensible to go on BBC radio and confess themselves and the difficulties of their families to an audience of the entire world. In a paradoxical way they were only interested in their own suffering and that is what motivated them to become great artists. Total egoism and madness. Something missing in their poor heads that enables them (forces them) to do these amazing things that the rest of us benefit from. The reviews said that reading My Struggle is like reading someone else's diary and discovering all your own secrets there. Just what was said about Proust. These writers think about themselves all day (as we all do) and they use the art as therapy. Too bad for everyone else in their families. The rest of us suffer the same griefs and so on, but we don't let it take over our worlds. We are not quite so damaged as to become completely selfish and self-absorbed. We can, as Freud puts it, understand our lives as "ordinary, every-day unhappiness". These people believe there is something almost sacred and noble about the quality of their suffering (there isn't) and they devote their lives to turning it into art. That they can turn it into art which we can all learn from is what makes it sacred. Not the suffering itself. It is just the ordinary suffering and boredom etc that we all endure and cope with. Except their way of coping is to turn it into art. Van Gough for example.
I read an interview done with Karl Ove and it seems that he has no (or very little) understanding that he has done anything wrong and betrayed his family, his wives, his children his friends. He just does not recognise the boundaries. He tries to understand because the world is in such an uproar about his work and he tips his hat in the direction of understanding by saying in a puzzled tone "It is sort of immoral in a way". But the "in a way" reveals that he doesn't really understand it. He is his only judge and he does not think he has done anything wrong. He has internalised his father's censure. I don't like him much; he would be impossible to live with, but I understand him and have enjoyed his work. Not that he would care about that - he is his only judge.
on July 19, 2014
This autobiography begins compellingly and ends solidly, and in between it is often stupefyingly boring, banal, flat, repetitive, and pedestrian. Its prose style is ordinary, especially when it is rendering daily experience, and the only parts that sparked real interest, at least for me, were its occasional essayistic passages on literary themes or mortality. But its pronouncements are often, when you think about them, ridiculous and transparent efforts to make claims for his own work.
Here is a sample. "Literature. That is its sole law: everything has to submit to form. If any of literature's other elements are stronger than form, such as style, plot, theme, if any of these overtake form, the result suffers. That is why writers with a strong style write bad books." Give that Olympian pronouncement a moment's thought and you'll see how absurd it is - Cormac McCarthy, Louise Erdrich, Nabokov, Junot Diaz, Updike, Franzen, St. Aubyn, McEwan, Chabon, Toni Morrison - pick any from a long list of distinctive voices and styles. They write great or near-great books, and style dominates them.
I can think of no recent book that has had a stronger press and offered a poorer actual reading experience, at least to an American audience. Katie Roiphe's thought experiment in Slate about what if Knausgaard were a woman, would anyone care about what he wrote is an interesting one. "I don’t think we would be able to tolerate, let alone celebrate, this sort of domestic diarylike profusion from a woman," she concludes. Well, I am here to say that its hard to tolerate, period.
on April 28, 2015
PLEASE NOTE: This is not a review of the WORK, which I happen to think is very good, but of the PHYSICAL OBJECT that is the Hardcover Archipelago edition. I have given it three stars so that it will not affect the overall rating of the title to any great degree. There are countless professional and amateur reviews superior to anything I am capable of writing. This is to guide you on your purchase decision of a particular edition.
There is something quite awry at Archipelago Books. Perhaps they were not expecting such a success with this title and have had to ramp up production. I like this book (the work) so much that I want to keep it around and reread it, fill it with marginalia, etc. And I bought the other three volumes available as of this writing. However, I quickly noticed that they have some of the worst quality control I have ever seen.
In volume one, two parts of the binding known as the "headband" and "liner" game free of the binding glue and fell out completely (see photo). Now, the headband used to be a spot where the threads from the signatures were gathered up in nice sewn books, but now it is basically a fake cosmetic flourish. But I've never had it some off completely like this on a brand new book. This probably won't affect the longevity of the glued binding in any way, but the small visible air bubbles in the glue and the way the case wiggles around doesn't inspire confidence.
In volume four, some of the front pages became folded apparently before they were cut, so I will have to take a razor to them (see photo). This is not that big of deal, but I have only seen it maybe once or twice before on all the books I own. To have both of these defects arrive from the same book series at random in an amazon order tells me it is highly likely that corners are being cut (or rather, NOT being cut).
On the plus side, the signatures appear to be sewn (although they are then glued together), and I like the visual design of the covers and endpapers, although the almost square form factor is not to my liking, but at least unique.
Anyway, point is, you might want to pick this up at a physical bookstore if you are a perfectionist/collector. If you are not a perfectionist or sensual bibliophile you might want to just buy the paperback or (license) an electronic edition if/when available. Or better yet, support your local library. I, personally, will still buy these and just hope they hold up, but I hope Archipelago gets its act together.
Please promote awareness of book quality. When publishers hear from enough customers demanding such quality, they will make different manufacturing decisions.
Amazon was kind enough to let me return my copy out of the 30-day return period. I ordered another copy. Guess what. Same exact defect, and right out of the box this time. I will probably keep this one since it doesn't seem worth the effort; this seems to confirm that Archipelago has a significant issue, and my problems were not merely anomalies.
on December 15, 2012
This is one of the best novels that anyone can come across anywhere. Spine-chilling. But readers and buyers must be aware that this book "A Death in the Family" is exactly same as the other book sold at Amazon which goes by the name "My Struggle". Same translation by same Don Bartlett. Actually "My Struggle" is a series of 6 autobiographical fictions, of which the Part I has been published under two names and the Part II is forthcoming (advance booking at Amazon has already started).
So just be careful about not buying the same book twice. The name "My Struggle" follows the original which is "Min Kamp." Of course it is largely about a death in the family - death in its closest details that you would ever read - but where the book title "A Death in the Family" has come from, I have no idea.
Anybody who has not bought this book as yet, just go buy it and start reading it and finish it in 15 or so sittings over a 10 day or so period and feel exhilarated, feel that perhaps after a long long time you have read something which is clearly a masterpiece. Anybody extra interested about such melancholic, brooding meditations over life and death, please also read Rainer Maria Rilke's only novel "Malti Laurids Brigge". James Wood in New Yorker mentioned this while he reviewed "My Struggle" recently, and I bought Rilke's and read that too in the footsteps of "My Struggle" and found Knausgaard's more intense and more disturbing while Rilke's more "modernistic" and more philosophically challenging.
on November 19, 2014
I was looking forward to reading this, as well as the other volumes, given the spectacular reviews. My findings? Is there any honesty at all left in professional reviewing? Now, readers all have likes and dislikes. For those readers who loved this book, I'm happy for you. But we are going to have to agree to disagree, and severely. James Wood says My Struggle is about "the ordinariness of life." In saying this, Wood believes we should read it. I disagree in spades.
Why is this man's life any more interesting than any other man's life? There are close to 7 billion souls on earth. Are we to read everyone's story? What is it that makes us want to read some stories, and not others?
That is a question Ove Knausgaard simply fails to consider. To call him an abject narcissistic is to give narcissism a bad name. And yet that may account for many of the positive reviews. Narcissists love narcissists, and we live in an age of them. Others have mentioned Proust. To speak of this unformed blather in the same universe that Proust inhabits is to liken Taylor Swift to Beethoven. Proust, like Joyce, turned his life into fiction. Ove Knausgaard tries to do likewise.
He makes a fundamental mistake: not everything is interesting. The writer must make it interesting! If you lived 50 years and filmed every second of it, how in the world would such a movie be of interest to another person? If you edited it, focused on the highlights, made it into a STORY, then perhaps you might have something.
The writing here is dull. So boring. Or at least I found it so. When the author writes about death, he never comes close to what Sebald accomplished in The Rings of Saturn, a far more deeply-felt, beautifully observed book. I can't begin to tell you how utterly pedestrian this book is. The author, apparently, sees himself as some kind of deep thinker. If this is what passes for deep thought these days, then Western civilization is closer to doom than even I think it is--and deservedly so, if this is high art.
Armed with "reviews of the Century" from the New Yorker, The Telegraph and the Economist that by innuendo equate Knausgaard's' magnum opus "My Struggle" with the inimitable Proust, I settled into Vol 1 as a major reading experience with Vol 2 - due to be released next Tuesday - on preorder. Well I tried and tried, there were moments that gave pause for reflection, some that were energetic, some informative of the Scandinavian life style but in general the text is banal and pedantic. The exquisitely detailed and well written paragraph (or was it a half page?) on the rewinding of a video cassette didn't quite hold me spellbound and I had repetitive thoughts that this was not quite the autobiography that it has been cracked up to be. I'll stick with my madeleines and have already canceled the order for Vol 2 - life - apart from Karl Ove's- is far too short.
on May 24, 2015
Is it possible that this book has become highly regarded, despite its lack of any literary quality, because the reader, faced with its utter banality, realizes his life is at least as interesting, if not more so, than the author’s? And since the author’s prose is so commonplace, the reader feels he can write just as well? And that this puts him on the same plain as the author, who is the new literary lion? And that this has fed his need for self approval and that therefore this book must be great since it’s really about ‘me.’ And finally, doesn’t the reader feel that he’s superior to the author because the reader is, let’s face it, cooler than the author (who also can‘t write)?
Nowadays, when there is no informed audience for literary writing a guy with a ’sensitive’ mug and a very European name who writes long, narcissistic tomes can be marketed as the new Marcel Proust. Isn't it possible?