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.
©2009 Karl Ove Knausgaard (P)2014 Recorded Books
I haven’t anything brilliant to add to the question of whether this Volume 1--and the five volumes to follow--is some masterpiece or not. It’s evident that one either finds Knausgaard’s long stories and direct prose compelling…or one can’t stand them at all. No middle ground. Personally, I found the first volume great--life stories oddly both familiar and yet entirely new--and surprisingly witty and even laugh-out-loud comic in spots. But I know a lot of people are driven mad by the admittedly slow pace. The frequent critical comparisons with Proust aren’t all that far off. But I mainly wanted to post a review to be sure that anyone tempted by the book itself isn’t put off by the previous negative reviews of Eduardo Ballerini’s reading, which I found just about perfect for the material. It can be “laconic” at times (to use a word that gets an analysis in this volume) but has a good pace and perfectly catches the book’s tone. It’s great that Ballerini seems to read at least the next two volumes.
He's really a brilliant narrator. He has a subtle and insistent voice, reading efficiently and quickly without losing clarity. A real champ.
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.
I've recommended it to every book loving friend I have.
The people who don't love this book don't get the genius of it. Knausgaard has made a novel of his life, and the details somehow are not tedious at all, they're evocative of subjective life as it is lived, packed with brutal truth and humor. His descriptions of adolescence -- it's arrogance, embarrassment, yearning, vulnerability and fumbling, are the best I've ever come across in literature. I would put it up there with Catcher In The Rye in its artistry. I have listened to the first four volumes and am in withdrawal awaiting the fifth.
Perfect, perfect, perfect. I poor narrator can ruin a book, but Ballerini adds to the pleasure.
This is the perfect book for audio, because the length makes it inaccessible to a busy working mom, but listening to it during chores and driving allowed me to devour it in no time.
I write for myself, for my own pleasure. And I want to be left alone to do it. - Salinger ^(;,;)^
"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.
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.
"My Struggle" is Karl Ove Knausgaard's first book in the ambitious six part series, and one I had been hearing so much about in recent months that I finally decided to give it a try. As the title might suggest, this is not a comedy, so if you are struggling through a gray, bleak winter, stay well away!
Knausgaard is kind of like sharp cheese. At first you think you hate it, but then it's actually not bad at all. The first half of the book, he came across as arrogant and, keeping in mind that a man who isn't even fifty is writing six books about himself, very self-indulgent. Nonetheless, even mildly irritated as I was, I had to admit that there was something about his style that made this book compulsively readable. About two thirds of the way through, something happens, "the big event" in Knausegaard's life and his voice softens. His mind turns to others and his vulnerability even as a grown, relatively successful man is exposed. It is this last third that makes me want to keep going with Knausegaard's books, though their length and number is a little daunting. Sometimes his recording of all the minutiae of his daily life and the airing of all his frustrations is a little annoying, and the setting reads like a gray-washed Scandinavian crime drama, but I suppose this is his attempt to provide an honest and transparent account of his inner and outer world. Undeniably he is a good writer, and his observations, though sometimes tediously conveyed, are often astute gems of human insight, which elevate this book from an autobiography, to a text that possesses philosophical musings and reads like a well-polished novel.
Something that initially irritated me was the title, "My Struggle" is, of course, "Mein Kampf" in German. Being German, I couldn't understand why anyone would chose to give their book such a name, but reading My Struggle, it becomes clear that he in no way associates his very personal story with Hitler's disgusting book.
When you read Knausegaard's story, the title does seem very apt, because he really highlights and dissects all the areas in his life that are rife with struggles.
Though I think I'll read something slightly lighter next, I will definitely return for Book Two.
Somewhat put off by the numerous and suspiciously glowing reviews of My Struggle, I came to the book with low expectations, and to that extent I was not disappointed. I had hoped that an author with enough chutzpah to use "My Struggle" for the title of an autobiographical novel would present the reader with a greater degree of wit and panache in his writing. Alas, this book is as lifeless as it is self-indulgent.
The frequent comparisons of Knausgaard to Proust are laughable; do not get this book if you are looking for a contemporary version of In Search of Lost Time. You can be sure that whoever makes such a comparison has either not read Proust or not read Knausgaard (or perhaps both).
I tried to imagine that the book would have fared better if it had been performed in a more distanced, ironic tone, but I fear that this is not the case and that Edoardo Ballerini's morose drone is quite suited to the material.
If you are nonetheless curious about all the hubbub, I recommend waiting until the audiobook is part of a sale. Just don't repeat my mistake of picking up more than one volume at a time.
Faced with mindless duty, when an audio book player slips into a rear pocket and mini buds pop into ears, old is made new again.
Karl Knausgaard’s “My Struggle, Book 1” is akin to Proust’s oeuvre about life and coming of age. This comparison is somewhat apt but Knausgaard’s journey is visceral and parochial while Proust’s is intellectual and universal. A listener feels like they are peeking into Knausgaard’s personal diary; while Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” is an intellectual exercise.
This is not a criticism of Knausgaard’s or Proust’s writing. Knausgaard and Proust are like spiders that weave words into webs that capture listener’s consciousness. With Knausgaard, a listener feels stuck in a web, without exit; with Proust, one feels stuck but sees a way out. Even the name of Knausgaard’s book, “My Struggle”, has an emotional feel and personal meaning. In contrast, Proust’s first book is called “Swann’s Way”; i.e. inferring a more abstract and recollected universal insight.
There is a homeopathic comfort in hearing Knausgaard’s vignettes of life because they remind one of life as a boy growing into a man. There are no revelations in Knausgaard’s journey to adulthood. However, there are interesting and informative recollections. Knausgaard’s precise descriptions of a lived life reminds listeners of how much men have in common, whether Norwegian, American, or other. It reminds us that we are human, imperfect, and ephemeral.
Sad, yet tedious in the extreme.
Life never improves nor does the protagonist expect anything more than bleak isolation. Hie is indifferent to his wives; his children annoyances. His father was a sick man who withheld love and scarred this poor soul. We as readers have to live through his horrors and numb emotional life. It kist gets worse and worse. I persevered and feel that I have wasted my time wading through the emotional scar tissue and detritus that is his life.
I'm not sure if it's a result of translation but I find Knaussgaurdd extremely dry, with little to no sense of humor which makes the entire novel feel leaden with ACTUAL struggle, not the type hinted at by the referential joke of a title. This feeling is magnified by the almost unbearable narration. This guy is prone to dramatics, slipping into ill advised voices for female characters that are so distracting and giving Karl Ove a desperate pleading tone throughout. I'm hearing Knaussgaurdd speak in a couple of weeks and cannot wait to hear what he actually sounds like to get this narrators whiny affectation out of my head.
Man, I don't usually leave reviews like this but I just did not like the book that much and the narration made it worse.
"Loved this book"
hypnotically entrancing. The reader had a very convincing voice which seemed to convey well the personality of the author. Can understand why many people don't like this book, it's so detailed, so everyday, so interior .. But I loved it and will definitely be on to Part 2 (after a break!)
man remembers being boyish as a boy; drinking tea, likes some music but not other music... fascinating stuff!
"Brilliant and Totally Compelling"
A Great novel.
I am surprised as yet this writer is little known in this country so far.
The unabashed honesty of the writing.This is the first of six books and I cant wait to read the next one. I hope audible will continue to record all of them as they become available.
He has a seamless style of writing that causes the narrative of his teenage age and his subsequent emergence into aduthood melt into a story of the death of his father.
There is a great deal of dry humour throughout the whole book and the rawness of of his personal exposures are sometimes heartbreaking.
He has received a great deal of praise by the critics, And I am hope that he will be read by a great deal of audible readers.
I plan to read the next book now. The narrator's performance is just right for this book.
"Holy Existential Crisis Batman!"
It makes a normal life sound epic. I've yet to listen to the whole series, but I suspect there will be a whole field of literature dedicated to this author-as-character story.
The books is a series of really mundane vignettes told with such crazy detail. I have two or three really sharp moments, but every reader who has been a teenager will have their own moments of "Holy Guacamole! I totally know that feeling"
Really enjoyed this. It took me a short period to get used to the narrator's accent, but after the first 20 minutes I was immersed in the story.
"a shared journey"
an intimate journey shared with honesty and humility. The inner thoughts and ruminations on those noisy moments in our heads, shared with love
It should be impossible to write in this much detail and hold the readers attention. This novel is simply one of the most compelling books I have ever read.
I would not try another book by this author unless I was convinced it was going somewhere a lot quicker.
The narrator was good.
He could have shortened it by two thirds.
The scene where the protagonist hides his plastic bag of beer bottles before the party.
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