No Madeleine, But Still Proustian


Title: My Struggle – Book 1

Rating: 4 Stars

This book is clearly the hip read now among the literary cognoscenti. It seems like one of those serious works that you read so that after you’re done with it you can smugly say that you’ve read it. Of course, I know absolutely no one that would be impressed by that statement and actually, if I stated it, my friends would probably question my sanity for having done so.

Be that is it may, every time that I went to the local book store, there it always was, featured on some store employee’s must read book list. I finally couldn’t take it any more and I broke down and bought it. I went on vacation and had several hours of quiet reading time in Lithia Park, a beautiful park with a pond, a burbling stream, and miles of nature trails with conveniently located park benches. In this pastoral setting, I could really quiet my thoughts and do some intent reading.

I have to say that I was amazed. I did not expect to be entertained and I found it to be fascinating reading.

Let’s back up a bit and give just a little bit of the back story. Knausgaard was trying to write his next novel and was experiencing writer’s block. Apparently, he’s very susceptible to it.

To combat the block, he basically decided to write about pretty much whatever he wanted to write about, as long as he was writing. This involved writing about the daily mundane life of being a husband in a challenging marriage, being the primary caretaker of three young children, memories from his past, his fears and insecurities, and what kind of tea he likes to drink in the morning.

Every day he would read what he’d written to a close friend, a writer. The writer thought that it was brilliant and would encourage him to keep at it. He set impossible writing deadlines for himself (which apparently helps him stave off the block). He wrote fifty pages about his marriage in twenty-four hours. He wrote one of the books (many hundreds of pages) in about eight weeks. He ended up writing all six parts (over 3500 pages) in about 3 years.

So, given all of that, here’s my perspective on the first part.

Huge parts of it were truly about the most mundane activities. I kept expecting to be bored, but honestly, I never was (or quite rarely). Some of that was because I could recognize myself in some of that banality. He would think some thought that would be exactly what I would think and there would be that instant of connection where I would think, hey, he’s just like me. From other reviews, I’ve noticed others have expressed that as well. There is a universality to the every day mundane (at least if you’re WEIRD, ie Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic) that he taps into just by expressing it.

I think this possibly almost qualifies as a new form of literature. It’s clearly autobiographical. However, he recounts memories from his childhood with such a level of arcane detail that unless he truly has some kind of eidetic memory (and at various points he confesses to having a poor memory) that there must be a fictional construct to the memory. In fact, knowing that he was about to raise a shit-storm with his family, he previewed the work to some family members, several of which raised serious issues with the accuracy of the work and he actually made some changes to address their concerns.

So what is the line between fact and fiction in literature? Clearly there was serious blowback with James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, which was sold as a memoir but was later shown to have major inaccuracies. My Struggle is sold in the fiction section, so at some level it is acknowledged that this is an artist that is using his life as the canvas but is probably taking major liberties with some form of absolute truth to express himself.

But that itself is interesting, right? Given the fact that everyone perceives their reality solely within the prism of themselves, is there such a thing as absolute truth? The fact that other people remember Knausgaard’s life events differently, does that make Knausgaard’s truth less truthful?

There are clearly Proustian overtones to Knausgaard’s work. Like In Search of Lost Time, you have a writer living in the present that is immersed in memories that occasionally flood over him. Proust’s work also spans several thousand pages and would seem to be unreadable but ultimately is nearly hypnotic in its power to fascinate. In fact, in a passage in Knausgaard’s book, there is a moment where he sees an image in the floor and that immediately flashes him back to a moment from his childhood (ala the famous madeleine incident from Proust).

Book 1’s central themes were fathers and death. Knausgaard had at best a problematic relationship with his father. He had the classic relationship of a father that was judgmental and dismissive of him, doomed never to feel appreciated, approved, or loved by.

His father divorces his mother and quickly declines to a state where he’s a shut-in with Knausgaard’s grandmother. There he drinks himself to death. When Knausgaard and his brother go to plan his funeral, they discover that the grandmother’s house is effectively destroyed, with bottles lying everywhere, furniture ruined, feces and urine everywhere, and the grandmother herself is in an advanced state of incontinent dementia and alcoholism.

Knausgaard is having to deal with his feelings that have arisen as a result of his father’s death. He never received the approval from his father that he strived so hard for, so is effectively left in a state out of grace. He also must contend with the literal wreckage of the life that his father left behind in the ruins of the house and the piteous state of his grandmother.

Even if he doesn’t receive the emotional catharsis that one might usually hope for from such a novel, it is clear by the end that he has a clearer, possibly healthier relationship with the concept with death and is coming to terms with the relationship that he had with his father.

This was quite the immersive bath into the life of Knausgaard. I’m not sure if I’ll read the other five sections. If I choose not to, it won’t be because I’m worried that I won’t be interested as much as the fact that it’s such a huge time commitment to make and there are so many other books to read!




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