Searching for the Meaning of Life: A Massive Norwegian Memoir Hits American Shores

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My Struggle is a six-volume memoir written by Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard. The six volumes combine for a total of 3,600 pages, and despite the memoir’s length, it has become a literary sensation across Europe. Translated into thirteen languages, and the winner of many literary prizes, My Struggle has sold nearly a million copies. The first volume – simply titled My Struggle: Book One – is now available for the first time in the United States, translated into English by Don Bartlett.

Knausgaard, at age 43, is now retired from writing – reportedly the sixth and final volume of My Struggle ends with him announcing and explaining his retirement – and living in the Swedish countryside with his wife and children, where he plans to open a small publishing company. As much as Knausgaard gained from the writing of My Struggle, he also lost. He gives such an assiduously detailed and brutally honest account of his experiences, his thoughts, and his feelings that several of his family members and former friends have broken ties with him. Many readers in his home country, too, feel that he overstepped his bounds in the betrayal of confidences and violation of trusts. Knausgaard questions if, given the opportunity to travel back in time, he would write it all over again. “Do you think your literature is worth your uncle, or whoever? Is literature more important than hurting people? You can’t argue that,” he told the Guardian in March when the book was released in Britain.

Knausgaard will likely go through some emotional labor in his attempt to balance literature’s value with the relationships his literature cost him, but readers are left only with the books. Readers experience My Struggle as art and art only, and it is great art.

Book One of My Struggle begins with Knausgaard wondering why Western culture has such ritualistic and social demand to cover up dead bodies. If someone dies on a lawn, the first instinct is to cover the body with a blanket. Morgues are in the hospitals’ lower levels, and when bodies are transferred to the morgues, they are done so underneath a sheet. After a funeral, the family watches the body of their loved one lowered into the ground, where she will forever rest below five feet of dirt and a few inches of grass. He then, without resolving the question of burial, begins reflecting on a memory from his childhood – a day when, at eight years old, he thought he saw the ocean form a face during a news broadcast about missing boat and crew. He immediately told his father, who reacted with mean-spirited scorn and dismissal. The opening of the book gives a good introduction to its themes and its style. Knausgaard is investigating himself through his experiences with a cold, at best, and cruel, at worst, father. Relationships and death give the book its turning points, and it is written in a reflective style that, often without warning or provocation, jumps from philosophical meditation to the narrative of memory. The subjects of the philosophical reflections are big – popular music, visual art, literature, parenting, pornography, death – and many of the stories are seemingly small – a good fifty pages of the book has Knausgaard leaping in and out of a memory involving a New Year’s Eve party he attended as a teenager.

The stories of Knausgaard’s childhood are universally relatable. They include reflective accounts of his first kiss and first beer, his learning how to play guitar just enough to join a bad rock band, his troublemaking with friends, and his first love. His childhood makes up part one of Book One, and part two has him writing as an adult during the months leading up to his father’s death. At that point, his father was a full blown alcoholic. Knausgaard confesses to wishing him dead, but when the moment actually arrived, he sobbed uncontrollably and cursed himself for “stupid sentimentality.” As an adult, his life becomes more specific – much of it is rooted in the routines, concerns, and ambitions of being a writer. The constant, however, is self-discovery, and although parts one and two of Book One are related in that his father’s death causes him to revisit and reevaluate his childhood, and memories return to him in new clarity as he prepares to bury his father, the book refreshingly lacks a coming together chapter. Knausgaard refuses to tie up Book One in a bow. There is no great lesson – though there are many insights. He doesn’t look out a window one day and realize he was wrong about his father. His life does not fundamentally change. His life just continues, in tragedy and triumph, in the mundane and the dramatic. It just is.

Towards the conclusion, Knausgaard solves his own riddle about the concealment of dead bodies. Death, he argues, is the last remaining reminder of something beyond the domain of human intelligence. Religious experience is no longer powerful in Western Culture. Art is dehumanized to a point of lacking transcendent capabilities, and therefore death is the last part of life beyond the control of the intellect – outside the realm of technique. Death is the ultimate mystery of the mystery within life, but for the living, death is also a lesson in humility. As Knausgaard concludes, “For humans are merely one form among many, which the world produces over and over again, not only in everything that lives, but 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.”

Knausgaard’s struggle is everyone’s struggle. It is the search for meaning, and the desperately internal hunt for purpose. The “My” in the title is crucial, because while the major elements of his struggle are shared, the particularity of his life, his experiences, and his relationships make the struggle uniquely his own. According to European reviews, in Book Four he wrestles with titling his book with the same phrase Hitler used for his prison memoir, but those reviewers, and there are many, who obsess over that commonality miss the point.

The point is found in the book’s language. The language, what Knausgaard calls the “banality of the everyday,” complements the microscopic scrutiny under which Knausgaard puts his life. He will spend a paragraph describing a fly’s movement, and then spend three paragraphs describing a shirt his father wore, and then at some point, write something brilliant about the nature of love. In the tradition of St. Augustine’s Confessions and Dostoevsky’s Notes From the Underground, Knausgaard has fashioned a book that contains an immersive world that begins to feel more real than reality. When the reader enters that world, she accepts an invitation to tour every detail of Knausgaard’s life.

The late Jacques Derrida wrote that the power of relatability comes from particularity. The more particular a story, the more universal it becomes. A contrived attempt at universality is typically too vague to grab people’s emotions. When reading My Struggle, I found childhood memories that had not occurred to me in several years coming back to me in vivid color and specificity. Then, I found myself, just as Knausgaard is able to in his book, reflecting on them in a new light, and gain new truths never before considered.

The overwhelming quality of the reading experience, and the dominant feeling of the book, is melancholic. It is melancholy to review the meaning of your life, especially in the face of inevitable death – death of loved ones and one’s own death.

Knausgaard, in Book One and I would assume over the stretch of the 3,600 pages that make up all six volumes of My Struggle, shows that even if introspection is tough and painful, it is important. By so closely examining his life and so fearlessly presenting it, he is able to teach the reader the true danger of investigating the self and honestly dealing with the results.

Soren Kierkegaard was fond of telling readers that there once lived a man who never knew he existed until the morning he woke up dead. Social networking and ubiquitous communicative technology facilitate a self-surveillance state, and reality television is the externalized form of the surveillance mentality. It sells voyeurism as amusement, and in the selling of “drama” for the sake of “drama” it succeeds in creating an alternative television universe in which the trajectory of an individual’s life is reduced to triviality. In an age of superficiality, Knausgaard has done something subversive by intensely inspecting himself and revealing the fraud of our self-comforting delusions, and the artifice of confessionalism as entertainment.

To summarize the act of writing and releasing the book, Knausgaard said, “I have given away my soul.” That may sound extreme, but to give away the soul, one must first know he has a soul, where to find that soul, and what exactly is that soul. That is another struggle, and in raising the bet of the existential philosophical tradition, Knausgaard may have shown that the greatest and most important struggle is for each person to learn how to give away the soul. Give away the soul to prepare to die, and give away the soul to prepare to live.