There are books one reads, and books one talks about. And no one in the literary world these days, it seems, isn’t talking about Karl Ove Knausgaard. The Norwegian author of a six-volume novel, “My Struggle,” has caught cultural fire, a legitimate literary sensation.
He’s done something important, something that stokes the fires of what it means to write the story of one’s life at the same time one is living that life. Love him or hate him, it’s hard not to care about the stakes of the conversation around him — to invest ourselves, collectively, in the delicate, hairy, humiliating, self-aggrandizing project of the Meaning of Life.
The flush of talking about Knausgaard, though, needs to be taken together with the sometimes exhilarating, sometimes arduous act of reading him. There are moments of ecstasy, fevered recognition, astonishing illumination. There are also moments when it’s hard not to light on the worst song George Harrison ever wrote: “It’s going to take time/ A whole lot of precious time/ It’s going to take patience and time/ To do it, to do it, to do it, to do it, to do it, to do it right child.”
The act of reading the novel is difficult to uncouple from the social, collective work of making sense of it. The ambivalence of living with Knausgaardian agony and ecstasy, one might conclude, is the experience of living itself — alone and together, in great slogs and great rushes.
The first three volumes, the third of which has just been published in English, constitute an autobiographical novel narrated by Karl Ove Knausgaard centering on a character named Karl Ove Knausgaard. The story he tells about himself is surely no more dramatic than your own or anyone you know, and the author makes not the slightest effort to harness anything that would resemble plot.
The first volume describes his later youth and the death of his alcoholic father; the second, his marriage and the fathering of four children; the third, his life as a boy. These are the broad strokes, yet much of the actual writing aggregates around minutiae.
Consider, for example, a moment when Knausgaard, has a run-in with a boy at his children’s day care who has “discovered one of my weak spots by taking a bunch of keys from my pocket while we were at the table eating . . . First of all, he asked if there was a car key. When I shook my head he asked me why not. I haven’t got a car, I said. Why not? he asked. I haven’t got a license, I said. Can’t you drive a car? he said. Aren’t you an adult, then? he asked. All adults can drive cars, can’t they? Then he jingled the keys under my nose . . . The other children watched us, the three members of staff as well. I made the mistake of lunging for the keys.”
Outside of himself, no character in this throwaway scene ever makes a second appearance, yet there is something hypnotic about reading it as there is about so much of Knausgaard. What others might cast off, he picks up, wipes clean, narrates in real time, and seals in amber.
The current central prerogative of just about every novel (and TV show and film) is: Keep things moving, make the episodes short, sex it up, raise the stakes, saturate the color. Knausgaard, in this climate, has dared to drill down into the most pedestrian, everyday reality — and also dared to bore the living daylights out of his reader.
Of course, artifice can be beautiful but how bracing it is to read (and feel) as if you are living truly, faithfully, candidly on the inner track of a real and thinking consciousness in more or less real time? Real and hyper-real: the self-reflecting form Knausgaard has invented, featuring a fearlessly flat, semiformal prose, manages to light up the dissonance and emotional charges running deep through everyday life.
To maintain this pitch over so many pages would be impossible, so he mixes it up, channeling the likes of W.G. Sebald, shifting suddenly out of lived reality and into rumination and essayistic extrapolation. The opening pages of Book 1 are a tour de force plunge into a rather large subject, one that, at least on some level, occupies us all.
“The moment life departs the body, it belongs to death. At one with lamps, suitcases, carpets, door handles, windows. Fields, marshes, streams, mountains, clouds, the sky. None of these is alien to us.” After which Knausgaard limns the way death is both repressed at all costs and yet everywhere around us.
He turns this same X-ray vision onto most of the matters that occupy a normal First World life, regardless of significance: diapering a baby, fighting with a partner, bragging to classmates, lusting after a love object, skirting an exasperated parent, going for a run. The feelings Knausgaard FOCUSES on are feelings we have all had, and perhaps — feeling them too trivial or commonplace — ignored.
The gorgeous and comic sentence art of Sam Lipsyte or Jonathan Lethem, the supercharged early ’70s stylings of Rachel Kushner’s “The Flamethrowers,” the well-plotted juggernauts of Jonathan Franzen? In the grips of Knausgaard these writers begin to feel like fun and ultimately forgettable entertainers.
Yet beware. After a thousand pages or so, you come to the heart of “Book 3: Boyhood,’’ where “My Struggle” can slacken into “Your Struggle.” The highly sporadic tension that runs through this volume — can Karl Ove escape the traumatic attentions of his unbearable father? — an eventlessness that you tolerate, and even celebrate, in the earlier “adult” volumes, can become overwhelmed by the concerns of a 7-year-old. The stakes hover close to zero and the narcissism (of which Knausgaard has been accused) turns palpable.
Book 4 comes out in a year, Book 5 in two, Book 6, the longest of them, will take four years to translate and publish. So we face a mountain of Knausgaard, a 3,600-page peak. In our era of the iPhone and Twitter, it feels like a very welcome push back, a very welcome climb — an endurance test for our time.
Ted Weesner teaches fiction writing at Tufts University and the Museum School. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, The Washington Post, and on NPR.