Karl Ove Knausgaard’s 3,500-page, six-volume magnum opus, My Struggle, is made from the material of the author’s daily life. The book has been described as an autobiographical novel, sometimes with “novel” in scare quotes, to indicate its excessive truthfulness. Like the author, the narrator is called Karl Ove Knausgaard, and, like the author, he is a Norwegian writer who lives in Stockholm with his second wife, the poet Linda Bostrom. As Knausgaard has explained in many interviews, his intention in writing My Struggle was to be absolutely honest, no matter how much shame this might cause. Many of his relatives have been furious, and some have cut off all contact with him. His wife relapsed into manic depression after she read the first manuscript. Knausgaard’s decision to tell the whole painful, humiliating truth has been the subject of heated debate in Norway, where My Struggle has sold about one copy for every ten residents. (To date, only the first two volumes have been released in English; the third will appear next summer.)
For a book that caused a national scandal, My Struggle is surprisingly slow-moving, a series of long scenes interspersed with meditations on diverse subjects. Book One climaxes with an extended episode in which Knausgaard and his brother clean their grandmother’s house, where their father recently drank himself to death. Karl Ove goes through every room and collects the empty bottles, one by one. He observes the scene with muted horror:
The smell was awful. There were . . . overturned bottles, tobacco pouches, dry bread rolls, and other rubbish. I slouched past. There was excrement on the sofa, smeared and in lumps. I bent down over the clothes. They were also covered with excrement. The varnish on the floor had been eaten away, leaving large, irregular stains . . . By urine?
In a sense this is shocking, a frank depiction of the degradation of Knausgaard’s father and senile, incontinent grandmother. But with its hypnotic detail, its riveting banality, My Struggle achieves another effect as well. Knausgaard cleans the house for thirty-five pages, indulges in a few memories of youth, and then cleans for another thirty-six pages:
I put a bucket of steaming water, a bottle of Klorin and a bottle of Jif down on the floor by the bath. I shook the garbage bag open, then started clearing everything from the bathroom . . . The walls beside the toilet seat, on which the toilet paper holder was fixed, were covered with light brown stains and the floor beneath was sticky, and these seemed to me to be most in need of attention, so I squirted a line of Jif over the tiles and began to scrub them, methodically, from the ceiling right down to the floor.
The artless quantity of the sentences and paragraphs, sustained over such a long stretch, gives the reader the sensation, common in childhood reading but much rarer in adulthood, of inhabiting a fully imagined physical space, constructed through the relentless succession of mundane details. The cleaning reveries are among the most compelling parts of the book, and they show My Struggle to be something more than a traditional confessional memoir: why would you confess about cleaning, for seventy pages?
At the beginning of Book Two, nearly fifty pages are devoted to Karl Ove taking his toddler daughter to a birthday party, where he feels extremely awkward. As the children play, the parents have desultory conversations about HBO series and TV screens, carpools, the price of airline tickets, CO2 quotas. Knausgaard reports these conversations, but does not participate in them; as he says, small talk is not an art he has mastered, and he isn’t interested in such topics. The bland, healthy party food prompts him to complain to himself about Swedes and their misguided beliefs: “They were confusing food with the mind, they thought they could eat their way to being better human beings without understanding that food is one thing and the notions food evokes another.” To Knausgaard, “sausages are sausages.” He wants out. The crisis, if it can be called a crisis, comes when he finally leaves with his daughter, only to notice that he’s forgotten her shoes. “Oh, SHIT!” he cries. The reader panics with him, though nothing has happened. Knausgaard goes back and gets the shoes, and then he goes home. That’s all—and yet he’s captured so much of the texture of everyday life.
Knausgaard has explained that his approach was formed as a reaction against a creative writing workshop he attended:
Some simple rules dominated, and the most important one dealt with quality: if a sentence was bad, you removed it. If a scene was bad, you removed it. The critical reading of the texts always resulted in parts being deleted. So that was what I did. My writing became more and more minimalist. In the end, I couldn’t write at all. For seven or eight years, I hardly wrote. But then I had a revelation. What if I did the opposite? What if, when a sentence or a scene was bad, I expanded it, and poured in more and more? After I started to do that, I became free in my writing. Fuck quality, fuck perfection, fuck minimalism.
For American readers, Knausgaard’s writing is striking in its freedom from telling details, well-wrought similes, conspicuous fine-tuning. His sentences don’t look like they’ve been reworked for months, and they haven’t: he wrote My Struggle fast, with minimal revision. He uses well-worn phrases that we tend to identify as clichés, and that elicit, in many readers, a desire to whip out the red pencil. In an otherwise positive review of My Struggle in the New Yorker, James Wood criticized the uneven quality of the prose and the use of clichés. But these are essential parts of the method. Knausgaard rejects chiseled sentences in favor of a cumulative effect, and the flatness, the openness, the sprawl provide the space necessary for his discursive treatment of everyday life, allowing the reader to exist inside the narrator’s mind, to see as he sees.
My Struggle is clearly a work of foreign literature, something exotic. There is the freedom of the prose, and then there is the relative ease of the life of the writer, as depicted in the book. For instance, My Struggle’s relentless catalogue of the occurrences of everyday life does not include any complaints about boring, horrible jobs. This is probably because none of the people in My Struggle have day jobs. Knausgaard’s best friend, Geir, is an unsuccessful writer, but that doesn’t seem to put a damper on his coffeehouse lifestyle. When Geir worries that he’ll never succeed, he frames his anxiety in terms of artistic success and recognition, not in financial terms. We never hear him wondering if it’s too late to go to law school.
We never see Knausgaard engaging in any kind of income-generating activity, apart from writing novels and producing the occasional reader’s report for a publishing house. He doesn’t teach creative writing classes, or literature classes. He never talks to an agent, though he occasionally does interviews or goes to writers’ conferences. He doesn’t write book reviews for magazines or newspapers. He is not enrolled in a PhD program or a funded MFA program—welfare for American intellectuals. His wife, Linda, is a poet who never seems to engage in any income-generating activity at all. And yet they have an apartment in the center of Stockholm, and Knausgaard has an office—a room of his own. The Knausgaards are always eating crab and salmon, drinking good wine and cognac. They vacation in Spain, and never seem to worry about the financial welfare of their aging parents. Most shocking of all, they have an extravagant number of children—three—in the course of just four years. They never wonder who’ll pay for their children to go to college, probably because in Sweden and Norway, university is free. When Linda gives birth, Knausgaard ponders the existential aspects of this process, rather than worrying about the hospital bill. In Stockholm, as in New York, life is full of banality; but it’s a different banality, without credit card debt or massive student loans.
Sometimes you want to chide Knausgaard for his ungratefulness. When he and his wife decide to enroll their oldest child in nursery school early, so that Knausgaard will have more time to write, he says forebodingly, “How far this nursery was to eat into our lives we had no idea; we talked only of the advantages it would bring.” He doesn’t mean that it will eat into his savings; in Sweden, nursery school is government-subsidized and operates on a sliding payment scale, with a policy that parents should only have to spend 1 to 3 percent of their income on childcare; the cap for preschool fees is about $200 a month. (Parents of both sexes get 480 days of paid leave per child.) He means that, with its requirements that he work there for a week, participate in group decision-making, and chat with the other parents when he picks up his daughter each afternoon, the nursery will eat into his free time, into his consciousness, into the mental space which he prefers to devote to art. This too is unpleasant; but how grateful many Americans would be to have access to safe, affordable preschool for their children! When, under pressure from his wife, Knausgaard takes their daughter to a music activity called “Rhythm Time,” he feels emasculated in the presence of the beautiful young teacher, for whom a house-husband doesn’t even register as a sexual object. When Knausgaard’s wife asks him how it went, he answers, “It’s the worst experience I’ve ever had.” But still—it was free.
You spoiled Scandinavian! Do you have any idea how much it costs to have a child—even just one—in New York? But Knausgaard probably doesn’t. Politics are conspicuously absent from the first two volumes of My Struggle, despite its provocative title. Apparently Hitler’s book is discussed for four hundred pages in Book Six; Knausgaard has said that his title is an ironic commentary on his own preoccupation with the tension between “ideologies and everyday life,” and on his feelings of anger and frustration. While My Struggle is all about everyday life, ideology is not much in evidence, at least in the first two volumes. Knausgaard is not a Nazi sympathizer, or a conservative firebrand, or a passionate antifascist. Though he alludes to some beliefs that are more conservative than the Scandinavian norm, for the most part he keeps to himself, and seems almost unaware that it is a very specific socioeconomic system that enables his writerly lifestyle. Norway’s extravagant wealth is based on oil, with huge profits distributed across a tiny population. Sweden, too, is a rich country with a small, fairly homogenous population. Is Knausgaard’s work part of the long tradition of the art of the aristocracy, a tradition that depends on political inequality and economic exploitation? Is this why he isn’t afraid to talk about transcendence—because he’s lucky enough to be in a social position whose privilege allows him to forget about politics? He wishes that he could be a “furious, 19th-century man,” and he resents what he feels to be his emasculated position. But apart from a few vague thoughts about the plight of immigrants and the damage done by globalization, he seems oblivious to the fact that, diaper duty aside, he is a member of a tiny global elite of artists who don’t have to worry too much about money.
And yet, reading My Struggle, you have the sense that Knausgaard has made a wonderful discovery, an almost scientific innovation. My Struggle is something new, something brave, and this has much to do with the circumstances under which it was created. In recent years, both Norway and Sweden have produced detective novels that have become international bestsellers (most notably, the work of Stieg Larsson, from Sweden, and Jo Nesbo, from Norway), offering lurid pictures of overbearing welfare states, broken promises of justice and equality. But the sublimely boring volumes of My Struggle are a testament to the cultural and intellectual vitality of these same states. When there’s less market pressure on artists, when they’re under less financial stress, when there’s more support for artistic production earlier in the process, different kinds of art can result. The Soviet Union was a limit case, focusing only on the production of ideologically acceptable art, making official writers an economic elite and printing their work in huge runs that were soon pulped, because readers wanted something else entirely. At the other end of the spectrum is the American approach, in which publishers are desperate for bestsellers and afraid to lose money, and universities, while providing much-needed shelter and support, tend to reproduce their own artistic values. Both systems encourage homogeneity and suppress experimentation and artistic growth (albeit to different degrees). Of course, either system can produce a masterpiece; life has its surprises, its moments of transcendence. But as My Struggle shows, it is more often predictable, and material conditions can be as decisive as fate. It’s no coincidence that this particular masterpiece came out of two countries that provide for the basic welfare of their citizens, and treat culture as a public good.