My Struggle, Book 1 : My Struggle

  • by Karl Ove Knausgaard
  • Narrated by Edoardo Ballerini
  • Series: My Struggle
  • 16 hrs and 10 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

My Struggle: Book One introduces American listeners to the audacious, addictive, and profoundly surprising international literary sensation that is the provocative and brilliant six-volume autobiographical novel by Karl Ove Knausgaard. It has already been anointed a Proustian masterpiece and is the rare work of dazzling literary originality that is intensely, irresistibly readable. Unafraid of the big issues - death, love, art, fear - and yet committed to the intimate details of life as it is lived, My Struggle is an essential work of contemporary literature.

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Anatomy of the Disease of the Self

Have you listened to any of Edoardo Ballerini’s other performances before? How does this one compare?

He's really a brilliant narrator. He has a subtle and insistent voice, reading efficiently and quickly without losing clarity. A real champ.


Any additional comments?

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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- Joe Kraus

A Death in the Family

"And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor."
-- Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Book 1

First, let me say something about this novel (and I'm assuming the next five novels) that is both simple and genius. This is a weird book. It captures the reader because it falls into a funky zone between memoir and fiction. He is telling secrets. Opening the dirty closets. Cleaning the shit out of an old house. It is exhibitionism of sex, shit, death, life, etc., but it is also a clear reflection. So much of the power of this novel for me is a direct response to how clear I see myself in his exposure. I read about his relationship with his brother, his father, his girlfriends, his mother and I see myself. I see his thoughts on music and art and I think, hell, that is me too. I know it isn't, but that is the trick. Knausgaard uses these forms, or creates this form, in his novel that he fills with his own memories and history and soon you are seeing yourself in these same locks.

Structure/Forms/Locks

Early in his novel he mentions that great literature is structure or form first. He talks about this about half way through the book:

"For several years I had tried to write about my father, but had gotten nowhere, probably because the subject was too close to my life, and thus not so easy to force into another form, which of course is a prerequisite for literature. That is its sole law: everything has to submit to form. If any of literature's other elements are stronger than form, such as style, plot, theme, if any of these overtake form, the result suffers. That is why writers with strong style often write bad books. That is also why writers with strong themes so often write bad books. Strong themes and styles have to be broken down before literature can come into being. It is this breaking down that is called "writing". Writing is more about destroying than creating. - p195

Add this to Knausgaard's view of time and I think we get a hint at how he writes, and perhaps, what makes this novel so great:

For, while previously I saw time as a stretch of terrain that had to be covered, with the future as a distant prospect, hopefully a bright one, and never bring at any rate, now it is interwoven with our life here and in a totally different way. Were I to portray this with a visual image it would have to be that of a a boat in a lock: life is slowly and ineluctably raised by time seeping in from all sides. Apart from the details, everything is always the same. And with every passing day the desire grows for the moment when life will reach the top, for the moment when the sluice gates open and life finally moves on. At the same time I see that precisely this repetitiveness, this enclosedness, this unchangingness is necessary, it protects me. - p 33

Eugenides captures this construction perfectly in his review in the New York Times:

"Knausgaard’s life is a grab bag of events and recollections, and he uses whatever is handy. He doesn’t lie or make things up (so far as I know). But the ­selection process he subjects his memories to in order to fulfill the narrative demands of his writing rises to a level of considerable artifice. Other writers invent; Knausgaard remembers. His raw materials are more authentic (maybe), but the products they create no less artful."

Knausgaard's history is the water he fills his locks with. The paint he paints his story with. It isn't history. It isn't biography. It isn't even memory. It is art imitating life.
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- Darwin8u "I write for myself, for my own pleasure. And I want to be left alone to do it. - Salinger ^(;,;)^"

Book Details

  • Release Date: 12-24-2014
  • Publisher: Recorded Books