‘My Struggle – Book One’ by Karl Ove Knausgaard (2009) – 441 pages Translated by Don Bartlett
‘My Struggle’ is a book that individual readers either love or hate. Considering the high expectations I had. I’m surprised to find myself in the second category. This novel / memoir was a severe disappointment for me.
The first five pages of ‘My Struggle’ are spectacularly good, a tour de force on the subject of death. It is the next 436 pages that disappoint. After those first few pages, I expected a book with plenty of depth and many insights about life and the human condition. Instead the rest of the novel / memoir is banal and mundane with the author making no attempt to shape his material into a meaningful story.
I believe a large part of the problem lies in the title the author has chosen. It is ‘My Struggle’, not ‘Our Struggle’ or ‘Their Struggle’. The writing here is self-centered, self-absorbed, and self-indulgent. None of the other characters besides the author is developed to any extent, and any characterizations they are given are due to the pet peeves or personal aversions of the author himself.
The main character in ‘My Struggle’ is named Karl Ove Knausgaard, the same name as the author himself. That is why I hesitate to call this book a novel. Besides there is no organized plot, just a couple of remembrances told in great detail. The exact wording of conversations that occurred twenty years ago is given, and the precise weather conditions and visual descriptions of nature and buildings then are given. No one could remember scenes in such detail, so I hesitate to call this book a memoir. That is why I’m calling it a novel / memoir.
Knausgaard’s memory of events is detailed in the extreme. Every little item is recalled regardless of any relation to the story. I found these meanderings irritating; nothing is too small or irrelevant to be included in ‘My Struggle’. Even though all the stuff here is very readable, it is annoying to have to plow through all this meaningless junk.
There are two main story lines in Book 1. First we have the sixteen year old boy Karl Ove Knausgaard celebrating New Year’s Eve by hiding some bottles of beer in the woods which he and his friends will drink later that night. I could not figure out what the point of this story was except to show Karl Ove as a red-blooded normal Scandinavian boy. Nothing about this boy indicates he is worthy of our attention. There certainly is no struggle or conflict in this story. That story goes on interminably for about 150 pages.
The next storyline is 200 pages devoted to Karl Ove returning to his grandmother’s house after his father dies. Apparently in real life, his family is suing the author for the depiction of the grandmother here as a nearly senile incontinent alcoholic. I did find the depiction of the grandmother in the book particularly nasty and heavy-handed. If Knausgaard had taken the trouble to turn this book into fiction, he wouldn’t have this lawsuit problem.
I can’t figure out why critics are falling all over themselves praising ‘My Struggle’ which in its entirety is six books and 3600 pages. Judging from my reading of Book One, the book seems to be unshaped memoir with little or no effort made to leave out irrelevant or mundane details. I would have much preferred a 500 page novel with a strong plot and several well-defined characters rather than these unformed self-important memories, but I doubt the author would be capable of that.