A few months back, it seemed the literati were unable to focus on anything but this Norwegian author who, supposedly, had written something truly spectacular. I’d heard these whispers—read them, to be precise—all over the book-loving web, but didn’t pay much attention to them. Finally, my dad handed me a copy of the New York Times Magazine containing an article—no, a story—written by Karl Ove Knausgaard, the aforementioned Norwegian.
That story, My Saga (part I, part II ) provides the perfect entry into Knausgaard’s world. I highly recommend reading it, regardless of whether or not you decide to embark on the larger Knausgaard journey.
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s writing is unlike anything I’ve read before. He has a remarkable ability to express profound notions with simple language. He writes sentences that slam their way into your psyche. Even in My Saga, there were moments when I had to reread a sentence or twoa few times just to absorb its full impact. For example:
“I never really understood how a nation that so celebrated the individual could obliterate all differences the way this country did. In a system of mass production, the individual workers are replaceable and the products are identical. The identical cars are followed by identical gas stations, identical restaurants, identical motels and, as an extension of these, by identical TV screens, which hang everywhere in this country, broadcasting identical entertainment and identical dreams. Not even the Soviet Union at the height of its power had succeeded in creating such a unified, collective identity as the one Americans lived their lives within. When times got rough, a person could abandon one town in favor of another, and that new town would still represent the same thing.”
When my dad started reading the first book in Knausgaard’s six-part autobiographical journey, My Struggle, he told me that I had to start reading it right away. Fortunately, a friend had a copy of the book and lent it to me. From the first page, I was completely hooked.
When you sit down and open My Struggle, you are transported, and find yourself on a minimalist sofa in a sparse apartment, feeling the cool leather against your back through your shirt, and watching the seasons pass too quickly through the large window behind Karl Ove, who is pacing the room before you. The only light in the room comes from streetlights and neons shining through the window, reflecting off of the wet facades and tarmac of the road outside. It is always night in telling of My Struggle, the deepest part of night, which Knausgaard claims is the only time when all is truly at rest. You hear the clinking of ice cubes in his glass, smell the peaty scotch or the hoppy beer he drinks before switching to coffee. Cigarette smoke curls from his mouth and his nostrils and he takes you into his mind, piercing you to the sofa with his bright blue eyes, behind which rests a shattered soul. He observes the world from a distance, though he is within it the entire time, seemingly against his will. Karl Ove, for you feel you can call him that, talks to you about whatever is passing through his mind. He treats all thoughts with equanimity, and allows himself the pleasure of following tangents as long as he needs to find completion. He is observant in an almost inhuman way, with a memory like none I’ve ever encountered. How could I possibly remember what the girl who sat next to me on the bus on my first day of elementary school in Israel smelled like? Somehow, Karl Ove does remembers those things. He also remembers passers by, structures, odd visual stimuli, and more. He remembers these things because they all participate equally in his mind when recalling a moment in his past.
To quote a friend: “He makes the mundane transcendent, somehow.”
He is a master of subtle prose, and punctuates his writing with meanderings that are regularly profound and, seemingly against all odds, remain relevant. For instance, the opening of the book deals in death, but the concept is left aside after a few pages, whereupon it transitions to discussions of early life and family. The “death” theme is suddenly picked up some two hundred pages later, and the reader immediately draws the parallel without skipping a beat. Beyond its content, the book is an enormously impressive demonstration of the art of writing.
At times, My Struggle is difficult to read. But it is always riveting. This is a must-read, and I eagerly awaiting diving into part two soon.