I love you Karl Ove Knausgaard. Really, this is not at all surprising, nor is it original, as the Norwegian author’s six-tome 3,600 page series titled ‘My Struggle’ has sold millions of copies worldwide. It has been translated into 22 languages. One in ten Norwegians owns a copy of these books. As with everything that becomes very very popular, Knausgaard has his share of critics. Not least of all his family, who have publicly denounced his decision to write about them, albeit not the veracity of his portrayals. He has been sued by some of his kin and disowned by others.
In an interview, one of Knausgaard’s girlfriends about whom he writes extensively in Book Four, says: “It was as if he said: Now I’m going to punch you in the face. I know it’s going to hurt, and I’m going to drive you to the hospital afterwards, but I’m going to do it anyways”. Knausgaard himself appears to have been traumatized by the reception of his books, having moved to rural Sweden and published a new series stripped entirely of the confessional. When asked if it has all been worth it, Knausgaard recently told Esquire magazine that he only regrets “one sentence he has written”. In an earlier interview with the Guardian, and in response to a question about whether or not he should have written the books, Knausgaards says: ” If I had known then what I know now, then no, definitely no, I wouldn’t dare. But I’m glad I did. And I couldn’t have done it any other way. I will never do anything like this again, though, for sure. I have given away my soul, in a way. […] Do you think that literature is worth your uncle, or whoever? Is literature more important than hurting people? You can’t argue that. You can’t say it. It’s impossible. But you can write about yourself and your father. That’s my defence in all this. I did it with a pure heart. He brought me to life. He did these things to me…..Danger, it seems to me, is in action, what people do, not in telling, what they say. As long as this isn’t a hate project; as long as I’m trying to tell things as they really are”.
And he does tell things as they are. In his 3,600 pages, Knausgaard exhaustively documents the humdrum details of daily life. His prose is sparse and reminiscent of Hemingway in its lack of metaphor or embellishment. Things stand for themselves and the cumulative effect of all these things is powerful and piercing. A jolt. Whereas ordinarily I measure the quality of books by the amount of highlighting and underlining that mars their pages, in reading Knausgaard’s books I have eschewed my highlighters entirely. Individual sentences are unremarkable, albeit often beautiful in their simplicity, and yet they aggregate in a way that is breathtaking. James Wood of the New Yorker writes “Even when I was bored, I was interested”. What is it that makes boring interesting for so many millions of people?
This question got me thinking about the exploded way in which we live in today’s world. 3.5 million hits, 10 million views, direct flights, online diagnosis; the world comes at us fast and hard. Remember when there were 31 channels on TV? I’m not making a value judgement on whether or not slow and plodding is better than fast and hard–but it is undeniable that in the age of information, the world moves faster than the individual mind. And certainly there are consequences to this speed and many sacrifices made at the alter of the Internet. In elementary school, when I was given the task of researching an endangered species, what would today take an hour, would likely have necessitated an entire weekend. First, call the library to confirm their hours. Next, look up the bus schedule. Next, wait for the bus. Next, take the bus. Next drink a hot chocolate at the coffee shop next to the library with your bus fare home (worry about getting home later). Next browse the stacks for nothing in particular and emerge with books on dreams, Russian gymnasts, outdated chronicles of faraway places. Next, speak with the librarian, find call numbers, search for individual call numbers like IJ9008, find an encyclopedia, search G for Gorilla. Next read the entry on Gorillas, take notes in smudged HB pencil, fold up the piece of paper, call mom for a ride home, run into a teacher from school outside of school (weird). And all the many mysteries that could and did happen along the way, that are now erased with the push of a few buttons.
Knausgaard then, is an antidote to the onslaught of life. Reading Knausgaard satisfies a craving of which we may have no awareness, but which is evident in the commercialization, popularization, and colonization of yoga, meditation, mindfulness. We go everywhere all at once, but we seldom go deep. Reading Knausgaard is immersive in a way so few things are nowadays.
My words can only go so far in communicating the magic of reading his words. But I recommend you do. His sixth book is yet to be translated into English; his first two books are the finest of the bunch for sure. I would recommend starting with Book One, although they can be read out of sequence. Go buy a copy. Or even better, go take the bus and get it from your local library.