My Struggle: Book 4

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A Year in Reading: Chris Power

I’ve spent much of this year writing a novel, which I expected would have a big impact on my reading habits. But apart from some research assignments—a lot of recent Russian history and a few books about Berlin—I pretty much went on as I normally do, reading a mixture of books that I had to for review, and others I felt a sudden compulsion to pick up in order to postpone reading anything with a deadline attached to it.

At the beginning of the year I wrote about Denis Johnson’s posthumous story collection The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, which I think is a capital G, capital B Great Book about death. I’ve read Jesus’ Son multiple times since it rewired my brain in the summer of 1993, but this assignment gave me an opportunity to dig in to his whole body of work: the poetry, the plays, the reportage and all those fascinating novels. He could have done the same thing over and over and people would have lapped it up, but it’s striking just how varied a body of work he produced.

I read some of the short fiction of Gerald Murnane, which has been collected in Stream System. Like all his work, it represents another facet of the same project all his work is engaged in furthering: the mapping, in intensive and idiosyncratic detail, of a single (and singular) consciousness. If you haven’t read Mark Binelli’s extraordinarily entertaining Times profile of him, do so at once.

I read Chekhov’s story “Gusev” a couple of times for something I was writing. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it altogether—maybe 10?—but I can never remember it whole; there’s always some part of it that presents itself as new, or that I register in a way I never registered it before. There are so many Chekhov stories I haven’t read but I seem to keep going back to the same ones, either because they’re inexhaustible or I have a terrible memory. E.M. Forster had a good line about not ever being able to remember what happens in Chekhov’s stories, but I’ve forgotten what it is.

Someone, and I’m afraid I have genuinely forgotten who it was, recommended a Heinrich Böll story from 1955 called “Mürke’s Collected Silences” to me (and I can’t recall who translated my edition, either; apologies, translation community). It’s about fascism, guilt and belief, and joins Krapp’s Last Tape in the pantheon of great works involving tape editing.  

I guzzled Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, and then reread the final book, Kudos, when I reviewed it alongside volume six of Knausgaard’s My Struggle (translated by Don Bartlett and Martin Aitken). I’m someone who found pretty much all of Knausgaard’s sequence compelling, even volumes three and four, where I think a lot of readers drop away. But it was only during the 400-page “essay” on Hitler in the new book that I got really bogged down. It’s an enormously tedious misstep that should have been cut, or at least significantly reduced in size (I mean, the book would still be 800 pages without it). But while there are many passages in the Knausgaard that I will undoubtedly return to, it’s Cusk’s trilogy that will, I think, continue to generate fresh meanings on repeated readings. Not that it’s a competition, but the two projects are so interestingly intertwined (Cusk was inspired to write her three novels after reading Knausgaard; he appears in Kudos transformed into a lugubrious Portuguese novelist) that it’s hard not to consider them alongside one another.

I read and loved Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, the last of which kept me absorbed, and by virtue of that sane, for four hours’ standing on a packed train from Scotland to London on the last day of the Edinburgh Festival. I read Emmanuel Carrère’s The Adversary, which is as amazing as everybody who’s read it always says it is. I reread some Alice Munro (“Differently” and “Fits”), and I read Seven Years by Peter Stamm because I’d somehow heard that it’s a great Berlin novel—this despite the fact that it’s set entirely in Munich. Oh well, it’s all Germany I guess.

This year, as every year, I bought many more books than I read. Some of them will probably still be unread when I die, but not all of them.

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A Year in Reading: Lydia Kiesling

1.
My first book was published on September 4, and I was supposed to interview the writer Karl Ove Knausgaard in front of an audience on September 24. In early summer I obtained the six volumes of My Struggle, and the four volumes of the Seasons Quartet. I put these together in a pile and added the book he wrote about soccer, and noted down the names of his earlier books. I was going to read them all, I told myself, and I also told this to the somewhat incredulous organizers. The writer who first interviewed him for the same program, I suspected, did not read all of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s works to prepare. But that writer had male authority, and I don’t.

The middle days of summer slipped by. I developed a “bit.” “How are you feeling about your book?” someone might ask, and I would say, jauntily, “I’m glad I have this Karl Ove Knausgaard thing looming, because it means I can’t even be anxious about my own book, haha.” This was not entirely true. It is true that my anxiety was more dispersed than it might have been, but it was still there in quantity. The Knausgaard assignment felt like a metaphor for other things in life—everything I have ever enrolled in and then realized, with absolute certainty and invariably too late, that I do not have the constitution for. (This is usually how I feel about good things: The book that I myself wrote, for example, or sometimes, the children I gave birth to.) How had I, a person genuinely awe-struck by people who do half-marathons, so cheerfully signed up for the greatest feat of endurance in contemporary letters?

The waning days of summer slipped by. I started to panic. There was always a volume of My Struggle with me, and thus Karl Ove, or the version of Karl Ove that Karl Ove had seen fit to enshrine on the page, was with me. Karl Ove was with me when I got into bed at night, before my husband demanded that we turn out the lights. He was with me on the bus. He was with me at restaurants and coffee shops. As my own publication date approached, as I had less and less time to read, I read volumes 1 and 2 closely. I was not insensible to the fact that I had taken on an enormous amount of labor for A Man, and that angst about this was going to overshadow my own big day. I noticed that I was developing a little rash on my neck, just under the hairline (it is still there). Karl Ove was with me when I ate two orders of fried chicken wings from the restaurant around the corner, even as I was supposed to be slimming in advance of my publication date. “I was wondering whether you would finish all of those,” the server said admiringly. She was talking about the wings, which I could finish, and not the books, which it had become obvious I couldn’t. I skimmed volumes 3 and 4.

2.
One problem with reading My Struggle is that after each session I could remember almost nothing substantive—certainly no lines stood out in memory, although there were many that stood out as I was reading, many that I underlined and circled and asterisked. Reading the books was a strange, dreamlike experience, a quiet onslaught. When I first started, when I still felt like I had some time, I took notes on almost every page. When I knew that I didn’t have enough time, I started taking only very crucial notes on the endpapers. I told myself I was only allowed to have as many thoughts as there was room on the endpapers of each book.

What do I remember? I vividly remember the part where he and his brother clean the filthy house of his grandmother after his father dies there. I remember that this was one of the parts that incensed his litigious uncle, who loomed over Karl Ove’s own pre-publication period. I remember that Karl Ove seems to hate things involving book publicity, like, for example, being interviewed on a stage.

3.
I spent a lot of time, after delivering my “bit,” hearing people be scornful about Karl Ove Knausgaard. And I understand it, even though I love the books. I am mad, too. The project is amazing in its hubris. But it is also very interesting. The character of Karl Ove who is written in the pages is maddening. But he is also very interesting. When I was reading I thought about how similar I felt to him in some ways, but how I am really probably more like his second wife, with whom I felt less affinity (he wrote her, after all). I felt utterly reproached by his level of involvement in the housekeeping, by his mania for order, by a participation in domesticity that demolished my excuses about my own artistic production and my domestic shortcomings. I have fewer children, and fewer books written or read, and a messier house. Karl Ove writes about how this discrepancy enraged his second wife, too.

It pained me how good his descriptions were of getting children out of the house, or just doing anything with children. One place where Karl Ove was not with me was when I was on my way to or from daycare and preschool pick-ups and drop-offs, when I only “read” my phone as I swayed on the bus. Sometimes I had a baby strapped to me as I did this, one of the cuter babies in history, and sometimes I would forget that she was there for a while and then look down and find her playing peek-a-boo with a grandmotherly figure on the bus. I felt reproached by this, too. “Put your phone down and notice her, idiot,” I imagined these women were telegraphing to me. “Life is so short.” Now I am reading Socks by Beverly Cleary to my older daughter and it makes me feel a little better: Mrs. Bricker sits at her typewriter typing papers while her baby plays on the mat. She gives the baby spoons and other kitchen junk to play with.

I became obsessed with Norwegian and Swedish social policies. Back with Karl Ove, I underlined every part where he scoffed at Swedish sanctimony and hypocrisy. TRY LIVING HERE, I would scream in my head, to no one. I couldn’t help noting that this reading assignment was the corner office in the women’s work of thinking about men who are not thinking about you.

Rather on the nose, right before my book came out, I was afflicted with strange long-term bleeding (27 days) which, after much poking and scanning and taking of pills, was determined to be the result of inefficiently weaning the baby two months before, and resulting hormonal storms.

4.
Book 6 came with me on my short book tour. When it arrived in the mail I laughed because it’s simply enormous, and a peculiar shape. It became its own metaphor. On the airplane, it was my personal item. I jammed it under the Ziploc bag of 3-ounces-or-less toiletries, in a shoulder bag whose straps weren’t up to the challenge. At JFK, I was called for extra screening. The agent removed the book from the bag and wiped its fore-edge with the strip of paper they stick into a machine to see if it’s a bomb. I had to bite my tongue to avoid saying something like, “It’s not a bomb, haha, just a very big book!”

But it was a bomb. It was a ticking time bomb, poised to blow me up on the stage of San Francisco’s historic Nourse theater, the detonation broadcast by my local NPR affiliate. “How do you think Sweden’s social policies have fit in with your life as a working writer and parent?” I would say. “Why do you want to know?” he would say, smoldering and furious. I would forget everything, I would sound stupid, I would look ugly, I would have the wrong outfit, I wouldn’t know how to pronounce Karl Ove Knausgaard, I wouldn’t know how to pronounce Knut Hamsun, no one would buy my book, I would never write a second book, I would be mean to my children.

Meanwhile, I purchased more makeup products so that if someone took a picture of me at my own book readings I wouldn’t look as shitty as I felt. I calculated the number of pages I had to read per day to finish the book and skim the neglected book 5. I wished I could be reading anything else. My book came out around the same time as a huge glut of wonderful books, some of which I decided to read instead of Karl Ove: Number One Chinese Restaurant, The Incendiaries, Boomer1, All You Can Ever Know, A Terrible Country. Before Karl Ove loomed I read Like a Mother, which every person in America should read whether they intend to reproduce or not.

While on vacation I read Severance and have evangelized madly about it to anyone who will listen: a book about work that puts the work in the context of globalization, a book that is mordant and sad and full of quicksilver allegories. I loved that book so much. I also loved A River of Stars, which checks my favorite boxes for fiction—it communicates something complicated about society, you root for the people in it, you see the sights and taste the food and hold the babies it describes. It’s also a great California book. Before Knausgaard I read other books about the American West, city and country. I read The Wild Birds. I read In the Distance. I read This Radical Land, the parts about California. I read Chosen Country, about the Bundys and Malheur. I read There There. I missed these books. I missed reading books that you could finish.

The prospect of going on the book tour was very exciting from a distance, because as a concept it combines “business trip” with “artistic temperament” and everything decadent and slightly immoral that is supposed to go along with those things. I laugh to think about this now because like many things that seem sexy and glamorous from afar, the reality was somewhat different. The reality was me, and my anxiety and my rash, missing my family and feeling guilty for leaving them, and eating roadside muffins and carrying Karl Ove around in my bag. On the train from Philadelphia to New York I thought suddenly about a book I had read months earlier, Fire Sermon, which is a quiet bomb of a book about fidelity and infidelity and desire. I remembered it being about about the spot where desire and reality coincide, and this applies to sex and love, sure, but also to career and art and everything a person might secretly yearn for in the night, every road not taken, every experience of the thing you want and the thing you get being both the same thing and somehow, different things entirely. I thought about that novel with a kind of yearning. I wanted to cheat on Karl Ove. I also wondered if Karl Ove would have delivered me anything like this amount of angst if he weren’t so handsome in all his author photos, if he didn’t cavalierly smoke cigarettes and famously break hearts. (Probably not.)

All this was irrelevant, because September 24 loomed. With seven days to go until Knausgaard Night, I worked on Volume 6 in the subway during a day off on the tour. I went to the Metropolitan Museum. The subway was nice and cool and I had a seat and a pen and the air felt conductive. I didn’t itch, my brain was working: I was getting serious. And as so often happens in the procrastinator’s life, it felt like I was getting serious just late enough to do a less-good job—to have a sense of the job I might have done, and to mourn it. I paused to mourn; I scribbled notes on the nice woven endpapers. I had questions I was going to ask, about politics and national identity. I could feel a woman adjacent watching me. Shortly before we disembarked she asked me if I was a writer and I said, after some hesitation, “Yes.” She said she wished I could teach her to write and I said I wished so too, although there are many people more qualified. In the museum I looked at paintings and sarcophagi and papal frocks and I was so happy, and the bomb felt light in my bag.

The next day, I was standing in the rain outside a subway entrance and checked my phone before descending. There was an email: due to unforeseen events, Karl Ove Knausgaard was regretfully canceling his appearances. The bomb detonated with a fizzle. I had not even gotten to Hitler. The relief was tremendous, but after the adrenaline something else swept in, something bittersweet.

5.
And then I could freely read other things, books on their way to publication: I read American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson, which is about what it says in the title but about so much more—about patriotism and disillusionment and black Americans in federal service and communist panic and American governmental and para-governmental fuckery regarding foreign governments. I read The Trojan War Museum by Ayşe Papatya Bucak, a collection of short stories that finds many terrible and miraculous moments—real and less-real, past and present, in America, in Turkey, in the Ottoman and other empires—and turns them into gorgeous, living, provocative stories and vignettes. I read The Round House, which is not new but which was new to me. I loved these books.

I took a break from Karl Ove, so I have still not gotten to Hitler.

6.
Two months later the organizers of the Knausgaard program, who are lovely people (and who still paid me something for the canceled job), invited me to deliver a brief introduction to Jonathan Franzen as a consolation. This is another man who people are often mad at and whose work I love. This didn’t carry anything like the drama of the thwarted Knausgaard night, because I didn’t have to read anything new and the introduction was three minutes long. It also took place a few days after my father-in-law died, and this had put things into perspective.

Our friends and neighbors cared for my children like they were their own, picking them up and feeding them and putting them to bed while I got my hair blown out and taped up the hem of my formal jumpsuit and practiced saying my three-minute introduction into my phone. Jonathan Franzen was affable, and the writer Kathryn Chetkovich, who was there too, was kind (actually, I did read something to prepare—I read this remarkable essay by her). When I got home I took The Corrections off the shelf. Although the particulars are wildly different it still seemed like a suitable thing to read when you are mourning the passing of a white father from a particular generation in America. My father-in-law, a member of the Silent Generation, was another man with whom I carried on mostly imaginary conversations. Now that he is gone I don’t find myself using Facebook as much, because lately I had mostly used it for these conversations. I had used it to say: “I’m furious about the state of the world.” He had used it to say: “I’m proud of you.” My husband wasn’t home, because he was still with his family doing the much harder work of a grieving son. I kept the lights on in bed as long as I wanted, read a book I knew I could finish, and was briefly consoled.

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Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

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A Complete Visual Map of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘My Struggle’

As a geologist, much of my work is spent reconstructing the earth’s history, poring over rock outcrops, well logs, and geophysical surveys to understand the evolution of given area through deep time. So while reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, my impulse was to map out the series on a timeline of Knausgaard’s life.

For each book, I charted the narrative through Knausgaard’s life, capturing the pages spent at each age and the jumps from one year to another. Seismic shifts, hidden structures, and critical moments reveal themselves, with Book One’s dizzying time jumps and life-spanning energy giving way to the focused romantic/domestic turbulence of Book Two. Knausgaard then settles in, with a more stable narrative proceeding through his childhood, teenage years, and 20s in books Three, Four, and Five. The effect of the series is clear on Knausgaard’s life, with the final volume revolving erratically around age 40 as he grapples with the fallout of the publication of One through Five.

Here, I present the reconstruction of the series book-by-book, with the previous book(s) showed as a gray background. I’ve also included select quotes from each book.

You’re Not a Real Writer Until You Have Enemies: The Millions Interviews Karl Ove Knausgaard

“Many writers are very bad communicators in life, but they are great writers. The writers I know are fucked, wrecked, destroyed: Not all of them are aware of it themselves,” Karl Ove Knausgaard says, over a mid-afternoon glass of water at an Auckland hotel. Not just Scandinavian writers? “No, there’s a lot of fucked up people all around the world.”

Despite the unrelenting detail of his 3,600 page “indiscreet” memoir My Struggle, Knausgaard has a rep for being less than forthcoming in conversation. The “existential loner hero with four children,” Zadie Smith said, has “many contradictions.” “I tried desperately to think of something to say. We had to have something in common,” Knausgaard recalled his awkward lunch at Jeffrey Eugenides’s home. “But no, I couldn’t come up with a single topic of ­conversation.”

Knausgaard is jaggedly handsome and sharply dressed, six feet, four inches tall and firm of handshake. Scandinavia’s leading literary figure of the last decade has things to say, seasoned with gesture and glance. He can be minimalist with his responses, though: Some questions and observations elicit “Yeah” or “Yeah. That’s true,” accompanied by a nod, a raised eyebrow, or─most tellingly—an affirming smile or laugh. Knausgaard is a fine exemplar of Scandinavia’s dry, deadpan humor. In My Struggle, he can be very funny. He writes about being a teenager doing a creative writing course, surreptitiously looking at Peter Paul Rubens and Eugène Delacroix nudes in a library art book. The comedy of trying to get laid for the first time, and dealing with premature ejaculation. And writing graffiti like “U2 stops rock.”

Knausgaard is attracted to New Zealand (and the Auckland Writers Festival) by the remoteness and the similarities with his native Norway. “The fjords look the same.” His frankness writing about everyday challenges through My Struggle’s six volumes and the Seasons Quartet─someone close to you being seriously depressed or an alcoholic─resonates with many readers worldwide. “The loving care she sought was bottomless,” he writes of his Swedish ex-wife’s depression in Spring.

Spring, and its lyrical descriptions of nature─“the smell of wet snow in winter,” “the beauty of the world means nothing if you stand alone it”─aims to inspire. “The great and terrifying beauty does not abandon us, it is there all the time,” Knausgaard concludes, “in the sun and the stars, in the bonfire and the darkness.” He is passionate when asked to elaborate about Spring’s message. “Life can be incredibly hard, life can be incredibly difficult, but it’s always worth living. That’s the book essence … Writing a novel is nothing other than making a place where it’s possible to say something simple and true. That message is such a true thing, it’s very banal too, you need a novel to say it so then it becomes true, you understand what it is.”

The 49-year-old father of four says Spring is especially for his youngest daughter, who was in utero when her mother attempted suicide. “It was such a fantastic, idyllic summer. The sun was shining everyday. The children were laughing and swimming. My then-wife was so depressed that she was in bed all the time, and drew all the energy in there. It was so hard to understand, how is this possible to be so disconnected from the world? To not see that happiness and joy, that it just does not mean anything. I have had friends and people I know been depressed and kill themselves. If you just stay there for three more weeks it would be OK. Your life would have been better.”

Knausgaard confides that he himself can still find life a profound struggle. “Life is so hard that you think, ‘what’s the use? Why should it be so fucking difficult, everything?’ I want my daughter to know that life is always worth living.”

Humor is one of the things that can make life worth living, the drummer and soccer enthusiast agrees. “Books Four and Five are especially funny to me, tragic but in a funny way. It’s a deadpan humor. I have friends who think Book Four is the most terrible thing they ever read because they identify so much with it they don’t see the humor. My editor always says to me: In life and in writing, take one step aside and everything looks differently. And humor is that step. When you are there, it’s not funny at all, but it is ​funny. And it was fun to write about.”

In Summer─among odes to “Barbecue,” “Dogs,” “Ice Cream,” “Bicycle,” and “Repetition”─he praises Monty Python. “A [teenage] revelation,” he adds. Further comedies enjoyed include Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Seinfeld. Like Seinfeld, My Struggle is about everything, though it has been said to be about nothing? “Yeah, that’s true. I’ve also thought that about Seinfeld, that there is a relation somehow,” Knausgaard smiles.

Though his English publishers describe My Struggle as autobiographical novels, the self-dubbed workaholic (“writing to escape myself”) says that they are “novelized autobiographies,” poetic truth. Literature should go for the hurt and fear and be ruthless, Knausgaard adds. “You’re not a real writer until you have enemies.”

My Struggle: Six, released in English translation during September, caused controversy in Scandinavia for its coverage of Adolf Hitler and Anders Breivik. Knausgaard—now in a relationship with his U.K. publisher Michal Shavit─counters that he dislikes Sweden’s journalistic and academic cultures. “It’s so monological. It’s very one-sided. I wrote an essay about it called “In the Land of the Cyclops.” There’s a monopoly of meanings. If you have an opinion outside of that it’s impossible. I’m being compared to Nazism and Breivik because of that. It’s very different than Norway. My English is not good enough to explain. You can see it now in the crisis about the Swedish [Nobel] Academy. That’s a very interesting thing that’s happening. It’s only one version [of events] that’s dominating. There are other possible versions, but they’re just not present.”

Knausgaard (recently in The Other Munch) is currently adapting his debut novel Out of This World for cinema, and greatly likes films such as Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure and The Square. He is intrigued by Lars Von Trier’s serial killer movie, The House That Jack Built. “One hundred people walking out [at Cannes debut]. I think he’s a genius, absolutely brilliant. I hope I will never meet him.” He double-checks a new Von Trier quote on his phone: “‘I’ve never killed anyone myself. If I do, it will have to be a journalist.’” That sly smile again. “I don’t think he means journalists like you.”

Photos: James Black

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