THE BIG BOOK MYSTERY

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Finally. Finished My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Yes, in the beginning it was a bit of a struggle. Then I was hooked. So much so that the next two volumes of this six-volume series should arrive on my front porch today.

I’m taking writing classes, poetry classes; I am blogging, reading review after review, book after book so I feel literarily connected at the moment. In spite of all that I cannot quite figure out how to think about My Struggle. It’s not exactly about anything except Knausgaard’s life which is, all things considered, a rather ordinary Norwegian life. There is family drama but so far nothing that reaches murderous proportions; substance abuse that’s pretty horrific but leads to sadness and mess more than danger and tragedy; sibling discord that’s non-violent, and social and political landscapes with few threats.

Our hero isn’t an adventurer in the typical sense of the word and he appears, at least in the first volume, to be neither particularly brilliant nor brave. I read Tim Cope’s book, On the Trail of Genghis Khan, and that guy has one hell of an adventure, history, geography, social commentary, even animal, story to tell and he’s a very good writer as well. I mention Cope in relation to Knausgaard because the latter, at least in My Struggle includes none of the critical Cope elements.

Knausgaard’s writing is not fancy stuff. It’s straightforward, generally unadorned, like his life—at least externally. How do details in which we would not ordinarily be interested, here well enough told but without great literary flourish, keep us reading and reading:  “The water whirled slowly around the sink as it dwindled, gray-brown and turbid, until the last white suds were gone and a layer of sand, hair, and miscellaneous particles was left, matte against the shiny metal. I turned on the tap and let the jet run down the sides of the bucket until all the dirt was gone and I could fill it up with fresh, steaming hot water.”  It is a good sentence isn’t it? But not great, really. I’ve just read a whole book primarily made up of sentences like that about regular life, at times wondering why I kept reading but at the end not want to leave Karl Ove—which fortunately I don’t have to for another five volumes.

I am on a quest to know and understand Norway better before my trip next summer. Knausgaard is a Norwegian writing about the most mundane actions of life in Norway and Sweden. It’s not the history, politics, biography, or murder I’m usually reading. But here’s the funny part. I feel like I am living in ‘old country’ as my parents’ generation referred to the land of their birth. I’ve been there. I’ve visited Karl Ove and his brother, maybe went with them to see their dead father, helped clean up the horrific mess at Grandma’s house—sometime I’ll tell you about Aunt Sally’s place and the smell of urine and the piles of cat shit—but that’s another story.

Knausgaard’s struggle has by now, at the end of volume one, become my struggle too. Let me say it again. I am addicted.

My Struggle’s ordinariness has a momentum like regular life. We get up….blah blah blah…we eat…we sleep…we mourn…we try and try and try…and we die.

I wrote this before reading the reviews although I had read a few much earlier when I first started the book. I just now read James Wood’s review “Total Recall” in the August 13, 2012 issue of The New Yorker, purposely waiting until I had said what I wanted to say. While it is much better written, I think what it says is what I was trying to say—although I missed the huge significance of death in the writing. It is very present, but you have to stand back to see the bigness of it for Knausgaard.

 

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