BOOK REVIEW: Reality flirts with fiction in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s 'My Struggle'
Ruth Sindico (The Philippine Star) - March 13, 2015 - 11:39am

MANILA, Philippines - When authors such as Jonathan Lethem (The Fortress of Solitude), Zadie Smith (White Teeth), and Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex), among others, rave about a book, especially one by an author whose work you have yet to read, or have never even heard of in the first place, you can’t help but be curious about it. You search for reviews and find that most of them are favorable as well, highly favorable even, and you just had to check it out to find out what the fuss is all about.

We are talking about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, a six-volume oeuvre that has been likened to the literary behemoth, In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust. My Struggle Books 1 and 2 are now available in local bookstores, while its third and fourth books have just been recently translated into English and are available abroad.

In Proust as in Knausgaard, we see the remembering of things past prompted by seemingly mundane activities such as the dipping of a madeleine or the taking of a cigarette break, recollections that are interspersed with philosophical musings and characters that are as entertaining or infuriating as the narrators wanted them to be.

While Proust’s narrator is unnamed, however, Knausgaard’s is called Karl Ove Knausgaard as well. He’s also a Norwegian writer, married to an artist (his second wife), a father of three (as of Book 2), and, much to the consternation of Knausgaard the author’s family and friends, also have the same set of friends and family.

My Struggle Book 1 carries the subtitle of A Death in the Family, referring to the demise of a domineering presence in the narrator’s life by the end of the book, while the second book carries the subtitle of A Man in Love, referring to his romantic pursuit of his second wife and his life with her and their young children.

Both books are rife with memorable events and characters: the hiding of alcohol in the snow, the crazy Russian neighbor, blacking out after kissing, strong-willed toddlers, a dinner party with friends, and a best friend who, like all best friends do, engage in the most entertaining and interesting conversations with the narrator. And, as is with Proust, where the mention of furniture or the characters’ clothes can lead to an examination of character, conventions, and culture, Knausgaard’s narrator, too, can launch into pages of musings on life, love, literature and death while attending a children’s party.

It is important to remember, however, that My Struggle is a work of fiction and has been placed under that category called autobiographical novel - a fact, as mentioned earlier, that did not prevent some of the author’s family from threatening legal action against the publishing of the book as they feel that it violated their privacy. Did the scenes in the book really happen in real life then? We the readers who are not privy to Knausgaard’s life until we read the books ask, does its veracity even matter?

What we should be concerned with instead is its verisimilitude, its plausibility and one that makes us suspend our disbelief. It is a concept that all good fiction observes as my Struggle Books 1 and 2 subscribe to.

Knausgaard the narrator, however, has a problem with fiction and literature in general.

“Over the recent years, I had increasingly lost faith in literature. I read and thought, this is something someone has made up. Perhaps it was because we were totally inundated with fiction and stories. It had got out of hand.”

The only genres he saw value in were diaries and essays, “the types of literature that did not deal with narrative, that were not about anything, but just consisted of a voice, the voice of your own personality, a life, a face, a gaze you could meet.”

As readers would observe, isn’t this just how My Struggle has been presented to us, like a diary with an essay-like tone that “just consisted of a voice, a life, a face, a gaze” that we meet as we go into its hundreds of pages in a hypnotic frenzy?

If we just want to read about other people’s lives far from our own, though, why don’t we just read blog journals that abound? Aren’t we even sick of people yakking about their lives? Do we really have to read through an entire page about changing diapers or preparing dinner?

What makes My Struggle different? What makes us want to go along with Knausgaard as he goes to a party, cuts his face, changes nappies, gets drunk, makes love, takes lot of cigarette breaks and goes all personal-confessional on us? Because My Struggle is good, masterfully written fiction that is unlike anything that most of us have been exposed to before.

As Zadie Smith would say and as quoted the book’s blurb: “Every detail is put down without apparent vanity or decoration, as if the writing and the living are happening simultaneously.”

We turn to T.S. Eliot’s Tradition and Individual Talent and use his description of good poetry in explaining that Knausgaard has successfully done.

“It is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to escape from these things.”

Knausgaard, while talking about the mundane activities in the minutest of details, has not gone all reality-TV on us, with every scene and character as if being thrown in our face. He has masterfully controlled the tone of the telling so even as there are what we usually call “explosive” confrontations, even when he uses all caps in that scene with the Russian neighbor.

The “how” of the telling versus the “what”.

As Knausgaard says:

“Form draws you out of yourself, distances you from yourself, and it is this distance that is the prerequisite for closeness to others.”

This is why we enjoy the first two books and can’t wait for the latest volumes to be available in the country.

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