Clare Greeman – Opinions Columnist
As the semester shudders to an end, I have been attempting to finish my months-long mission of completing Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle book sextet. In Norwegian, its original language, it sounds much like Hitler’s genocide manual, but to English readers it is simply that: the struggle of a man. Knausgård undergoes no particular hardship, at least none in the way that he is a white middle-class man with no important life events that have defined him up until now. At least nothing requiring six editions.
I, undoubtedly like you, reader, are wondering why Knausgård published an autobiography in six parts and why anyone would bother to read it. About to finish this chapter in my reading journey, I am still asking that myself.
For one, readers much more qualified than myself have said that he has revolutionized the autobiography genre. This is because he writes unabashedly about his highest highs and lowest lows. Even some things he might want to keep to himself in the era of #MeToo and general decency are aired in his highly read titles. His tone shifts are on a dime and his actions seem to vacillate like the swinging of an ax: one such incident is when he makes cuts to his own face while on a night out with friends, and even when penning this, still doesn’t understand why.
Another technique that defies the genre is his shifting of writing styles across these books. Book One is set in modern day where Knausgård switches between modern day where he is experiencing writer’s block in his office, then bounces around between different moments in his life, seemingly following a thin thread between them. During the end, he magnifies the death of his father that happened roughly a decade ago. In his proceeding books, the threads follow more or less linearly and it is clear Knaugård is attempting to focus on one aspect or time of his life.
Beginning in Book Three and continuing onward, he hyper-focuses on different times in his life. He recalls with startling detail moments of his childhood being abused by his father, his time teaching in rural Norway as an 18-year-old, his acceptance into the prestigious writing academy at 19, and then life creeping up into his 30s in Book Six.
The writing style, like his focus, shifts on a whim. Not only is subject matter inherent to him, the progression of the story is similarly unique. These details, especially the incredibly personal and transgressive, were another point of praise for the series.
No matter how much we might know about Knausgård by the end of the series, he still keeps a wall up between himself and us. The writing is blunt and without the floridity of most other novelists, which Knausgård is by trade. So while he might manage to pull us in close, he manages to keep us at arms length.
While he has us here, by the collar of our shirts or the meat of our ears, we might try to escape, but something inexplicable keeps us here. And it’s not just the element of completism that keeps you reaching for the next installment. I began to understand the appeal at the end of Book One.
Knausgård learns of his father’s sudden death; though he knew his father had become a heavy drinker, Kanusgård had no idea the extent until he visited the home where his father died. Until his death, Knausgård’s father lived with his mother and Karl’s grandmother. Inside they found a home smelling of feces with a kitchen covered with grime and a spot on the floor stained with the remnants of his father. After living there for years and drinking all day everyday, his father had broken his leg months before his death and hadn’t moved from his spot on the floor since.
Days before the funeral Knausgård and his brother drink with his grandmother. The beer and the stories of his childhood lure Kausgård and the reader into some much needed comfort after days of horrible imagery and grief. Just as we settle into a cozy scene, Knausgård notices that his grandmother’s hands have stopped shaking. After taking drink after drink, she slowly becomes the woman she was when he was younger. Sitting next to the spot where her son drank himself to death, she and her grandsons drink themselves into forgetting. Knausgård lurches into a moment of horror while the reader can only reel in the terrible reckoning. A cacophony of dysfunction and disgust jars the reader as if we were living that very moment.
Knausgård’s ability to drag the reader through his life, no matter how reluctantly at some points, is what got me through the series. You are strapped into his shoes as he simultaneously lures and repels with a disjointed sensation you miss the moment it’s gone.
So while it is one thing to swear off a six part autobiography, it is quite another to experience a rollercoaster ride of emotion, tone, and style. I recognize that these books aren’t for everyone. Being six books in, I’m not even sure it’s for me. I just hope that more people open themselves up to unique reading experiences, because you might stumble onto something you’ll never have the chance to experience anywhere else.