There is a phrase among the earliest in Édouard Levé’s Autoportrait that has remained with me: “When I look at a strawberry, I think of a tongue.” Now, when I look at a strawberry, I think of “When I look at a strawberry, I think of a tongue.” There was a primacy to it, the words became a memory akin to a first kiss or ocean sighting—they became an event, a thing that happened to me. When I read, that feeling is what I look for. To be struck by something, to turn the corner and bump into something beautiful. Sometimes, I find something better.
Beauty is not the aim in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. He wins the reader not with verbal pyrotechnics but with the accumulation of pages. What one admires about his torrential book is his diligence, his commitment to writing that is evidenced not just by how big the volumes are but by what’s inside them—they concern ordinary life, they describe in painstaking detail the dreary everyday Knausgaard has endured up until the writing, and then, endured again, in writing it. He is a writer; he does all this not because he loves it, but because he must. He is a writer. He writes.
On a sentence-by-sentence level, My Struggle is breathtakingly simple, almost trite. One could say the same of his style as he says about the city—“The city does not care who fulfills its various functions,” he says in volume one—and words don’t much care how they’re used, either. There is an indifference to My Struggle that is at odds with its obvious necessity to the writer, the compulsion that keeps him going through so many memories and pages and pulls us along with him. Part of the struggle of the novel is that Knausgaard has tried to remain a writer in the face of all the things happening to him. He writes these books as a person clinging to his self-definition, fighting back against the banal with a similarly unadorned style. It’s fire fighting fire, but then, his fire wins out. He makes the books, for one, and he succeeds in drawing out meaning from all of the mundane moments.
His weapons seem flimsy. Just words, really. He uses cliché liberally. There is nothing inherently wrong with describing a hot thing as hot as an oven, or darkness as a veil. Indeed, it can be much better than a bit of lyricism that completely eludes. Time moves like sand—fine, the reader does not hesitate, the reader is entirely comfortable with that image, has seen it a thousand times, it is clear and plain. Knausgaard’s writing is unquotable in a similar way to how much of his life has been; but then here it is, in something that approaches entirety, being quoted, and one feels in his reliving that he is unearthing meaning he missed the first time. His deviations from pure narrative into essay feel like the writer realizing what this or that actually meant, and that is euphoric, in a way. He is discovering that his life has not been so banal, that banality can be transcended, or may even be a myth.
He does it all with a first person voice. The thing about the first person, in prose, is that it becomes you when you’re reading. The narrator’s ‘I’ is his or hers at the time of writing, ensconced somewhere quiet and with only the self as an audience. It is the name of the self on the page. But once transmitted it gets translated by the reader into something else; the reader is made to look through the narrator’s eyes. When I read ‘I,’ I say ‘I.’ ‘I’ is me; but then, ‘I’ is someone else. So we look through someone else’s eyes, and that can be disorienting—consider all the iconic, idiosyncratic first person narrators you’ve read in your life that took pages and pages to get a feel for. There is rarely an instance in My Struggle where the reader is confused—and there lies the remarkable thing about My Struggle, because so much ought to be. It is wholly another life; it is a completely subjective experience apart from one’s own. Knausgaard’s employment of the vernacular, the familiar, the cliché—these serve to orient the reader and bring us into his narrative. The only times I felt I was stranded in foreign territory were when ‘I’ literally was: Knausgaard is on Malmskillnadsgatan; I am on the Internet, looking it up.
Because “the mind has the capacity to deal with the most alien of thoughts,” as Knausgaard himself writes, and so we take on his manner of thinking after some period of adjustment. His attention to detail can be off-putting and make the beginning of My Struggle seem arduous. But as with starting a fire with sticks or pushing a heavy round thing the starting is always much harder than the carrying on, and something happens in the middle of volume one, both in the prose and in the plot. Knausgaard’s father dies. We see the usefulness of Knausgaard’s style, his inexhaustible fastidiousness now being directed at something titanic—death—and it no longer feels so hulking, this novel, this project, this life. It feels like the content has fit to the form. My Struggle is Knausgaard taking over his own life and stashing it in a book.
What remains at the book’s conclusion are not phrases but the experience of reading it. The experience of being Knausgaard for a while. The memories that most shock him, of his father lying in his own shit and vomit with a broken leg, or of seeing an old man and believing, really believing, that it’s Ibsen, are shocking to the reader, too. The things that bored him are fairly boring; the things that were tedious are tedious. When he finished writing My Struggle, Knausgaard was left with what may have felt to him to be the most ordinary, most familiar book he could have written, so close was it to his own experiences. To this reader, it offered that elusive gift exclusive to literature: to put down oneself for a while, and pick up another, only to return later, amplified and equipped with a new way of seeing.