My Struggle: Book 5

Reluctantly I am unable to control my devouring of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s struggle. Book 5 continues the story (thank god there is only 1 remaining) with his acceptance into the Writer’s Academy, his ill-fated attempt to study Literature in Bergen, his role as a pseudo-drummer in his brother’s band, the year off he takes to care for mentally ill (mostly to earn money), his ambivalence about writing, his inability to write, and then finally his breakthrough, his first novel and critical acclaim. 600+ pages over the last two days, I admit that he has real skill in swirling his story among descriptions of gorgeous Scandinavian nature scenes and city life. Yet there are still parts that I can’t bear, his insistence on telling us how he prematurely ejaculates, how he smuggles an art book down to the bathroom to masturbate, his roving eye and subsequent dismissal of women except as objects to be described. He continues to be a flawed character who reveals all, the dirty details of all his friendships and relationships. I would not want to spend a single minute in his company, and yet I appreciate the writing, appreciate the spotlight he shines on the struggle of writing.

What was this feeling? I didn’t now. It was beyond investigation, beyond explanation or justification, there was no rationality in it at all, yet it was self=evident, all-eclipsing: anyting other than writing was meaningless for me. Nothing else would be enough, would quench my thirst.
But thirst for what?
How could it be so strong? Writing a few words on paper? And, yes, that wasn’t a dissertation, research, a report, or that sort of thing, but literary?
It was madness, for this was precisely what I couldn’t do. I was good at academic assignments, and I was good at articles, reviews, and interviews. But as soon as I sat down to write literature, which was the only way I wanted to spend my life, the sole occupation I perceived as meaningful enough, then I fell short.
I wrote letters, they just flowed, sentence after sentence, page after page. Often they consisted of stories about my life, what I’d experienced and what I’d thought. Had I only been able to transfer that feeling, that state of mind, that flow into literary prose, everything would have been fine. But I couldn’t I sat at my desk, wrote a line, then stop. I wrote another line, stop.

I feel your pain, Knausgaard. Later, when he’s in the flow, he mentions the importance of routine to conserve all available energy for writing.

My Struggle: Book 4

Book four of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s unending struggle was a bounce back in the right direction, much better than the stinker of book 3, albeit flawed in its own right. The time period is post-high school, Karl Ove heads to northern Norway to be a teacher at age 18, drinking heavily, attempting to write. Here we have signs of his real struggle, that of becoming a writer. He’s consumed by his problem of premature ejaculation and confesses to never masturbating, which is what he believes is causing this. There’s terrible stuff like: “Quite often I caught myself wishing we were still in the Stone Age, then all I would have needed to do was go out with a club, hit the nearest woman on the head, and drag her home to do whatever I wanted.” But this is balanced out as much as is possible by lyrical descriptions of the village by the sea that does not see sunlight during the winter, only thick snow and darkness:

The days became shorter, and they became shorter quickly, as though they were racing toward the darkness. The first snow arrived in mid-October, went after a few days, but the next time it fell, at the beginning of November, it came with a vengeance, day after day it tumbled down, and soon everything was packed in thick white cushions of snow, apart from the sea, which with its dark, clean surface and terrible depths lay nearby like an alien and menacing presence, like a murderer who has moved into a neighboring house and whose unheeded knife glints on the kitchen table.

He gleefully sinks into life in the village, storing up incidents to share via letter to friends, like the man who pulls a gun on him for spending too much time with his girlfriend, or riding in cars at top speeds and listening to old country and western songs. There’s also sprinklings of memories from high school days, how he got caught up in a drinking spiral and couldn’t shake it, kicked out of the house by his mom during the last few months of school. Mostly, it’s an endless struggle to find and hook up with ladies, which culminates in the final scene at a music festival, losing his virginity at last.

My Struggle: Book 3

A very disappointing third installation of what was previously an engaging and gripping poetic work. Clearly in this volume we see the pressures of success bear down on the author… must match the success of the previous two volumes! But ends up failing miserably. A hollow and bleary-eyed reminisce purely about boyhood, not shot through like the other two books with present-day scenes that make us actually care about the narrator. Purely resting on laurels from other volumes, assuming that you care about this vague and sketchy nimrod. Troubles with his dad continue, of course. Comics, soccer, reading, school, it all has a hollow ring and a rushed feel. For those in a bit of a hurry to read the complete series, no harm in completely skipping this one.

My Struggle: Book 2

Knausgaard’s words wash over me, coming in sets of waves, the day to day life of raising three children co-mingled with reminiscing about the past. The ever-present struggle to write, to find enough alone time to write and immerse himself in his work without being a bad father/husband. It’s inspiring to see him elevate the common bits of life (taking out the trash, washing dishes) and then plunge into a delicate piece musing on the nature of human relationships. He exposes his whole being– consumed artist, dutiful father, pal who goes drinking, respectful son. NYT book review has a great quote– “Why would you read a six-volume, 3,600 page Norwegian novel about a man writing a six-volume, 3,600 page Norwegian novel?” It’s intense and addictive; I’ve already got Book 3 waiting on the table.

Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or that made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change diapers but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else always undermined my efforts. What was the problem? Was it the shrill, sickly tone I heard everywhere that I couldn’t stand, the one that arose from all the pseudopeople and pseudoplaces, pseudoevents, and pseudoconflicts our lives passed through, that which we saw but did not participated in, and the distance that modern life in this way had opened up to our own, actually inalienable here and now?

What would it have been like to live in a world where everything was made from the power of your hands, the wind, or the water? What would it have been like to live in a world where the American Indians still lived their lives in peace? Where that life was an actual possibility? Where Africa was unconquered? Where darkness came with sunset and light with the sunrise? Where there were too few humans and their tools were too rudimentary to have any effect on animal stocks, let alone wipe them out? Where you could not travel from one place to another without exerting yourself, and a comfortable life was something only the rich could afford, where the sea was full of whales, the forests full of bears and wolves, and there were still countries that were so alien no adventure story could do them justice, such as China, to which a voyage not only took several months and was the prerogative of only a tiny minority of sailors and traders, but was also fraught with danger. Admittedly, that world was rough and wretched, filthy and ravaged with sickness, drunken and ignorant, full of pain, low life expectancy and rampant superstition, but it produced the greatest writer, Shakespeare, the greatest painter, Rembrandt, the greatest scientist, Newton, all still unsurpassed in their fields, and how can it be that this period achieved this wealth? Was it because death was closer and life was starker as a result?

“The nihilistic world is in essence a world that is being increasingly reduced, which naturally of necessity coincides with the movement toward a zero point,” Jünger wrote. A case in point of such a reduction is God being perceived as “good” or the inclination to find a common denominator for all the complicated tendencies of the world, or the propensity for specialization, which is another form of reduction, or the determination to convert everything into figures, beauty as well as forests as well as art as well as bodies. For what is money if not an entity that commodofies the most dissimilar things?

What I want to do is travel, see, read, and write. To be free. Completely free. And I had a chance to be free on the island… I headed out there, where there wasn’t a soul. I didn’t understand myself, I had no idea who I was, so what I resorted to, all these ideas about being a good person, was simply all I had. I didn’t watch TV, I didn’t read newspapers, and all I ate was crispbread and soup… I started doing push-ups and sit-ups. Can you imagine? How desperate do you have to be to start doing push-ups to solve your problems?… The worst of it is that I can understand: that need to rid yourself of all the banality and small-mindedness rotting inside you, all the trivia that can make you angry or unhappy, that can create a desire for something pure and great into which you can dissolve and disappear. It’s getting rid of all the shit, isn’t it?

My Struggle: Book 1

I was initially turned off by the rock-star reception the author got at a signing in NYC, line stretching around the block, stomach churning at the indignity of subjecting an author to the celebrity treatment. But after many months of seeing it hovering around bookstores and hearing various encomiums singing its praises, I gave in. I’m glad I did. The Norwegian writes his life in the form of a novel, swirling round the fact of death, his father’s death in particular, dancing around the painful process of writing itself – the false starts, the endless jot file for worthless prose that is churned out day after day.
He ventures deep into his memories, showing us a four year old self, an eight year old who sees Christ’s face in the water, a teenager with elaborate plots to sneak beer over to a friend’s house, a twice-married man facing his first child’s birth. His older brother is worshipped, his father detested and feared. The mother seems sheltering and kind but we never get much of a glimpse of her (the rest of his prose not particularly female-friendly either, but that’s so common that it’s surprising to actually notice it). When his father kicks it, he and his brother go to rescue the hellhole their grandmother is living in, cleaning up soiled clothing and endless bags of bottles (alcoholism). Tears, tears, and sobs over his father’s death – due to freedom at last? It’s definitely powerful writing, it places you smack in the middle of the scene, paints you a picture you can’t resist inhaling. Queuing up Book 2 now.

Even though the suitcase was heavy I carried it by the handle as I walked into the departure hall. I detested the tiny wheels, first of all because they were feminine, thus not worthy of a man, a man should carry, not roll, secondly because they suggested easy options, shortcuts, savings, rationality, which I despised and opposed wherever I could, even where it was of the most trivial significance. Why should you live in a world without feeling its weight? Were we just images? And what were we actually saving energy for with these energy-saving devices?