What it’s like to be reading Knausgaard

I once read an essay to the effect that one shouldn’t read Proust because one wants to have read Proust, but only if one want to be reading Proust. The same, it seems to me, applies to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s massive My Struggle. After Brad and The Girlfriend both recommended it highly, I finally started reading it this summer vacation and am about halfway through volume 1.

It is strangely addictive — I read 50 pages in the first sitting. And I do mean “strangely,” because on the surface it seems meandering and completely plotless. Nevertheless, it creates the impression of a seamless flow. There is an “always already” quality to his storytelling technique, as though he assumes you already somehow know what’s going on. In one case, Karl Ove was gathering wood because “they” would be there soon, and I paused to flip back through and see if I’d missed who “they” were. It turns out I had not — “they” were his grandparents, who had never been mentioned previously in any connection, much less that of their imminent arrival. It’s a small detail, but somehow indicative of his technique — he’s going for full immersion.

And what makes it so fully immersive, at least in the early sections where he is primarily discussing his childhood, is his utter non-judgmentalism of his past self. He occupies the childhood attitude, with its bizarre and cruel struggles for status, its confused conservatism. I don’t think I would be able to write about my childhood like that, without a “what was I thinking?” kind of tone — and I doubt others of a more positive bent would be able to write without a “oh what fun we had” kind of tone.

Beneath the naturalistic surface, too, I perceive an unobtrustive but well-crafted structure. Every so often, I have to pause and ask, “Wait, how exactly did we get here?” The answer isn’t always obvious, but it can always be constructed — and the seemingly baggy stream-of-consciousness narrative suddenly snaps into alignment. He says at one point that literature is purely about imposing form, a claim that seems jarring in context, but retrospectively helps to make sense of what has gone before.

And of course, there are the fun moments, the minor observations. A couple random ones from my segment last night:

After the age of twenty I had hardly ever dreamed about anything that had a bearing on my life. It was as though in dreams I had not grown up, I was still a child surrounded by the same people and places I had been surrounded by in childhood. And even though the events that occurred there were new every night, the feeling they left me with was always the same. The constant feeling of humiliation.

I also finally came across a section that both Brad and The Girlfriend singled out as particularly “relatable” for me. He has just made coffee and poured it into his mug:
I went into the street with the cup in my hand. A slight feeling of unease arose within me at seeing it out here, the cup belonged indoors, not outdoors; outdoors, there was something naked and exposed about it, and as I crossed the street I decided to buy a coffee at the 7-Eleven the following morning, and use their cup, made of cardboard, designed for outdoor use, from then on.

What about you, readers? Have you finally broken down and started reading the Literary Sensation of Our Generation?

3 thoughts on “What it’s like to be reading Knausgaard

  1. Similar experience here, also about halfway in the book as well. It took me a while to realize that the “stream” effect was achieved through various literary manoeuvres (at first it feels innocuous). One of the technique that became more apparent as I was reading is the seamless transition from one topic to another, and from one time period to another, sometimes in the span of two or three long sentences, within the same paragraph. The author subtly shift the perspective mid-sentence, without bringing attention to it. I would be reading about his childhood for the past 50 pages and, at one point, something in the way the kettle takes time to boil takes us will bring memory of a party when he was a teenager, to which the author would fully transition without going back to what he was previously writing about. A couple of pages later I would realize it and would need to go back to spot where the transition happened. For me at least, the resulting experience is something close to what you described: the reading itself becomes an event, unfolding like an uninterrupted flux (except when I close the cover), instead of being a collection of discrete actions that could be summarized (major event number one being divided into a series of sub-events). There would be something interesting to say in this regard about the fact that the book is often said to be “about nothing”, a novel where “nothing happens”.

  2. I read vol.1 as soon as I could get my hands on it. It was the ‘event’ as you say . . . and I tend to believe the hype unfortunately and so I simply wanted more from it (more what, though?).
    I enjoyed hearing him talk about the project more than reading it. I liked that he ‘tried to write ahead of his thinking’ and how he feels like he has utterly betrayed his family for this project. But the book itself just sort of seemed fine, well no, it was a good book but not an ‘event’ for me. I mentioned on twitter that being a year or so removed from reading it I am probably ready to try again or read the other volumes and just enjoy them for what they are. But in that respect I would rather be reading Proust.

  3. Read first two volumes in one sitting – two others are out in English but haven’t had time to tackle them (knowing it will be one continuous sitting again). It’s good stuff. Sometimes those who announce the next big thing of our generation are correct.

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