My Struggle, Book One

by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Don Bartlett

reviewed by Ophelia John

Book One of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s much-discussed six-volume series, Min kamp (My Struggle), captures the pulse and tempo of being alive. Starfish-like, Knausgaard wraps his mind around a thousand remembered moments and pulls them back into the great gut of his autobiographical novel. The ambition is enormous, and the work follows through on it. Details pile up early on: his mother’s keys lying on the telephone table, a ceramic vase of dried flowers, the sound of the protagonist’s eight-year-old feet on the shingles and his father’s subsequent anger. Through these pieces of the physical world, Knausgaard ruminates on the meaning-charged world that a child inhabits, and one senses that part of the “struggle” of the adult is that of finding a balance where meaning exists but does not terrorize, as happened in his childhood: “I knew his moods and had learned how to predict them long ago . . . the way he looked around as he locked the car, the subtle nuances of the various sounds that rose from the hall as he removed his coat—everything was a sign, everything could be interpreted.”

As the protagonist ages, this struggle grows into the larger question of how to carry out meaningful work in the face of everyday demands. The adult Karl Ove is failing to write a novel, and his antagonists are many and small: his wife’s requests, city construction, noisy snowplows. At one point, he is plunged back into the childhood memory of seeing Christ’s face in the sea during a newscast: “In the second it took to fill the pot, I saw our living room before me, the teak television cabinet, the shimmer of isolated snowflakes against the darkening hillside outside the window, the sea on the screen, the face that appeared in it. With the images came the atmosphere from that time, of spring, of the housing estate, of the seventies, of family life as it was then. And with the atmosphere, an almost uncontrollable longing.”

That longing turns into pages and pages of new novel, and the reader imbibes Karl Ove’s cigarettes and alcohol and coffee, along with his self-consciousness and wit, and his appreciation of the clouds above, the surface of the sea, the patterns of rain on ground. These moments of connection to the outer world, which grow more frequent as Book One comes to a painful close, provide relief from the protagonist’s emotions and make for beautiful tableaux:

Below me was the waterfall which had frozen in great arcs and arteries of ice, dimly illuminated by the light from the parquet factory. Behind it and behind me rose the uplands. They surrounded the scattered, illuminated habitation in the river valley with darkness and impersonality. The stars above seemed to be lying at the bottom of a frozen sea.

These passages also prepare the reader for an eventual reckoning. Even if, as the protagonist asserts, the natural world cannot be read as meaningful, it still provides something of an answer to another struggle:

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.

It’s impossible to discuss these volumes without mentioning the Min kamp books-as-publishing phenomenon: in Norway, the number of copies sold equals nearly ten percent of the population. Book One received the Brage Award, the P2 Listeners’ Prize, and the Book of the Year Prize in Morgenbladet. Glowing reviews are piling up in the English-speaking and German presses; Book One was a New Yorker Book of the Year.

Then there is the fuel-to-the-fire title: Min kamp = Mein Kampf. Why copy Hitler? The author’s answers have varied, but the choice seems like something of a lark, even if Knausgaard read Hitler’s book and commented on it at length in Book Six. In Germany, the first four volumes—German translations are running a year ahead of the English ones—have appeared with infinitives as titles. Book One has the German title Sterben (Dying), appropriate for a story that opens with a four-page rumination on death before launching into childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and then a phone call: your father is dead, come and take charge.

When that moment comes, Karl Ove and his older brother Yngve drive to the home of their semi-senile grandmother, where they discover the years of filth (hundreds of empty bottles, excrement, vomit) that their father left behind in his alcoholic self-destruction. While they arrange the funeral and clean the house, they also learn that their grandmother had picked up her son’s habits and now badly needs a drink. In one memorable scene, her grandsons join her in drinking a bottle of vodka. When Karl Ove moves their bottle out of his sightline to the window, he reveals to the neighbors what one never makes public in small-town Norway—and contextualizes the actual fury of Knausgaard’s father’s family over the publication of Book One.

One has the impression, reading through the highs and lows of landscape beauty and emotional bottoming out, that Book One (at a fat 430 pages in English) allowed the writer to void himself of much pain. The acknowledgement of so many private thoughts is also an exorcism. That less-than-fresh phrases appear in such a sea of words is probably not due to the translation. Bartlett may have used the corresponding English idioms for the Norwegian ones when translating (a “stiff as a ramrod” erection, or to “strike while the iron was hot”). Yet this is “reality writing” with so much power and honesty that the reader forgets the occasional cliché and simply reads on.

Knausgaard, whose first novel won the Norwegian Critics’ Prize for Literature, says that he’s done with writing (in Book One he references Rimbaud, who followed through on the same promise). Yet Knausgaard may make an exception for screenplays, and already has a project on the line. It will be interesting to see him shift over into a collaborative medium, particularly one that treats time and length so differently. Or, perhaps, his lengthening, slowing influence will also prevail over cinema norms.

Published on October 9, 2014