“It’s not everyday you get sent a masterpiece to review.” So began one glowing review of My Struggle by Karl Knausgaard.
I just finished Book One and enjoyed it very much. For this book to work for you as a reader, you have to be all-in on absorbing the minutia of Knausgaard life. I was. I enjoyed the endless micro-details, and the occasional thought-bombs — or longer meditations — on life, parenting, relationships, death. There are moving passages on fatherhood and his struggle to balance having a family with his professional ambitions as a writer. He writes compellingly about his craving for his own father’s approval — and the damage his alcoholic father wrought on his own emotional stability.
There are countless reviews online of a book that has become beloved by so many in Scandinavia and in the States. Here’s one summary of the “movement” that is the My Struggle series. My Kindle highlights are below.
For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops. Sooner or later, one day, this pounding action will cease of its own accord, and the blood will begin to run toward the body’s lowest point, where it will collect in a small pool, visible from outside as a dark, soft patch on ever whitening skin, as the temperature sinks, the limbs stiffen and the intestines drain.
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. “Family” was one such term, “career” another.
Then one day we reach the point where all the necessary distances have been set, all the necessary systems have been put in place. That is when time begins to pick up speed. It no longer meets any obstacles, everything is set, time races through our lives, the days pass by in a flash and before we know what is happening we are forty, fifty, sixty.
The only thing that does not age in a face is the eyes. They are no less bright the day we die as the day we are born.
[When his kid stuck out her tongue.] There has never been so much future in my life as at that time, never so much joy
For, while previously I saw time as a stretch of terrain that had to be covered, with the future as a distant prospect, hopefully a bright one, and never boring at any rate, now it is interwoven with our life here and in a totally different way. Were I to portray this with a visual image it would have to be that of a boat in a lock: life is slowly and ineluctably raised by time seeping in from all sides.
As I write, I am filled with tenderness for her. But this is on paper. In reality, when it really counts, and she is standing there in front of me, so early in the morning that the streets outside are still and not a sound can be heard in the house, she, raring to start a new day, I, summoning the will to get to my feet, putting on yesterday’s clothes and following her into the kitchen, where the promised blueberry-flavored milk and the sugar-free muesli await her, it is not tenderness I feel, and if she goes beyond my limits, such as when she pesters and pesters me for a film, or tries to get into the room where John is sleeping, in short, every time she refuses to take no for an answer but drags things out ad infinitum, it is not uncommon for my irritation to mutate into anger, and when I then speak harshly to her, and her tears flow, and she bows her head and slinks off with slumped shoulders, I feel it serves her right. Not until the evening when they are asleep and I am sitting wondering what I am really doing is there any room for the insight that she is only two years old. But by then I am on the outside looking in. Inside, I don’t have a chance. Inside, it is a question of getting through the morning, the three hours of diapers that have to be changed, clothes that have to be put on, breakfast that has to be served, faces that have to be washed, hair that has to be combed and pinned up, teeth that have to be brushed, squabbles that have to be nipped in the bud, slaps that have to be averted, rompers and boots that have to be wriggled into, before I, with the collapsible double stroller in one hand and nudging the two small girls forward with the other, step into the elevator, which as often as not resounds to the noise of shoving and shouting on its descent, and into the hall, where I ease them into the stroller, put on their hats and mittens and emerge onto the street already crowded with people heading for work and deliver them to the nursery ten minutes later, whereupon I have the next five hours for writing until the mandatory routines for the children resume. I have always had a great need for solitude. I require huge swathes of loneliness and when I do not have it, which has been the case for the last five years, my frustration can sometimes become almost panicked, or aggressive.
Time is slipping away from me, running through my fingers like sand while I … do what? Clean floors, wash clothes, make dinner, wash up, go shopping, play with the children in the play areas, bring them home, undress them, bathe them, look after them until it is bedtime, tuck them in, hang some clothes to dry, fold others, and put them away, tidy up, wipe tables, chairs, and cupboards.
Looking back on this, I find it striking how she, scarcely two years old, could have such an effect on our lives. Because she did, for a while that was all that mattered. Of course, that says nothing about her, but everything about us. Both Linda and I live on the brink of chaos, or with the feeling of chaos, everything can fall apart at any moment and we have to force ourselves to come to terms with the demands of a life with small children.
And at least as corrosive is the awareness that I am dealing with children. That it is children who are dragging me down. There is something deeply shameful about this. In such situations I am probably as far from the person I aspire to be as possible. I didn’t have the faintest notion about any of this before I had children. I thought then that everything would be fine so long as I was kind to them. And that is actually more or less how it is, but nothing I had previously experienced warned me about the invasion into your life that having children entails. The immense intimacy you have with them, the way in which your own temperament and mood are, so to speak, woven into theirs, such that your own worst sides are no longer something you can keep to yourself, hidden, but seem to take shape outside you, and are then hurled back.
If Heidi sleeps in the car we go to a café with Vanja, who loves the moments she has alone with us and sits there with her lemonade asking us about everything under the sun: Is the sky fixed? Can anything stop autumn coming? Do monkeys have skeletons? Even if the feeling of happiness this gives me is not exactly a whirlwind but closer to satisfaction or serenity, it is happiness all the same. Perhaps even, at certain moments, joy.
And isn’t that enough? Isn’t it enough? Yes, if joy had been the goal it would have been enough. But joy is not my goal, never has been, what good is joy to me? The family is not my goal either. If it had been, and I could have devoted all my energy to it, we would have had a fantastic time, of that I am sure.
I do everything I have to do for the family; that is my duty. The only thing I have learned from life is to endure it, never to question it, and to burn up the longing generated by this in writing. Where this ideal has come from I have no idea, and as I now see it before me, in black and white, it almost seems perverse: why duty before happiness? The question of happiness is banal, but the question that follows is not, the question of meaning. When I look at a beautiful painting I have tears in my eyes, but not when I look at my children. That does not mean I do not love them, because I do, with all my heart, it simply means that the meaning they produce is not sufficient to fulfill a whole life. Not mine, at any rate. Soon I will be forty, and when I’m forty, it won’t be long before I’m fifty. And when I’m fifty, it won’t be long before I’m sixty. And when I’m sixty, it won’t be long before I’m seventy. And that will be that. My epitaph might read: Here lies a man who grinned and bore it. And in the end he perished for it.
Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows.
Until now, I thought, observing the crowds circulating in the concourse below. In twenty-five years a third of them would be dead, in fifty years two-thirds, in a hundred all of them. And what would they leave behind, what had their lives been worth? Gaping jaws, empty eye sockets, somewhere beneath the earth.
…after the previous year’s success I was suffering from child hubris, I didn’t need to learn all the lines, everything would be fine, I had thought, but standing there, affected I suppose by my father’s presence, I could barely remember a line, and our teacher prompted me all the way through a long play about a town of which I was supposed to be the mayor. In the car on the way home he said he had never been so embarrassed in his life and he would never attend any of my end-of-term shows again. That was a promise he kept. Nor did he go to any of the countless soccer matches I played in as I was growing up, he was never one of the parents who drove to away games, never one of the parents who watched home matches, and I didn’t react to that either, I didn’t even consider it unusual, for that was the way he was, my father, and many other fathers like him, this was the end of the seventies and the beginning of the eighties, when being a father had a different and, at least on a practical level, a less comprehensive significance than today.
Feelings are like water, they always adapt to their surroundings. Not even the worst grief leaves traces; when it feels so overwhelming and lasts for such a long time, it is not because the feelings have set, they can’t do that, they stand still, the way water in a forest mere stands still.
He had been enthusiastic and warm, but there had also been a sharpness about him, it didn’t surface often, but when it did I had considered it evil. He
The days from which these incidents are drawn were countless, the bonds they created between us indestructible. The fact that he could be more malicious to me than anyone else changed nothing, it was part and parcel of it, and in the context we lived, the hatred I felt for him was no more than a brook is to an ocean, a lamp to the night.
He had told me often that Dad had totally crushed his self-esteem on a number of occasions, humiliated him as only Dad could, and that had colored periods of his life when he felt he was incapable of doing anything and was worthless. Then there were other periods when everything went well, when there were no hitches, no nagging doubts. From the outside, all you saw was the latter.
“Thank you,” I said, gathering the items and leaving. The desire to sleep with her, which manifested itself more as a kind of physical openness and gentleness than lust’s more usual form, which of course is rougher, more acute, a kind of contraction of the senses, lasted all the way back to the house, but it was not in complete control because grief lay all around it, with its hazy, gray sky, which I suspected could overwhelm me again at any moment.
But then the tiredness hit me. Suddenly all I wanted to do was sleep. Suddenly I could barely lift my arms. The thought of having to undress was unbearable, so I lay back in bed with all my clothes on and descended into the soft, inner light. Every tiny movement I made, even the stirring of my little finger, tickled my stomach, and when I fell asleep the very next second it was with a smile on my face.
“It’s a bit like buying wine in a restaurant,” I said. “If you’re not a connoisseur, I mean. If you’ve got a lot of money you take the second-most expensive. If you haven’t, you take the second-cheapest. Never the most expensive, nor the cheapest. That’s probably the way it is with coffins as well.”
…as tears flowed down my cheeks without cease, for Dad, who had grown up here, he was dead. Or perhaps that was not why I was crying, perhaps it was for quite different reasons, perhaps it was all the grief and misery I had accumulated over the last fifteen years that had now been released.
Now I saw his lifeless state. And that there was no longer any difference between what once had been my father and the table he was lying on, or the floor on which the table stood, or the wall socket beneath the window, or the cable running to the lamp beside him. For humans are merely one form among many, which the world produces over and over again, not only in everything that lives but also in everything that does not live, drawn in sand, stone, and water. And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor.
5 comments on “Book Notes: My Struggle by Karl Knausgaard”
Fascinating stuff. But reading it, I can’t help but feel that it is a cautionary tale about the dangers of too much self-reflection.
For, example, it is true that caring for children involves a great deal of thankless drudgery. It seems to me that however much a person might reflect on the meaning of this work, the impact it has on his or her life, and what it means to be a parent and an artist, none of that actually reduces the amount of work to be done.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I worry less and get more done than most people; worry clearly interferes with doing. Of course, I have to acknowledge that I can only get away with my lack of worry because I live a sheltered and privileged life….
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very interesting topic
Thanks for that
Argh! You take the time to write about Knausgaard, and I comment, and the only other people who write in are spammers? Facebook has sucked the juice out of blogging.