Is there such a thing as a gift for literary narcissism, where self-absorption isn’t just pretentious but purposeful, even revelatory? There has to be; literature just wouldn’t be the same otherwise. Henry David Thoreau, James Agee, Henry Miller and Norman Mailer were all nonpareil navel-gazers who found their perfect subject in themselves and couldn’t see the world any other way.
Neither can Karl Ove Knausgaard. With only a couple of well-received novels to his credit, a few years ago he abandoned fiction and gambled that readers in his native Norway might be interested in the story of his life so far, up to his early 40s. The result, the six-volume, 3,000-plus-page “My Struggle,” is probably the longest autobiographical narrative since the death of Knausgaard’s idol, Marcel Proust, and it quickly became a literary sensation.
As the books gradually make their way into English, it isn’t hard to see why. Knausgaard’s brooding Scandinavian obsessiveness has a way of getting under a reader’s skin, not because his life is so exciting and eventful — it isn’t — but because it’s so familiar. He writes a clear prose that transforms ordinary events, detailing the span of his life with such directness that everything seems to be happening in real time.
He doesn’t, it must be said, have the range or generous spirit of his great forebear. Proust was capable of not only seeing the intricacy of his fictive protagonist’s inner life, but also the tenderness in the lives of others, as well as the beauty and decadence of their 19th-century world. Knausgaard’s story is basically a one-man show where neither friends, family — with the possible exception of the writer’s father — or 20th-century Norway are rendered with much richness. The story so far, however, is a compelling solo performance.
Structurally, he takes a roundabout, non-chronological route, starting in the near-present, moving forward and then in reverse. In Book One, he’s a young man dealing with the pathetic alcoholic decline and death of his father. Book Two takes us through the author’s disastrous first marriage and his reasonably stable present life with a wife and small children. Book Three circles back to his childhood, where we get a closer look at Knausgaard’s angry and abusive father.
Skipping ahead a few years, this latest volume might well be titled “My Struggle . . . With Alcohol and Premature Ejaculation.” It’s Knausgaard’s account of his late adolescence, when he is tackling his first job, trying to become a writer, staying functionally drunk and searching for a romantic encounter that lasts longer than 10 seconds.
“I opened a new subdivision in my life,” he explains early on. “‘Booze and hopes of fornication,’ it was called, and it was right next to ‘insight and sincerity,’ separated only by a minor garden-fence-like change of personality.”
Having just finished gymnas, or high school, near his home town of Kristiansand, Karl Ove has taken his first real job, at 18, as a middle-school teacher in the fishing village of Hafjord in northern Norway. (Apparently, you could teach at that age in places that were desperate for teachers.) He’s completely out of his element, intent on using his free time to become a writer but soon becoming bored and restless, blotting out his loneliness with alcohol.
Barely one-fifth of the way into the book, Karl Ove blacks out at a party, which in true Proustian style makes him think of other blackouts, leading to a 200-page detour where he recalls life when he was 16. At that time he was getting used to the divorce of his parents, living with his newly single mom and visiting his recently remarried father, who is also drinking heavily and becoming more of a whimpering, guilt-ridden embarrassment to both Karl Ove and his older brother.
Karl Ove is, also, doing an enormous amount of drinking on his own: “I loved being drunk. I came closer to the person I really was and dared to do what I really wanted to do. There were no limits.”
As the book resumes course in Hafjord, life hasn’t appreciably changed much; lust and alcohol are still his major demons, only this time they’re playing havoc with the fact that he has a job teaching students, many of them only a little younger than he is.
Part of the pull for readers of “My Struggle” as each new volume arrives is that, to some degree, we already know how the story ends. We already know that it’s all downhill for Knausgaard Senior from here and that his son won’t feel that much when he dies, but we also get more insight into their relationship.
Recalling these memories from the present day, he peruses his father’s diary, where he reads daily jottings of visits, arguments and an increasing regimen of alcohol.
“I understand why he noted down the names of everyone he met and spoke to in the course of a day,” Knausgaard writes, “why he registered all the quarrels and all the reconciliations, but I don’t understand why he documented how much he drank. It is as if he was logging his own demise.”
Which, in a sense, is what Knausgaard himself has been doing from the beginning. He’s watching himself live, but he’s also watching himself die — not because he has a mortal illness, but because he’s mortal, because time is running out for him as much as it is for everyone, and, in the end, memories are the only data he has to work with. He’s bent on wresting a work of art from life by retracing his steps, gauging some meaning between the momentous and trivial events that give life its shape.
He might do it.
Welch frequently writes about books for the Columbia, S.C., Free Times.
By Karl Ove Knausgaard
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett
Archipelago. 485 pp. $27