This is a story about reading a difficult book. Why? Because I haven’t heard the question “What are you reading?” in more than a year. “What are you watching?” – as in, what brilliant cable-TV series are you binge-viewing this month? – that question you hear all the time. TV is the lingua franca of the dinner table. But most people I know have stopped asking about books.
So if you happen to say, “I’m reading a six-volume autobiography of the moment-to-moment life of a 45-year-old Norwegian novelist named Karl Ove Knausgaard,” they look at you as if you’ve lost your mind. A common response to that statement, I can now report with assurance, is: “Why?”
It happened the unpredictable way these things usually happen. A reliable friend mentioned volume one of Mr. Knausgaard’s My Struggle (Min kamp, in Norwegian) at the end of January. “The whole book’s about the inner life,” my friend said, a dark but thrilling prospect. Then, two days later, in a random magazine, a review. I may have to read this, I thought, followed immediately by, Do you want to spend months of your ever-shrinking life reading a depressed Norwegian’s multivolume diary?
I bought a copy anyway. We read more and more these days, faster and faster, using multiple technologies to fill our brains with an ever-widening array of subjects. What we do less and less is read one long, long thing and one thing only, pondering its depths for weeks on end without interruption or flicking away.
Mr. Knausgaard’s six-volume epic of daily life was therefore intriguing. What would it be like to take the elevator all the way down to the sub-basement, and stay there? Sometimes you have to go it alone, even in the age of digital oneness.
I started reading as soon as volume one arrived, four days later. The first sentence was: For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can.
Two months later, I closed volume three (to be published in North America later this month, with volumes four, five and six now being translated into English). The sum total of eight weeks of reading sat in a five-inch stack of books in front of me: 1,392 pages of details from the life of a lonely writer writing about his struggle to be a writer – and, if possible, a decent human being as well. My Struggle calls itself a novel, but in fact is a chronicle of Mr. Knausgaard’s actual life, real names included.
This kind of "fiction" is all the literary rage these days (see Sheila Heti; and younger writers such as Tao Lin and Marie Calloway have grown up blithely blogging the details of their intimate lives, my colleague Russell Smith pointed out the other day). But in the older Mr. Knausgaard’s Nordic and more philosophically serious hands, it feels almost quaintly old-fashioned. Blindingly long, written in an intentionally undecorated, “unwriterly” style, obsessed with the hyper-realistic petty details of everyday life, and so self-conscious as a memoir that it often parodies memoir form, My Struggle should be anything but a bestseller.
But in Norway, a country of five million people, the series has sold half a million copies. So many people are into Mr. Knausgaard that several offices in Norway have reportedly declared “Knausgaard-free days,” during which discussion of the books is forbidden. The books have also been translated into 22 languages. The Guardian claims it’s “perhaps the most significant literary enterprise of our time.” Novelists Zadie Smith, Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Lethem are among the throng that admire its existential flatness, its Dostoevskian fervour, its brainy Proustian meandering. Mr. Knausgaard is Beckett with perfect recall, if Beckett had suffered from logorrhea.
Here’s the question: Why has reading a long, difficult series of books struck such a chord? Having now done it, I can tell you that struggling through My Struggle is like being tumble-dried in another person’s brain for weeks on end. The unexpected thing is how satisfying that feels, how much like real life. It turns out, in case you worry about this sort of thing, that there is an alternative to spending one’s day digitally skimming and streaming across multiple platforms and multiple subjects, an alternative to keeping up and responding to everything and everyone that comes at you from every electronic direction, to distractedly living like an intellectual gadfly with the attention span (and possibly the heart rate) of a flea. Yes, keen reader, there is.