On New Year’s Eve, 1984, on a snowbound street in southern Norway, a teenager named Karl Ove Knausgaard plotted to smuggle beer into a party, chatted with his mother (“What weather!” “You can say that again”), shoveled the driveway, and chided himself for failing to nail the guitar chords in David Bowie’s “Life on Mars”: “The thought of this could sometimes weigh me down because I wanted so much to be someone. I wanted so much to be special.”
As written by Knausgaard almost 30 years later, that single evening takes up eighty pages, a pileup of mundane detail and digressive pondering that should by rights be insufferable, especially at a time when five pages constitute a “longread.” But among the many remarkable things about My Struggle, the 45-year-old Knausgaard’s six-volume, 3,600-page book-series-cum-alternate universe, is that it’s mesmerizing — to critics, to writers, and to hundreds of thousands of readers. Today marks the American publication of the third volume, Boyhood, and the beginning of the kind of tour most authors would kill relatives to have (Knausgaard, in his truly tell-all books, only gave away their secrets). He will be treated less like a boutique literary find than a visiting dignitary on his bicoastal trip, a literature-in-translation arena tour unprecedented this side of a Nobel prize, never mind for a writer unknown outside Norway five years ago. On various stages in L.A. and New York, he’ll be interviewed by a roll call of our youngish literary firmament — Mona Simpson, Donald Antrim, Nicole Krauss, Zadie Smith, Jeffrey Eugenides — none of whom he’s met. “There is this kind of aura around it that is very strange,” Knausgaard says by phone from rural Sweden, where he now lives. “It’s almost impossible to identify with.”
Most of My Struggle’s Anglophone reviews catalogue its accumulation of doldrums and clichés before describing the complete absorptive ecstasy that builds nonetheless. “Even when I was bored, I was interested,” wrote James Wood in The New Yorker. “There shouldn’t be anything remarkable about any of it except for the fact that it immerses you totally,” wrote Zadie Smith in The New York Review of Books. (Elsewhere, she said, “I need the next volume like crack.”) “It’s easy to marshal examples of what makes My Struggle mediocre,” Ben Lerner wrote in the London Review of Books. “The problem is: It’s amazing.” In a short write-up, Jonathan Lethem called Knausgaard “a living hero who landed on greatness by abandoning every typical literary feint, an emperor whose nakedness surpasses royal finery.” Eugenides told Evan Hughes, in a definitive New Republic profile, that Knausgaard “broke the sound barrier of the autobiographical novel.“It’s been a long time since a foreign writer has had such an immediate and obvious effect on writers in America,” says Lorin Stein, head of The Paris Review, who helped launch the last foreign literary sensation Roberto Bolaño when he edited books at Farrar Straus and Giroux.
In Norway, My Struggle was more of a succès de scandale than a succès d’estime. After writing two acclaimed novels, Knausgaard decided in 2008 to drill down to “the inner core of human existence” by recounting his own life with punishing speed and in every detail, no matter how banal or grotesque. Published over two years in Scandinavia, My Struggle generated enormous sales (almost one book for every ten Norwegians) and considerable controversy. For one thing, the title translates as Mein Kampf in German (which might be why it’s fallen flat in Germany), and, for another, Knausgaard renders everyone in his life, himself most of all, with brutal transparency. His father’s family hasn’t spoken to him since.
In the U.S., his struggle is with addled attention spans rather than angry uncles. If Knausgaard needs escorts and cheerleaders here, it’s not because of the usual barriers to promoting work in translation — haughty language, exotic subjects. Knausgaard is, like his role model Marcel Proust, documenting an entire life, but in every other way he’s the anti-Proust. His settings are middle-class, his tragedies minor, and his language purposefully banal. The seductive challenge he throws down is at once simple and gargantuan. Here is a life as told to itself — not as a free-written Beatnik fever dream or a domestic thumb-sucker, but as a plain concatenation of thoughts and actions high and low. Here is how you make a cup of tea; here is how you clean up a family home left to rot by your drunken father and senile grandmother. Are you hungry for reality? Take it — but take all of it. Clean your plate.
Knausgaard may write at nineteenth-century length, but his emphasis on the deconstruction of self feels timely enough to draw comparisons to bloggers and their author analogues, like the benumbed Tao Lin or the self-conscious magpie Sheila Heti. In The Nation, the dissenting critic William Deresiewicz calls the series “a giant selfie.” Focusing on “Book Three,” which covers Karl Ove’s childhood, Deresiewicz attacked My Struggle’s “lack of art and absence of thought.” He seemed angry that Knausgaard was wasting our time, and not taking enough of his own: “You want to write shit? Write fast.” Knausgaard doesn’t read many reviews. Nor does he necessarily disagree. “There’s a lot of shit in there,” he says, “a lot of boring stuff” — especially in Boyhood, with its monotonous and linear child’s-eye view. “But that was the whole idea of writing it. I have to lower my own standard of writing to be able to write about it at all … I don’t like being slaughtered, but I accept it.”
Few readers have complained. In Scandinavia, Knausgaard’s quibbles with Euro-socialism felt both controversial and familiar. “Book Two,” which covers his move to Stockholm and remarriage to a Swedish poet, casts Karl Ove as a Norwegian punter adrift in buttoned-up, egalitarian-bourgeois Sweden. “The Swedes,” he writes, “they clenched their teeth, they had order in their lives and were contemptuous of those who didn’t. Oh, how I hated this shitty little country.” Naturally, the Swedes ate it up. “It says a lot of things,” Knausgaard told me, “that people think but can’t say” — not just about society but about private matters like abuse and mental illness. In his native Norway, meanwhile, the inferiority complex felt real. And in a nation of 5 million, Knausgaard was the village gossip: nearly everyone knew someone who knew someone savagely dissected in the books. Norway is also in the grip of a fad for “Slow TV” — such scintillating fare as a real-time broadcast of a 134-hour ferry ride — and thus more receptive to thousands of pages of time slowly passing.
None of that should appeal to an American reader, for whom long ferry rides and Scandinavian class divides are not typical binge fare. But then, what’s more universal than the joys and terrors of childhood, or the indignities of middle-class parenthood? And what’s more reassuring to Knausgaard’s American quarry — liberals envious of subsidized health care and family leave — than the notion that it, too, stifles the soul? My Struggle’s first two volumes are already closing in on 40,000 U.S. copies total. “So many people have had the same experience,” says Stein, “of saying ‘I just read a book about growing up in butt-scratch Norway that describes my life.’”
That’s increasingly rare in our own fiction, Stein says, because the trend is generally away from reality and into ever more fantastical conceits. But while Knausgaard acknowledges My Struggle’s affinity to blogs in “the banality and the reconstruction of an every day life,” he adds that “there is something else going on, which has to do with literature … This isn’t retelling a life, that’s not the point of the book. For me it’s much more like an existential project.”
In a post-scandal fit of caution, Knausgaard sent the manuscript of Boyhood to a couple of old friends. They remembered his long-ago scenes exactly as written; Knausgaard chalks that up to the power of suggestion. But when discrepancies were pointed out in more recent scenes, he kept his memories in. “This is a story about what’s in my mind,” he says. “It would be cheating to change something I believed was true.” Doing so would undermine the integrity of the work — as fiction. “It’s funny that anyone would confuse this with a memoir,” says Stein. “It tells the baldest possible lie, which is that some guy remembers all this stuff. That’s just the basic fiction behind any first-person narrative. Knausgaard does it more obviously than anybody else, and he does it so well that people actually take him at his word.”
So maybe My Struggle isn’t so radical. Maybe Knausgaard has just found a way to marry the voyeuristic catharsis of memoir with the immersive power of a really good novel. Three weeks ago, he was walking down a Barcelona street when a stranger recognized the six-foot-four shaggy and handsome Scandinavian and asked if he could have a hug. He’d read “Book One” after his father died. “Those kinds of things happen all the time,” says Knausgaard. Literary hero that he is, you could also picture him tearing up in front of Oprah, though he himself turned down talk shows in Norway until he found himself cast in the press as “a ruthless demon who didn’t care about anyone.” So he made one appearance in the spirit of damage control. He must have made a good impression, because “it went quiet after that.”
Knausgaard, his own worst critic, suspects that the fever will burn off here, too — that Knausgaard-ism is a fad, a social construct as conditional and fleeting as the vapid routines in My Struggle’s most despondent passages. “It’s going to pass soon,” he says, “and then it will be something of the past, and maybe it will not be remembered at all. I remember a certain sorrow when I was writing towards the end and I realized, now I’ve used up my life in writing this book, and I can’t do it again and I can’t do it properly. Marcel Proust — it’s such a fantastic book” — by which he means The Remembrance of Things Past, which took thirteen years to write. “And if that’s your ambition, why did I write something down in one year? I do feel that I’ve wasted this opportunity.”