Book Review: My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard

How can I discuss these six books without detailing the events of my own life while reading them? My urge to describe myself, and the environments in which I have read each of Knausgaard’s new installments, surely stems from the biographical precedent set in his own writing. His “low-brow,” Anti-Proustian, unwavering look into his own life inspires mimicry because it feels achievable for the writer possessing only the most rudimentary of skills. Yet this ease is a well-crafted facade. Nothing could be farther from the truth than to say what he did is easily done; so, I will not mimic his style here.

Another reason why I see my own life as an essential discussion point regarding this series is that his writing increases the readers’ focus of the present. I know where I was when I read each sequential book. I remember the couches I sat on, and the trees I sat under. 

 “Perhaps the most significant literary enterprise of our times.”

Rachel Cusk wrote these words in 2013. She reviewed Book Two for The Guardian, and with this phrase she promptly established herself on the cover of every edition of My Struggle published from that point onward. I must say that I agree, although I would remove the “perhaps.”

But why? It is a fair question. What does Knausgaard do that is so significant? I shall try to answer this here. Although, know that the same question could be asked of each individual book in the series, and there would be a variety of answers to those questions. But I speak here about the entirety of what I think of as one complete book. What makes this gargantuan of a book so good, considering it is an autobiography of a Norwegian man who otherwise has no significance in the world?

Part of the Main

John Donne, an English poet and Church cleric in the 16th and 17th century, wrote in his very famous Meditation XVII:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

I kept the last few lines in this quotation so we could see the famous Hemingway title in its original context, but for this post we shall only need the first sentence: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

A wonderful sentiment and truth. We are all connected despite how much we tend to think of ourselves as individuals. Consider how much life we spend trying to differentiate ourselves from one another. Buying clothes. Chasing accomplishments. Revising our twitter description. But death comes to us all. And death is not so much a force that brings everyone together, but a reminder that all of the “I“s out there were always already part of the “we.”

Knausgaard understands the bond between us all. I shall discuss how in two regards and then I shall be done for I fear what I have started here is less of a blog post and more of a dissertation. The first regard is a great paradox on can be said quickly: In writing 6 books on himself, a move that many people will never see as anything other than egotistical (irrational as it is), he is able to show us something about ourselves.

The second regard is a literary accomplishment: Knausgaard perfectly understands his contribution to the flowing main of literary history. More than this, his innovative form and voice change that main forever.

Literary Accomplishment

In the groundbreaking, and largely controversial, essay on literature, Tradition and the Individual Talent, T. S. Eliot discusses a distinguishing mark of a great writer, something he calls the “historical sense:”

The historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone.

[After a new work is added to the order] the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.

Eliot writes that when something new is added to the order it changes the old. For example, Jane Eyre was forever changed when Wide Sargasso Sea came out. As a more recent example, Harper Lee’s beloved, unprejudiced character Atticus Finch was forever changed, breaking American hearts every where, with the scandalous publication of Go Set A Watchman. 

Consider the similarity between what Eliot writes and what Donne writes, as quoted above. These excerpts form a mini-lesson about the nature of the literary conversation. Though they write 200 years apart, they are in the thick of it. They are concerned with the same themes. The same ideas. How are we all connected? Donne pointed out the connectivity of humanity, and T. S. Eliot (and others) picked up that thread and built upon it the idea of the connectivity of the literary order.

Knausgaard, unlike other writers, knows he is participating in a conversation. He knows what he is doing, how he needs to add something knew, and how that something knew will change the something old. We may think of his conversation as being with the Nazis, since his title is indeed My Struggle. We may think his literary conversation is with Proust, considering his form is a multi-book autobiographical novel.

These are both true. But to get at just how this book changes the literary conversation, we must see that Knausgaard is not merely responding to the most recent speaker (which would probably be some Norwegian writer I have not read), nor is he responding only the 20th century, but he tries to change and rewrite a thread that began 300 years ago.

His accomplishment is more than simply writing an easier to read form of Proust. I see this series as bringing back from the dead something that has been lost for centuries:

Knausgaard is the 21st century’s William Wordsworth. His insistence on common language, his striving for the sublime, his great knowledge of literature (particularly his interest in Romanticism) all point to this. And this is significant, because as Book 6 reveals explicitly, he longs to rewrite, re-respond to, the Enlightenment. He surveys much of the horrible consequences of empiricism dominating thought. He laments the lost of mystery.

Think of all that would not have happened, had we listened to John Donne, had we remembered that I am not an I, and you are not a you or an it, but we are all we. Knausgaard looks at the horror and the sadness of the 19th and 20th century and gives us a fresh start to begin again.

What is Art?

Knausgaard has said in multiple places that the goal of literature is to create a space in which something can be said. The space needs to be made, the room needs to be created. In his six books, he makes that space for the patient reader. But what he says I cannot tell you. I can only point to Knausgaard’s own definition of art and say he fulfilled it:

Art is what cannot be done again.