The Last Book I Loved: My Struggle by Karl Ove Knaussgard


It was strange. Volume One of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume memoir/novel was, with one traumatic exception near the end, the story of a typical young man. He had a typical childhood broken up only by a typical divorce. He was a typical teenager; excesses of emotion, dreams of stardom, and experimentation with substances. Typically he wandered in his early adult life, doing the school thing, the finding a place to live thing, the falling in love thing, and his narrative diverged from that of just about any first world white man only when he decided to write. Typical plus writer for whatever that equals. But when I finished the book, I wanted to read more about typical Karl Ove. Or not even read more about him, just spend more time in his universe of language. Or something else I haven’t pinned down. It was strange; after 471 pages, I was not ready to leave Karl Ove.

With Volume Two I returned, this time intending to write a review. Things got away from me. I became emotionally and intellectually invested and lost the perspective needed to give a useful review, or, rather, I could write a review; describe the style, some of the events, the feel and structure of the book to provide readers the information they need to decide whether they want to read it, but that would have obliterated my actual reading experience; what I went through as a person reading My Struggle Volume Two. I had to type out my notes, print them, reorganize them and re-print them just to get a sense of what I experienced. I had to cut pages of writing to reach a reasonable length and re-order what was left several times. The result? An attempt to express a powerful and personal reading experience.

Knausgaard and Proust

My bookstore hosted an event with Karl Ove Knausgaard in conversation with James Wood, which was as awesome as it sounds like it would be. The question of similarities between Knausgaard’s My Struggle and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, naturally came up as both are massive autobiographical works. Knausgaard said he saw no similarities. He’s wrong. Imagine you’re watching the construction of a mosaic, with the artist describing every aspect of the process from the composition of the tiles to the smell of the glue, revealing reality’s astounding complexity, and then, in shockingly short sentence, you’re fifty feet in the air looking down at the crystal clear mosaic. Proust could write like that. So can Knausgaard. Knausgaard also writes, “The past is only one of many possible futures, as Thure Erik was wont to say. It wasn’t the past you had to avoid and ignore, it was its ossification. The same applied to the present.” (p379) A brilliant summary of narration and memory in Proust. Knausgaard also writes, “It was the light over the field, the chill in the air, the silence in the trees. The darkness that was waiting. It was a February afternoon breathing its atmosphere into me, and it evoked memories of all the other February afternoons I had experienced or rather the resonance of them, for the memories themselves had long faded. It was so immensely rich and replete because all of life was gathered there. It seemed to slice through the years; the special light spread out like ripples in my memory.” (p427) Time regained. February light and madeleines. I don’t know why Knausgaard doesn’t see the connection, but it’s there.

Small Talk

Like Karl Ove, I suck at small talk with strangers. Until I got comfortable with a group of people, I was a vortex of awkward silences. It fucking sucked, so I fixed it. I’m still uncomfortable when I don’t know many people and I can’t say I’ve developed a skill for small talk, but I can do it. I can break the silences. I can interact. It clearly fucking sucks for Karl Ove too, but instead of fixing it or dropping out of society because it can’t be fixed, he flounders on hating life. There’s a similar relationship with how we both struggle with praise. We want it and yet when someone makes the effort to say, “I really like your poem,” I feel something recede, like a furling flower at sunset. It’s uncomfortable, but I do my best to thank people and keep my discomfort internal. But what is uncomfortable to me, depresses him. The volume of his reaction to small talk, praise, and just about everything else, is dramatically higher than mine.

But whose volume is right? I am a writer. I want to write great art. Should my volume be closer to Karl Ove’s? Is his intensity inherently artistic? Is he amplifying his emotions for novelistic effect? Are our volumes distinguished by factors unrelated to art? Can these questions be answered in succeeding volumes? What is the relationship if any to the emotional intensity of the artist and the art created?

Translator of Environment

Knausgaard’s prose is intensely sensory. He absorbs the environment and expresses it so cleanly, so clearly, and so precisely, the act of expression itself almost vanishes. It is less like reading a description of a subway or a party or a cottage or a Norwegian landscape and more like your senses becoming articulate. Knausgaard doesn’t write the environment, he translates it into words. This style might be why I found reading My Struggle, with all of its frustrations, so comforting. As a reader, I tend to prefer bold styles, prose that asserts the act of creation, sentences that challenge me and often find works labeled “spare,” as boring and derivative. Because of his depth and precision, Knausgaard’s sentences (at least as translated by Don Bartlett) satisfy much of what I look for in prose, without challenging my ability to interpret. I am challenged as a reader and allowed to simply look, to read something familiar that doesn’t pander and something that respects my intelligence without straining it. My Struggle created a relaxed attentiveness in my consciousness, a perfect closing state of mind for a day spent mostly in conversation with books and thoughts.

I Have a Problem with Linda

Karl Ove fled his home, his life, and his wife in Norway for Stockholm. He wandered around trying to find a place to live, adapted to the new city and culture, and rekindled his friendship with Geir. He was floundering. He wasn’t writing. He was miserable. Then he met Linda, “…and the sun rose.” (p172) He met her before at an ill-fated writers retreat but this time was different. This time everything he needed in a woman came together. She was the woman he wanted to live with and have children with. He lives with her, he loves her, they have children, and for almost the entire book, Karl Ove is miserable.

I have a problem with Linda. Karl Ove, so internally focused, so anxious about his masculinity, so envious of past benefits of patriarchy, is not a reliable narrator about Linda. No matter how much time he spends with her, no matter how vivid his narrative imagination is, no matter how much he loves her, I can’t trust Karl Ove’s portrait of her. And yet she seriously pisses me off. One day, while pregnant with their first child Vanja, she wanted to go to the hospital because she hadn’t felt the baby move. Maybe she was overreacting to something common, but I can understand the urge. She called Karl Ove, who was writing, but he didn’t get her messages. She was panicking when he finally got home, and, though he was hesitant, they went to the hospital. Everything was fine, and Linda was furious. If the baby died because of the delay, Linda would have blamed Karl Ove. If it was an emergency, why not got to the hospital and call him from there? Of course, it would have been best if he were there right away, and he would have been if he’d received her call, but you can’t wait for the best in an emergency. Whose fault would it really have been?

At one point, Karl Ove’s next book finally clicked and he was able to write. “I was totally manic. I wrote all the time, sleeping two or three hours a day.” (p337) Which kept him away from Linda and Vanja. “Linda went to her mother’s and called me several times a day. She was so angry that she screamed, actually screamed on the phone.” (p337) (Emphasis in original.) She threatened to leave. He said go. She didn’t. And neither did he. All lives are balancing acts, but an artist’s life has a different fulcrum. Artists don’t have weekends. The artist should still do the dishes, but the work/home dichotomy that usually organizes chores doesn’t work. To be a partner with an artist means compromising with a different fulcrum, and though it doesn’t always mean going the extra mile, it sometimes means also doing extra rounds of dishes for a while. I have a problem with Linda because I am a feminist, historically “balance” and “compromise” mean “the woman does all the chores,” and I feel conflicted mentioning that Karl Ove’s writing was their primary source of money. And I believe I would have these problems even if the narrator were describing a male partner. And Knausgaard is incapable of anything but an ugly portrait of Linda. And I know I would have broken up with her. I would have tried and I would have given up. And, days, months or years later, to friends, family, or therapists, I would have described her as totally unreasonable and often emotionally unstable. I might have even said that, despite the past and the children, by the end, I’d come to despise her.

A Thin Collection of Essays

Besides descriptions of landscape, the only other passages untrammeled by Knausgaard’s anxiety are his thoughts and discussions of art and literature. A potent editor could skim a thin but brilliant collection of essays from this book. His ability to explicate literary and artistic critique is analogous to his ability to translate the environment into language, so you have ideas and arguments whose sophistication and complexity do not compromise their clarity. “As is always the case with books that seem to be groundbreaking, they put into words what for me had been suspicions, feelings, hunches.” (p127) Whether or not I agree with Knausgaard’s ideas or know the works he references, I admire the precision, nuance, and grace with which he describes them. There is just something pleasant in reading someone being brilliant about something.

Sometimes I Want to Slap Karl Ove

Open palm, right across the face. There seems to be a barrier in his life (in this volume), a permanent adolescence preventing him from having any kind of peace with himself. For all of his life narrated up to this point, he struggled with social interactions. He can’t talk to anybody unless he’s drunk, even people he should be friends with, even his family, even Linda. He doesn’t like caring for his children or giving readings and interviews. Everything he does is fraught with crippling stress. With the happiness writing gives him and the sorrow everything social gives him, you’d think he’d be a hermit, living off what he can, writing the entire process of his life until his falling arm writes his death in a slash of ink across the page. And yet not only did he want a family, he wanted exactly three children. And he continued to give interviews. And then he writes, “Don’t believe you are anybody…Because you are not. You’re just a smug, mediocre little shit,” (p501) which might be liberating to say, but he clearly doesn’t believe it. Mediocre little shits don’t write six-volume novel/memoirs about their lives and don’t put debilitating pressure on every single fucking thing anybody does or says about them. Sometimes I fucking hate Karl Ove. And then there’s his phobia of conflict. And then, in reference to the readings, interviews, and other things he does for his career, he writes, “I was a whore.” (p504) All artists struggle with the compromises they make for a career, but Karl Ove doesn’t seem to want a career. He’s a whore who doesn’t want the money. Just once, right across the mouth so the inherent contradictions we all face defining ourselves and our places in the world rattle around loud enough for him to hear what a fucking idiot he can be.

Reading Volumes Three, Four, Five, and Six

At that same event, I learned Karl Ove Knausgaard concludes the final volume of My Struggle by retiring from writing. And yet, he writes, “I, for my part, never looked forward to anything, except the moment when the office door closed behind me and I was alone and able to write.” (p421) He is uniformly miserable throughout the book except when he is writing. Only when he first fell in love with Linda and the first few days after Vanja was born do we see any happiness away from his desk. Something will happen in the intervening volumes that will either break him free of whatever it is that binds him to such constant misery or remove from writing whatever it is that makes him happy while he writes. I have no idea what to do with that. In some ways, reading Knausgaard is like reading a fun house mirror version of myself; horrified at how I’m stretched, attracted by how thin I look.

My Struggle Is His Life

I did come to a kind of conclusion, not without problems, but a base on which to build further understanding. “The wonder-rooms of the baroque age. The curiosity cabinets. And the world in Kiefer’s trees. That’s art. Nothing else.” (p534) Knausgaard absorbs the environment, but he can only appreciate what he sees when it is contained and transmitted through artistic expression. “When I was outdoors, walking, like now, what I saw gave me nothing. Snow was snow, trees were trees. It was only when I saw a picture of snow or of trees that they were endowed with meaning.” (p421) Because actual experience has no artistic filter, no cabinets or wonder-rooms, Karl Ove is completely disconnected from his own life. Without the front and back cover of a book, his own experiences, his own life; without the frame of a painting, he has no events, no emotions, no thoughts, without a wonder-room, he is just passing time. My Struggle is not a book about Karl Ove’s life, it is his life.

Josh Cook is a bookseller at Porter Square Books, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who grew up in Lewiston, Maine. His fiction, criticism, and poetry have appeared in numerous magazines and journals. He blogs for Porter Square Books, and at In Order of Importance, and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. An Exaggerated Murder his first novel. More from this author →