Karl Ove Knausgard is Europe’s latest literary sensation, due to the success of his relentless memoir series. What, in its mundanity, makes it so compelling, asks Paul Ring.
Karl Ove Knausgard
ON THE face of it, it is difficult to describe just what becomes so appealing about reading a six-volume series about the travails of one ordinary Norwegian.
Karl Ove Knausgard has entered the ‘literary sensation’ sphere reserved for those that capture vast swathes of readers, with his My Struggle series becoming a cultural event in Norway amassing sales north of 500,000 in a population of 5m and seeping into the literary landscape across Europe and the US thanks to its translation by Don Bartlett.
The recent release of the fifth book in the series, Some Rain Must Fall has reinforced Knausgard’s position as the poster boy of European literature, nicely dovetailing his very public persona with the other recent darling, the almost anonymous Naples writer Elena Ferrante.
The notion of a literary memoir is not an original one, of course but one with a title of Men Kamp in Norwegian, mirroring the title of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, starts off uncompromising and never deviates.
Knausgard explained away the title by saying he toyed with the idea of other titles and it was a friend who ultimately recommended My Struggle.
He also explained that it was deliberately provocative, a jab to the reader and a show of defiance — despite the fact none of the books contain anything resembling a political position.
He addresses Hitler in a 400-page essay in the sixth book of the series but the title is the title; this is his struggle, a personal odyssey and he would not deviate from the words, he would not compromise despite what it implies.
The experience of reading the series and the central aspect of its appeal has been a tough thing to define.
These are not books filled with elegant prose or crackling dialogue, the diary entry mode of writing quickly comes to the fore, yet as you go deeper and deeper into the narrator’s life you quickly end up needing more.
The novelist Zadie Smith has said she needs the books ‘like crack’ and while the heft of the series and the sheer innovative nature of it lends it to hype, readers have stayed with it.
The My Struggle books are peppered with inane sentences about putting sugar into coffee, chopping vegetables, stubbing out cigarettes, or ordering beer.
These are books that chart the million little decisions that crop up in our everyday life and it’s this seemingly trivial detail that is at the heart of their appeal.
Knausgard is obsessed with the notion of the reader being present in his reality. How much of these books are memory and how much are fiction is a question the author skirts around.
But it is his reality that is the key to its success so when you delve into book one — A Death In The Family — it is not so much the searing honesty about the author’s relationship with his father that necessarily frames the narrative but the motion of cleaning out his father’s house in the aftermath of his death that transports us to the present.
We are there, scratching at stains and scrubbing floors and we are processing a death.
The presence of Knausgard’s father looms over the series and the author’s struggle to escape him almost pervades everything he does.
His crippling shyness and his constant idea that people would be happier if he were not there, his ambitions and failures as a writer and his struggles with how parenthood and marriage affect these ambitions are all poured out onto the page and into our consciousness.
Knausgard’s ability to make us live his life would arguably have struck a chord in any era but perhaps in today’s world where the best of us is shown publicly, he has ruptured a nerve by laying bare his whole being.
Unapologetic sentences are whipped before our eyes as he catalogues how he’s processed grief, anger and an awareness of what to project in social situations.
A project of this ambition cannot be condensed into something as base as ‘that’s so me!’ but there are parts of Knausgard that we can all recognise and while fiction has long made that connection, perhaps in today’s personalised world, the success of Knausgard and to a lesser extent Ferrante is rooted in the unabashed personal, the blurred line between shameless and brave projection.
Knausgard’s struggle is inwards and the neat bow of developed characters and a linear plot was not enough to reveal himself to us. It’s this blurred authenticity that has reeled in readers.
But how much of it is authentic? How are we as readers supposed to wrap ourselves around the consciousness of this man yet not ask how much of Knausgard’s total recall is accurate or fiction? And does it matter?
If the central appeal is him laying bare his innermost demons, we as readers have to suspend our place in Knausgard’s reality and accept that this is still fiction. Nearly all fiction is someway autobiographical, of course, but then most fiction sets its stall out as fiction in the first place.
Where the project begins to stutter is when the reader asks if Knausgard is using fiction to fill the engine of this book, if he is using fiction to describe all of those inconsequential moments that make up the book, is he using fiction in the projection of his feelings?
In Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, the narrator describes incidents that have grown into anecdotes, he defines them as “some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty, if I can’t be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left. That’s the best I can manage”.
When Knausgard is framing the major times in his life such as the death of his father and struggling with fatherhood and love, he does it in the minute detail of two sugars, of setting a rat trap, of ordering a coke, of rolling tobacco, or of putting on outdoor gear.
It is these approximate memories that he has skilfully moulded into the readers’ reality while making us certain of the impressions they have left on him and, consequently, us.
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