From 2009-2011, Karl Ove Knausgård published six consecutive autofiction novels that grabbed the world’s attention and held on tight. Prior to Min Kamp, Knausgård only published one other novel (extensively explored in these books), but the notability of his writing and avant garde approach skyrocketed him to fame. As each of the thirty-six hundred pages of these six novels of My Struggle were released in twenty-two languages worldwide, everyone began to know who this man was.
Learning about these works and understanding their new place in the literary canon through various reviews and interviews I read, I felt like I absolutely needed to give his work a shot. Knausgård joined some of the other voices of the new vanguard of autofiction that included Elena Ferrante and some old original voices like Denis Johnson and Tobias Wolff, but I was daunted by the six-volume commitment. I began the series in February 2015, and just finished my journey in June of 2019 keeping pretty close to the schedule of the releases of the English translations. I found the brutal honesty portrayed in the pacing, content, banalities, horrors, and day to day life of the Modern Man to be a true and accurate portrayal of him opening his veins up and bleeding everything onto the page… and in reflecting on my own masculinity, family, and experience, I found I didn’t want them to end.
In My Struggle, Knausgård examined what it means to write stark truths, and how existence is essentially a reality dictated by our own truth. These truths are affected by our perceptions, experiences, and even the language we use in our everyday lives. The course of reading these six books was a lot like reading a long, undated and swarming diary that I felt was similar to the style of Marcel Proust. Unlike Proust, however, Knausgård had no qualms implicating himself for his misdeeds and torching the lives and relationships of everyone around him. The first five books were mostly autobiographical, exploring the death of his father, his childhood, his teenage years, his marriage, and the years that encompassed his transformation into the writer he became today. Much of what was written in these pages could easily be considered a gorgeous reflection on the life of a man – and in many ways his words and experiences allowed me to feel the guidance of a mentor who experienced life in some of the ways I struggled with in these same periods, and it didn’t mince words or sugarcoat events, thoughts, and feelings in any way. On the other hand, there are many scenes (and frankly, one entire book) that could easily be shaken off as unnecessary. Why did he include those moments? What was the purpose? Was this simply to include scenes and characters that, like a classic Russian novel, do nothing more than create the atmosphere and light communal characterization but nothing else?
By the time I made it to the sixth novel, however, it became very clear that Knausgård was exploring something incredibly fundamental about the nature of the written word, history, and memory. It was the largest of the six, and while he included the same elemental storytelling elements present in the other books, there is a stark difference in the goals of this work. The story contained within was an exploration of the publication of the first two books and how he and his family handled his new responsibilities. The biggest were to those of his family, as most people in his life were questioning his interpretation of events (or if they happened at all). He struggled with his words. He struggled with his children and his wife. He struggled with honesty and transparency, and he jumped. In reality, he was faced with the consequences of his work.
The work also takes a transcendent leap into the history of the rise of the Third Reich, Hitler’s life, and the lens through which he saw the world in Mein Kampf. Almost twenty percent of book six is dedicated to the rise of fascism and the whitewashing of the history of Germany and the world through the writing and actions of a failed painter who went on to a life in politics and murder. Knausgård discusses his reading of the book – a book deeply mired in lies, filth, and self-righteous drumming of alternate realities. Those only showing the reality, relationships, philosophy, and history that this man wanted us to see. In reflecting on these concepts, and their effect on the world as a whole, we are treated to a metaphoric celebration of the mistakes and missteps of our author. We are also treated to the allegorical truth that all of the books were speeding toward for the entirety of the thirty-six hundred pages.
This has an amazing unintended effect – one that Knausgård may have been able to predict when the untranslated edition was released in 2009 as he bridges the connection between Hitler and the far-right Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik. The main course, and perhaps the entire gorgeous thematic core of the book, surrounds Knausgård’s exploration of the truth of his work and how that can be manipulated to the strength of the messages surging across the planet. He presents a searing indictment of the world’s spread of information, manufactured in such a swift time that we are completely powerless to the idiocy of racism, xenophobia, hate, and exactly what led to the grip that nationalist ideologies have on our collective progress. Donald Trump was not President Donald Trump excusing the chants of ‘send her back’ or extolling the virtues of Nazis running protestors over in our streets in 2009, but when the translation of the sixth book was released in the United States in September of 2018, Knausgård reads like a visionary. Knausgård reads like a warning.
Throwing his entire life, relationships, and reputation on the fire in writing his truth, it is clear that this series brings forth something the world has never seen before. His honesty was a mirror and a motivator for me, electric with truth.
Great review, Garrett. And congrats on finishing the books. From what I’ve garnered elsewhere, I don’t think these books would be my cup of tea, but maybe I’ll warm up to them later on in life.
LikeLiked by 1 person