Proust in a Cold Climate

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There are a lot of good books out there – more good books than can be read in a single lifetime, especially since the list continues to expand. Why, then, should you devote precious reading time to a six-volume, 3,600-page Norwegian autobiographical novel in which (if we’re being perfectly honest) not much actually happens?

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (the fourth volume of which appeared in English translation in April) is nominally fiction, but its plot conveniently matches Knausgaard’s own biography very closely. It is a surprisingly and thankfully quick read with a meandering narrative that mirrors the plodding pace of day-to-day life. He writes with a meticulous eye for detail, transcribing even the most meaningless of exchanges between people, with the effect that the reader can be simultaneously bored by a particular passage and completely engrossed by the work as a whole.

With this exploded view of the mundane, Knausgaard shows that there is drama, power, and meaning in everyday moments. While the Norwegian brand names and cultural references he includes may be unfamiliar to American readers, the emotions and experiences remain universal. The first volume deals with death – specifically the death of his abusive, alcoholic father and the impact this has on Knausgaard as a young man. The second volume deals with life, telling of the birth of his two children and the not-quite-idyllic domestic existence he shares with his wife, the Swedish poet Linda Boström. The third volume jumps back in time to his childhood on the island of Tromøya, setting the familiar trials of adolescence against the specter of his father.

For all the Knausgaardmania that has gripped the literary world over the past few years, the book is not without controversy. My Struggle (Min Kamp in Norwegian) shares its title with Hitler’s infamous autobiography, Mein Kampf. Although Knausgaard has no intention of aligning himself politically or philosophically with Hitler, choosing to title his work in such a way represents a brash statement. He has also come under fire for his unsparing portrayal of his close friends and family members, particularly his ex-wife and grandmother. The dismissiveness with which he writes virtually all the women who appear over the course of the book can be especially troubling.

And yet, we can still find great value in the work as a whole. Certainly, My Struggle represents a monumental undertaking and a significant aspect of the early 21st-century literary zeitgeist. Like Proust – the original bloated autobiographer – Knausgaard forces us to confront life on both a grand and intimate scale. If its only redeeming quality is to encourage readers to focus a bit more carefully on individual moments and form slightly better memories, then My Struggle is worth its (considerable) weight.

File under Nightstand, Karl Ove Knausgaard

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