The first book of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume autobiographical novel My Struggle was published in Norway in 2009 and the final volume in 2011. The books have since sold half a million copies there, a number that represents something like one in ten Norwegians. Still, when the first volume of My Struggle was published in the United States last year, translated by Don Bartlett, it was thanks to a small non-profit in Brooklyn called Archipelago Books, which in turn relied upon the New York state government and charitable foundations to subsidize the effort. Narrated by the author, whose family and friends are the central characters, Mr. Knausgaard’s books recount his life in full, from the most banal memories to the most important events. Upon the publication of Book Two and a paperback reissue of Book One by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Mr. Knausgaard has won a very loyal English-speaking readership. It turns out that assembling IKEA furniture while contemplating the meaninglessness of our lives transcends the boundaries of nationality and language. As Mr. Knausgaard writes, “As is always the case with books that seem to be groundbreaking, they put into words what for me had been suspicions, feelings, hunches.”
My Struggle is not a challenging read nor is it especially experimental in style, but it’s easy to see why American publishers passed on it. The first problem is the title. It’s uncomfortable reading My Struggle on the subway. In England they solved this problem by publishing the books with different titles. In an interview with CBC Radio in February, Mr. Knausgaard said he almost called the books Argentina, because Argentina, where he had never been, won the World Cup in 1978, when he was 10. He also likes Borges. I trust all will be explained in Book Six, where Mr. Knausgaard apparently takes 400 pages to discuss Hitler.
Then there’s the book’s self-centeredness: the story of My Struggle is the story of being Karl Ove Knausgaard. Book One describes his childhood and his attempts to understand his father, who declined in middle age from a short-tempered family man to a divorced alcoholic, and who ended his life as a deranged shut-in in a house that was basically a three-bedroom toilet. Book Two, “A Man in Love,” which has just been published, focuses on Knausgaard’s move to Sweden in his early thirties, where he falls in love, has three children, and writes his second novel. Such narrative summaries are only rough approximations of the paths of the books, which move haphazardly through time. Sometimes Knausgaard describes a scene as it happened, recreating meandering conversations in a bar or over dinner, or through diaristic recollections of an outing to the movies or to a party. In other passages he pauses for essayistic considerations of Constable’s paintings, Paul Celan’s poetry, Foucault’s The Order of Things, or the differences between Sweden and Norway. Knausgaard is willfully disinterested in what might be “worth writing about.” No detail is too small, from fashion trends (“She too had knee-high, black boots. It was this winter’s fashion, and I wished it would last forever”), to schedule conflicts (“The clock on the department store wall said ten minutes to three. Perhaps it would be best to have a haircut now to avoid having to rush it at the end, I thought.”) Still, as one of Knausgaard’s friends remarks to him, “You can spend twenty pages describing a trip to the bathroom and hold your readers spellbound.”
My Struggle Book Two begins with a family outing in an amusement park. At Fairytale Land, “everything was of the poorest quality.” Knausgaard cannot see the fantasy of the place. Instead he observes the cigarettes, dinginess, and the details of class and origin that encode the world around him. The family watches a small circus where a “stout manly-looking lady, probably from somewhere in eastern Europe” performs depressing tricks with a small dog and a hoop. They watch a middle-aged fire breather who has “several spare tires rolling over his harem trousers.” A so-called “cowboy town” is “a pile of sand with three newly-built sheds labeled, respectively, ‘Mine,’ ‘Sheriff,’ and ‘Prison.’” The cotton candy attracts wasps, the sun is boiling hot, the children are overexcited and Knausgaard’s coffee tastes bitter. The ponies at the pony ride stubbornly refuse to walk.
The children take no notice of these details. They are enthralled, and the parents humor them. They keep their irritation with each other and with their offspring at a low simmer. When one of his daughters pretends to be invisible, Knausgaard dutifully pretends not to see her.
This introductory scene might seem slight, but it contains the themes that most concern Knausgaard over the course of thousands of pages. The difference between what Knausgaard notices in the amusement park and what his children do speaks to the difficulty of connecting our present selves to our own memories. “From my own childhood,” he writes, “I remember only a handful of incidents, all of which I regarded as momentous, but which I now understand were a few events among many, which completely expunges their meaning.” As always in Knausgaard the presence of death and decay looms over bland, everyday things. It’s also a scene about identity formation, and the extent to which any action on his part can alter his children’s growth. “In abstract reality I could create an identity, an identity made from opinions; in concrete reality I was who I was, a body, a gaze, a voice,” he writes. “That is where all independence is rooted.”
Mr. Knausgaard’s writing is entrenched within the body, bounded by his own form’s perceptual limits, where any idea of continuity of the self is only an abstraction of the body’s passage through time. “For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops,” wrote Mr. Knausgaard at the beginning of Book One. Insofar as there’s a compelling narrative tension in My Struggle, it’s here: physical life, while finite, propels him relentlessly. The heart’s metronomic constant sustains, but it also confines: what Mr. Knausgaard documents is its ceaselessness, and the accompanying observations, thoughts, and opinions that cannot be turned off, stowed away, or influenced into more seemly directions. This is not “stream of consciousness”—Mr. Knausgaard does not play with language to construct an unending barrage of perception—but rather a more orderly recreation of the spectrum from monotony to eventfulness in any given life, accomplished through pages and pages of monotony alternating with pages and pages of eventfulness. Through its size and scope but bounded by the phenomenological experience of one man, to read My Struggle is to trap oneself in another person’s heartbeat-bound life—a reading experience that offers a window out of one’s own similarly limited experience.
The rest of the book tells the story of Knausgaard’s evolution from ambitious young writer in Bergen, Norway to family man in Sweden. Knausgaard moves to Sweden after the failure of his first marriage. At the time, he writes, “I weighed 101 kilos and had no hope for the future.” Over the course of the next few months, Knausgaard finds an apartment. He begins running in the park. He reconnects with Linda, a woman with whom he fell in love at a writer’s retreat in Norway several years before. That encounter ended with a melodramatic display of self-pity—Knausgaard broke a glass and then cut his face with it, much to everyone’s embarrassment. This time things go right: now Linda loves him back. They move in together and she becomes pregnant with their first child. Knausgaard writes his second novel, which turns out to be more fulfilling than having kids. Then, second and third children follow. Being a stay-at-home dad, as Knausgaard was for some time after the birth of the first child, did not suit him very well. “As a result I walked around Stockholm’s streets, modern and feminized, with a furious nineteenth-century man inside me.” By the book’s end, the fury has abated. He likes being a dad, but it’s not enough.
Knausgaard acknowledges that lofty questions about finding meaning will make some readers scoff. “For who brooded over the meaninglessness of life anymore?” he asks. “Teenagers.” This does not deter him a few pages later:
Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or made me happy. This had nothing to do with lack of desire to wash floors or change diapers but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts.
Art frees us from sameness; without it we are trapped within our own material circumstances and our own cognition, but what works once to take us beyond ourselves becomes artificial and inadequate over time. In Knausgaard’s world, which despite being in Stockholm is altogether too much like Brooklyn, a defamiliarized perspective no longer exists in physical space. “Whereas before man wandered through the world, now it is the world that wanders through man,” he writes. My Struggle, then, abandons the search for an outside, presenting instead a comforting stream of familiar experience, “in which the perfect contrast between the coffee cup’s cold, hard, white stoneware and the coffee’s hot, black liquid was only a temporary stopping point on a journey through the world’s noumena and phenomena.”