I just finished reading My Struggle. Definitely one of my favorite books of the past decade. Or perhaps I should say, six of my favorite books of the past decade, since it’s a six-book series. I feel compelled to write about it, but I’m not quite sure where to start.
First: what is this book? It is sort of an autobiography. Usually, an autobiography is written by someone famous, someone who has some sort of past achievement, and you are reading the autobiography to learn about this achievement. Usually autobiographies are bad, because the author is not a very good writer, they are famous for some other sort of achievement. Knausgaard is a very good writer. And when he started writing this, he wasn’t famous for anything, or at least he wasn’t anywhere near as famous as he became for writing this sort-of-autobiography. He is now famous, but pretty much because this book is so good.
Back to the point of, it isn’t one book, it is six books. Altogether they are 3600 pages long. So it is very long either for a novel or for an autobiography. Sometimes I think of it as “the book” because it kind of works like one book. It constantly goes into far, far more detail than you would intuitively expect. It reminds me of Leeuwenhoek creating one of the earliest microscopes, turning this new tool on a boring drop of pond water, and revealing a world full of crazy little monsters.
Knausgaard captures the mentality and environment from his past, dives into the details, and exposes the most embarassing, most real details. In a normal autobiographical novel, these details would be hidden away. But exposing them is precisely what Knausgaard is after. Hating and fearing his father while growing up, the disgust he feels when his grandmother gets old, the stupid things he did while chasing after girls when he was younger, having trouble masturbating, cheating on his girlfriends and wives, being cheated on himself, being depressed, his family members being alcoholics, being frustrated when his wife was depressed, being attracted to underage girls, mistreating his children, just all sorts of things that it’s hard to believe a normal person would just tell you about himself. And yet at the same time it doesn’t come off like he’s a bad person, at all. He seems very understandable and relatable. It isn’t really a high percentage of bad behavior - it’s more like every couple hundred pages you’re surprised he would admit to something.
To me these weren’t the most interesting parts, either. They are the parts that prove, in a sense, how honest he’s being, and bring more authenticity to the other parts. When he writes about struggling with writer’s block, struggling to write a great novel while spending huge chunks of time dealing with mundane family and children issues, struggling in his relationships with his extended family which are at once critical to him and the source of so much pain, these struggles in one sense are boring because nothing really happens, and in another sense fascinating because he can describe in so many ways how exactly he is feeling and how what at first seems like nothing actually breaks down into dozens of little situations.
Each of the six books covers a different time in his life, not entirely chronologically. One discusses his early childhood, one discusses the time he spent married to his first wife, one discusses the time around writing his first novel, one discusses the time spent as a schoolteacher on an isolated island. I particularly enjoyed the last book, which covers the time spent writing these books themselves. After all the struggles to get past writers’ block, the idea for these books comes almost as a coincidence, and suddenly he finds himself writing easily, writing ten pages a day when earlier in his life he had trouble writing ten pages in a summer. After decades of work, he finds overnight success. He starts to get famous, the people in his life start to get angry that he wrote about them, and finally the book ends at the very moment it is being written, with the past catching up to the present.
One part I was fascinated by is his discussion of the Nazis. After his father dies, he finds a Nazi pin in his belongings. After his grandmother dies, he finds a copy of Mein Kampf in her belongings. And that’s it. He doesn’t know anything else about it. How does he come to terms with this? Is there something to come to terms with? The last book in the series reels off into a literary-theoretical direction a few times, detached from the main autobiographical thrust, like Knausgaard has something else to come to terms with, and this is one of them. It’s like he is asking without answers, what does it mean for an average person of the 1940’s in Norway to have flirted with Nazism? Like he can’t quite bear to connect it with his own family, even after so much personal exposure, and it’s all just a surge of thoughts and questions based on a couple pieces of inconclusive evidence anyways, but he can’t just let it drop without exposing at least his own questioning.
Who should read this? I don’t know. There’s a lot of book here to read. In the end, it is a story of a man struggling to combine his intellectual career ambitions with his identity as a member of his family. By the end of the book, it blends into reality. He succeeds intellectually, in the success of these books, and his family life recedes back out of the public eye.
I feel like I know Knausgaard so well after reading these books, we have almost become friends. If you have the ability to read 3600 consecutive pages on one topic, the topic of Knausgaard’s normal-ish life, I think you will enjoy these books.