“You feel you are absorbing the complete portrait of an entire life.”—Jeffrey Eugenides, author of Middlesex on Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle.
If you’re a reader of the Harry Potter books, or Jodi Picoult and Nick Hornby novels on a regular basis, my guess is you don’t know Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian author who has been compared to Marcel Proust. I am not trying to be smug or pompous. This is not to say one author is better, greater, or more literary than the other, but rather a matter of genre and style. It’s more about what one wants out of a book. It’s like expecting someone who listens to Metallica to know all the lyrics of a song by The Decemberists. It’s simply unlikely. Still, I think it’s time the reader of popular fiction gives Knausgaard a real shot.
Karl Ove Knausgaard has received international attention over the last several years for his six autobiographical novels of 3,600 pages, titled My Struggle. Yes, that sounds daunting. But stick with me on this.
If you are unfamiliar, Knausgaard wrote the works in a flurry of personal reflection. As he has said himself, he wasn’t worried about being “literary” or “”perfect” in his writing or concerned about making beautiful sentences or staying within conventions. He simply wanted to get the story out, to break away from the traditional norms of the “novel” and permit the rawness of a personal story to be the real star. In some ways his approach is Kerouacian and as critics have said is reminiscent of Proust’s seven volume work, titled In Search of Lost Time, a work considered fiction but also believed in many ways to be autobiographical.
My Struggle has sold more than a half million copies in Knausgaard’s home country. Considering Norway is a nation of only five million, that’s quite a feat. It’s become so popular there, some offices in Oslo have declared Knausgaard-free days when no one is permitted to talk about his books in the workplace.
To be clear, Knausgaard’s work does not only resonate in Norwegian. The English translations are just as addicting. American novelist Jonathan Lethem has called the installments “spellbinding.” But again, not in the sense of a popular novel, a suspenseful page turner, or a wizard-driven phenomenon. Knausgaard is more about the personal details of a life that achingly resonate with all of us.
However, not all agree. Some reviewers have labeled the books flat and superficial, not unlike Truman Capote’s slam on Kerouac’s On the Road: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” If you are a regular reader of popular fiction, Knausgaard may be an acquired taste, like good whiskey. But if you can see the art in a life and the shared struggles of growing up, parental missteps, and the scars of addiction. If you can relate to the details of youthful shame, unfulfilled familial love, believe in the beauty of the ordinary, and share the longing of discovering where one fits in the world, then I urge you to try Knausgaard. Sip him and let the words warm you. Do not be overwhelmed by the thickness of the volumes. Do not turn your head because the story was first a Scandinavian phenomenon and not an American one. Simply accept the shared humanity of My Struggle.
Knausgaard has been in the news and his books in discussion since 2009, so why only now do I encourage you to read him?
Question: Would My Struggle be as meaningful and impactful with the passage of time?