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Posts Tagged ‘My Struggle’

I finally dipped into the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic ‘My Struggle‘. The English translation of the first volume is called ‘A Death in the Family‘. I have been reading it for the past twelve days and finally finished reading it yesterday.

My Struggle‘ is probably classified as auto-fiction. So the story and the events described in it are probably all inspired by what actually happened. So the narrator in the book is Karl Ove Knausgaard himself, his wife is called Linda and the characters appearing in the book are all probably real people. I didn’t do my research to find out whether there are any imaginary characters in the book. So why call it fiction? Why not call it a memoir or an autobiography? The only reason I can think of is that the author wanted to embellish some events with his own imagination, and also wanted to avoid being sued, if a real person making an appearance in the book took offence. Calling a book ‘fiction’ and putting a disclaimer on the first page takes care of all that.

The book starts with a long meditation on death, which is quite insightful and beautiful. Then the story starts when Karl Ove was a boy and then it moves back and forth and flits through multiple time periods. In many places, Knausgaard talks about one thing, and then goes back into the past to describe a related thing, and before we can blink, we have entered a rabbit hole, and we are immersed in the past, and when we come up for a breath of fresh air, we discover that thirty pages have gone and we are still in the past, and we wonder what happened to the present event he was describing, and before we know the story flits back seamlessly into the present. It is quite fascinating. I loved these digressions. However, it is not everyone’s cup of tea.

The book alternates between long contemplative passages and pages, and moving the story forward with events and dialogue. The concentration of the contemplative passages is more in the first half of the book, and the second part has more dialogue and events. I liked both aspects of the book, but I liked the contemplative parts more. I read many of those contemplative passages and passages many times, and at times I didn’t want to move forward and kept reading those pages again and again. They were beautiful and insightful and thought-provoking and delightful to read. Knausgaard talks about every kind of topic under the sun – art, books, music, football and an infinite variety of other things – and there is something in these pages for every kind of reader.

What about the story itself? The story is interesting and the narrator talks about every kind of close relationship we have with our family members. The narrator’s views and insights are honest and frank and unflinching and sometimes we might even find them uncomfortable. But they are always deep and thought-provoking. The characters are complex and well-developed and real. I loved the characters of his mother, grandmother, and the brother Yngve, but there are lots of characters, they are all fascinating.

Knausgaard’s book was highly acclaimed when it first came out. Zadie Smith said, “It’s completely blown my mind.” Another reviewer said that it “has strong claim to be the great literary event of the twenty-first century.” But there are other fascinating, insightful thoughts too. For example, you can find Lisa’s (from ‘ANZ Litlovers’) review here and Jacqui’s review here. You can also find Melissa’s (from The Book Binder’s Daughter) thoughts on auto-fiction here, which compares Knausgaard’s book with others.

From my perspective, I loved the first part of ‘My Struggle’. I loved reading those contemplative passages many times. Some readers feel that the second part is even better than the first part. I can’t wait to get into it.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“When I was at home on my own every room had its own character, and though not directly hostile to me they were not exactly welcoming, either. It was more as if they did not want to subordinate themselves to me, but wanted to exist in their own right, with their own individual walls, floors, ceilings, skirting boards, yawning windows. I was aware of a deadness about the rooms – that was what made me uncomfortable – by which I mean not dead in the sense of life having ceased, but rather life being absent, the way that life is absent from a rock, a glass of water, a book. The presence of our cat, Mefisto, was not strong enough to dispel this, I just saw the cat in the yawning room; however, were a person to come in, even if it were only a small baby, the yawning room was gone. My father filled the rooms with disquiet, my mother filled them with gentleness, patience, melancholy, and on occasion, if she came home from work and was tired, also with a faint yet noticeable undercurrent of irritability. Per, who never ventured further than the front hall, filled it with happiness, expectation and submission. Jan Vidar, who was so far the only person outside my family to have been in my room, filled it with obstinacy, ambition and friendliness. It was interesting when several people were present because there wasn’t any space for the sway of more than one, at top two wills in a room, and it was not always the strongest that was the most obvious.”

Have you read the first part of Knausgaard’sMy Struggle‘? What do you think about it?

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I can’t remember when exactly I discovered Karl Ove Knausgaard. But I can remember exactly the time when he started to persistently demand my attention. That was when I read an article about books which were too big to be carried around and read in the subway or in any other form of public transport. One of the books on the list was Knausgaard’s ‘The End‘ which was the last volume of his 6-volume epic, ‘My Struggle‘. I added it to my list of ‘Epic chunksters which I hope to read, but probably won’t‘. I have been tempted many times since, to get that epic. I have always talked myself out of it, telling myself that ‘I will never read it, it is too big‘, ‘I got Proust’sIn Search of Lost Time‘ ten years back and I haven’t read it yet, the same fate will befall this‘, and ‘I have too many unread books on my shelf, I need to read them first.’ I thought I had come out of this unscathed, and I was happy about it, but then recently I saw the first two volumes of ‘My Struggle‘ in my friend’s shelfie, and it was the last straw on the camel’s back. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I went and got it.

So my friends, may I present the epic mother-of-all-chunksters, the one which will give Proust a run for his money, Karl Ove Knausgaard’sMy Struggle‘ 🙂 (Who calls their lifetime epic literary work ‘My Struggle’? Why???)

I think there should be a word for an epic chunkster which runs to thousands of pages (the edition I have runs to 4008 pages), which is highly recommended but rarely read, which looks like a novel, but which in reality is a veiled memoir of the author. I think that word could be ‘Knausgaardian‘. ‘Proustian‘, you have been around for nearly a century now, and we love you, but it is time for you to step aside now, because the new kid-off-the-block has arrived, he is your 21st century version, and his name is ‘Knausgaardian‘.

One of my friends says that she reads a chunkster every summer. I loved that idea. So thought I’ll try to read Knausgaard’s epic, this summer. Atleast dip my toes into it. Then I read the great Yoshida Kenko saying in his book ‘Essays in Idleness‘ –

“Those who feel the impulse to pursue the path of enlightenment should immediately take the step, and not defer it while they attend to all the other things on their mind. If you say to yourself, ‘Let’s just wait until after this is over,’ or ‘While I’m at it I’ll just see to that,’ or ‘People will criticize me about such-and-such so I should make sure it’s all dealt with and causes no problem later,’ or ‘There’s been time enough so far, after all, and it won’t take long just to wait a little longer while I do this. Let’s not rush into things,’ one imperative thing after another will occur to detain you. There will be no end to it all, and the day of decision will never come. In general, I find that reasonably sensitive and intelligent people will pass their whole life without taking the step they know they should. Would anyone with a fire close behind them choose to pause before fleeing? In a matter of life and death, one casts aside shame, abandons riches and runs.”

Kenko was a Zen monk from the medieval ages, and he was talking about taking the path to enlightenment, but it is easy to take what he said and apply it to another suitable context. So, when I remembered Kenko’s words, I thought, ‘If I can read this in summer, I can read this in spring‘ and then ‘If I can read this in spring, I can read this today‘, and then, ‘If I can read this today, I can read this now.’ This is how the human mind works.

I have read the first few pages of the first volume, and it looks very beautiful. I have a poor record with respect to chunksters – I get started with enthusiasm, and then I get distracted after a hundred or two hundred or a few hundred pages, because real world tasks which I have kept pushing below the carpet, suddenly burst out and start demanding attention, or sometimes another book uses all its wiles to distract me. So I don’t know what is going to happen here. I have dipped my toe into the Knausgaardian ocean now, and I am waiting to see where it takes me. Please wish me well.

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