I have resisted reading the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s work for several reasons. I wasn’t interested in a major dose of navel gazing for hundreds of pages. He seemed to represent the worst of our narcissistic culture, the constant selfies and focus on me me me. Why would I spend hundreds of pages following him through his past memories? What could a Norwegian writer offer me, a naturalized American (Canadian by birth) female of another generation?
Therefore, when my reading group decided to take on Knausgaard, I wasn’t happy about the choice, but I tried not to let my resistance interfere with the book selection. I’ve been mistaken before. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena didn’t interest me at first, but it was one of the best books I read in 2014, along with Traveler of the Century, in importance and depth. So I tried to be open to this new writer (new for me) and his approach to fictionalizing his life. We agreed to read and discuss My Struggle, even though memoir is not an accurate depiction of a person’s past or a truthful depiction of a writer’s historical self. Instead, it’s an idealized rendering that transforms through language what actually happened to someone. The act of putting our memories under the microscope of the pen alters those moments we are trying to capture. I was willing to witness how Knausgaard handled this problem.
The title itself put me off, as did the picture of Knausgaard on the cover. There’s something tremendously egocentric about the title, as if he’s the only one who has had such difficulties. Why should his be any more compelling than some other person’s? And then there’s the picture: Though he’s in his late 40s (I think), deep creases create craters in his face and he stares at us through anguished eyes. It seemed in bad taste to call even more attention to himself in this way.
But I struggled through my prejudices and eventually started reading the 441 page book. My bias put me in an odd relationship to the narrative when I first started reading it. As I entered into Knausgaard’s life as a teenager, I kept asking myself, why am I reading this? What is this writer showing me here that I couldn’t experience more profoundly in a novel? But it wasn’t long before I got caught up in his world and his fraught relationship with his family, especially his father. I was particularly intrigued by how he seemed committed to capturing as many details as possible to relay a particular moment, at times describing in agonizing thoroughness certain scenes. Here’s an example:
“Still wearing the clothes from yesterday made me feel very uneasy, a feeling that grew as the memory struck e of what we had actually done. I pulled them off. There was heaviness about all the movements I made, even getting up and standing on two feet took energy, not to mention what raising my arms and reaching for the shirt on the clothes hanger over the wardrobe door did to me. But there was no option, it had to be done. Right arm through, left arm through, do up the buttons on the sleeves first, then at the front….”
When I later read a critique of a contemporary poet by Tony Hoagland in the American Poetry Review, I realized what Knausgaard was doing. Hoagland says,
“In his novel Slowness, Milan Kundera asserts that if you observe people walking down the street, you can easily tell the ones who are trying to forget from the ones who are remembering something. Forgetting speeds people up; remembering slows them down. In America, in the 21st century, we seem cursed and doomed by amnesia; we can remember nothing. We can’t even remember to look at the present, much less remember the past.”
Knausgaard forces his readers to slow down and join him in reminiscing. He’s saying ‘Look at this with me. Feel it with me. Join in this mutual attempt to recall and rediscover moments that we originally glided over.’ And that, I think, is one major value of his work: we become part of the slow movement that wants our full attention.