A deeply personal reflection on the death of Knausgaard’s father, My Struggle is universal in its exploration of how we observe the world, how we interact with it, memory, grief and loss.
I’ve always been interested in reading literary bestsellers or award-winners to find out what other readers find of value and are attracted to. So, I’ve been long interested in reading this ‘literary phenomenon’ to find out what the fuss is about. I seem to recall a focus on Knausgaard’s detailed descriptions of his actions and thoughts in his writing, and I also read a profile of him (where was that? The NYT? The New Yorker?) that described him as so self-conscious, so awkward and introverted that he was ill-equipped for the attention that comes from being a best-selling author.
It’s by chance that before reading this book, I completed Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, four books that tell the lives of two women from being girls to older women. Ferrante’s descriptions of the relationship between the women and their social and community context may have a different tone and culture, but there’s some similarity in the detailed, precise analysis of emotional states and observation, as well as how who we are as children or adolescents relate to our older selves. And because there are four more Knausgaard books, they seem to have a similar scope. And I also had to put some thought into why I enjoyed the books and wanted (want) to read all of them.
Having lost my father eight years ago, there was much that touched me about Knausgaard’s exploration of his relationship with his father, the aftermath of death, and his complicated grief. I also relate to, but not completely, with what seems to be his basic emotional state. Writers about the Enneagram, a model of human psyche, describe humans falling into the same fixations, the ways we react to the world, and the three negative emotional states of fear, anger and shame. Knausgaard is clearly all about shame, and the descriptions of key incidents of his childhood or his relationship with his father and brother or the start of his writing career: they’re excruciating but also telling. He writes about the aftermath of a failed interview with a famous author: for Knausgaard, it is one of the worst things to ever happen; for his brother, the co-interviewer, it was simply unfortunate.
And I guess that’s why I found the book interesting and engaging, the detailed and sometimes mundane descriptions of his surroundings and life (his reported dialogue is stark, recording simple statements of agreement or disagreement) that suddenly go into a wormhole of memory or philosophy with challenging outcomes.
I kept thinking of Jonathan Franzen. The NYT’s recent profile of Jonathan Franzen describes how, when freed from ‘the impetus to educate’ because he ‘realized that the arguments and social criticism he wanted to assert… could live and breathe on their own. He didn’t have to Trojan-horse them into his novels’ characters or plot points anymore’, he went from a novelist with mediocre reviews to a literary superstar.
There’s something similar at work here too, the combination of detail (to some, mundane) and powerful intellect. They’re both introverted and awkward people, clear about their faults (I found this more expressed in Franzen’s book of autobiographical essays), but have the ability to tackle big questions in a literary form with an intensely personal voice full of detail and minutiae that has commanded the world’s attention. There seems to be a bit of fascination with each of them, and perhaps some jealousy, that flawed people can produce such well-regarded literature.
I wonder how I’ll feel about his writing after I’ve finished the next book. Stay tuned for another review…