Friday, June 3, 2016

Review: My Struggle: Book 1

My Struggle: Book 1 My Struggle: Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgård
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve heard such hype around this Norwegian Proust, that I finally had to make time to read it. At least two friends I respect very much have been raving about him, and they’ve encouraged me in my fits and starts through it.

I suppose I can see the appeal.

On the one hand, Knausgaard writes with wonderful precision. When he takes in a scene, we take it in. He is a master at switching from one sense to another. Some scenes come to us visually with a range of details lining up into a full picture. Others come emotionally, where he recognizes and probes a feeling that hovers over some memory. Still others are rooted in sound, and we often get catalogues of the music he was enjoying (or attempting to play) at one time or another. That variety of representation shows real skill, and it keeps this from bogging down.

On top of that, he writes from a philosophical perspective. Like Proust, he seems to sense that something in his experience holds the key to understanding who he was and, through that, who he is. And underlying all of that is the implicit promise that his discovery will help us readers make our own discovery. Unlike Proust, he has the machinery of 20th century philosophy to contend with. Things don’t always represent what we expect them to represent; some of our certainties are no longer certain but rather evocative of a cultural past that threatens to mock us.

As he puts it in a meditation about looking at paintings of angels halfway through this, “the great and the good were dubious entities.” He means that what art once contemplated now feels beyond us. Instead, art has turned in on itself, made itself its subject. As he puts it, “Art has become a spectator of itself.” As a result, our burden (our “struggle”, I suppose) is with the self, with what I sometimes think of as the postmodern Disease of the Self, an inability to get outside ourselves and relate to a larger community. As he sums up that particular meditation, “We understand everything, and we do so because we have turned everything into ourselves.”

And I will even admit to a slice of what Knausgaard’s admirers claim for this: when you read it at length, you start to absorb his rhythms and perceptions. I have spent chunks of the last week or two feeling more like a middle-aged Norwegian novelist than like myself, a middle-aged professor from Ohio by way of Chicago and Pennsylvania. His perception is so insistent, so compelling, that he pulls you in. If Al Franken once urged us to follow up the “Me Decade” of the 1970s with the “Al Franken Decade” of the 1980s, this book makes a good case for living at least a month in the mind of Knausgaard. (And a month is probably selling it short if you plan to make it through all six volumes of this.)

So, that’s my case for “getting” this. There is something there there (or here here if you’re caught up in the experience of the book as you check out this review.)

But I can’t help feeling the opposite reaction as well. There is simply no central narrative here. I suppose that reflects the deconstructed memoir we have going here, but it seems to me ask an awful lot of a reader. It’s not just that Knausgaard finds himself wallowing in self-ness; he imposes it on us. For most of the time I was reading this, I had no idea how it would end. And by that I don’t mean I didn’t know how things would wrap up but that I had no idea how I would even know it was over other than by the fact that there were no more words. When the particular magic of the prose failed – less as a result of any lack of skill than from my own tendency to drift to my personal experiences – I sometimes felt like an overworked therapist, sitting down to another session with my Norwegian patient, listening to him circle around the same central mystery of his life while I wondered what I would make the family for dinner once his hour was over.

And, while I admire the engagement with postmodern impulses, I have to admit a bias in the opposite direction: for me at least, in a world where we are pulled in so many directions, I want art to be selective. I want it to be efficient as it delivers its truths. I prize the clever and the funny. I want my writers to be tour guides who take me to curious insights of character and contradiction, and I want them to trust me to fill in a lot of the context around those insights. I want them to choose (and frame) the best of what they have to say and in so doing to spare me the tendentious and the unframed.

One of the friends recommending this also praised Elena Ferrente to me. I like Ferrente, but I don’t love her, and I don’t love her for the same reason I don’t love this: it moves so leisurely through a rich life that I start to lose sight of the life around that life. (I think Ferrente does that better than Knausgaard, but I still wish she’d move her narrative forward more quickly, and I wish she’d be more selective in the stories she shares.)

The other friend is a big David Foster Wallace advocate, and I can see the similarity in the way both writers seem so caught up in the empire of the self, so intent on sharing every scrap of experience no matter how tendentious it seems. While I’ve tried on several occasions, I don’t “get” Foster Wallace. He not only seems to suffer from the same Disease of Self – and not only revels in that sickness rather than seeking a way out of it – but he lets it infect his prose. So much of it strikes me as heavy, that sentence by sentence I tire of his work. In Knausguaard’s defense, his prose (as we get it in translation) always seems to beckon, always seems open to some new possibility, some new quirk of his own memory.

I’m glad Knausguaard is out there, and I don’t regret having read this much. Still, as I found myself counting down the final pages of the book as I turned them, I’m glad to be outside him and back into my own self. Good luck to him (and to his many readers) but I don’t see myself making it through five more volumes of this.

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