Book Review: My Struggle Book 1, by Karl Ove Knausgaard
By Bernie Langs
For several months I had heard chatter about an extraordinary set of books written by an eccentric Norwegian chronicling his life in the minutest detail. There was even one nighttime commute home on New Jersey Transit where I sat and watched a man reading the book in the seat across from mine and I pondered questioning him if it was worth the effort and time to take it on.
My Struggle Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard ended up being a fantastic book and the much-discussed overly detailed remembrances came across to me as the natural power of observation of an extraordinary, unique and creative mind at work. The dynamics of any family are complex, emotional for its members, and more often than not, extremely difficult, and the manner in which Knausgaard presents his family’s relationships teaches harsh and true lessons while keeping the reader absolutely glued to the page. By focusing on nuances and detailed moments occurring decades in the past, one begins to sense the writer’s blurring of fact and fiction, in this case, the loss of distinction between memoir and embellished storytelling. Knausgaard still remained true to the message he wishes to impart.
The landscape of obscure locations in Norway forms much of the backdrop to Knausgaard’s recollections. Fjords, the sea, and even watering holes are present as are the constant reminders of the cold and the snow of the Nordic region. Yet all of that is natural to its natives, while remaining fairly exotic to the readers of the book, who can marvel at names of people and places they can’t even begin to try to pronounce.
Although this first book of many in the series of My Struggle focuses on periods of the author’s time as a boy and teenager, he does jump to other times of his life and we see how the characteristics he displayed early on take on permanence as an adult, and not always in a flattering way. Certain insensitivities as a youth grow into a manner of emotional coldness and removal as an adult that Knausgaard is all too aware of and in some way, ashamed to have allowed to have blossomed.
The underlying key to much of this is clearly revealed to stem from the personality of his father and their odd and complicated relationship. The book moves along and builds to become a flood of emotions based around this man, whom we first meet in the early pages as stern and confident, physically alive but in many ways “not there” emotionally. We then learn of the author’s father’s devolution into a broken individual who becomes an obese, out-of-work alcoholic who has lost contact with his sons and who dies a miserable death.
Here is Knausgaard early in the book discussing his father and “how great the difference was between our days. While my days were jam-packed with meaning, when each step opened a new opportunity, and when every opportunity filled me to the brim, in a way which now is actually incomprehensible, the meaning of his days was not concentrated in individual events but spread over such large areas that it was not possible to comprehend them in anything other than abstract terms.”
When reading My Struggle, I began to think to myself, “This is why I read.” Trying to explain why one chooses to read a difficult book for pleasure can be likened to trying to explain why one walks. You just do it. But it’s more akin to why one takes on a difficult walk or a hike through tough terrain for no real reason except to “get there” and “there” not being a physical destination, but an exhilarated or even spiritual state of mind. While reading books by writers like Knausgaard, Kraznahorkai or Vladimir Nabokov is a struggle, it is somewhat comforting in that they ponder the big questions that dog us all with impassioned urgency and dazzling creativity. The urgency is often driven by the belief that life is fleeting so we better get to pondering and figuring it out as soon as we can. The creativite portion remains, oddly and ironically, the fun and the adventure of it.◉