And this alternative – dousing yourself daily in the discipline of a single, extended, difficult and deeply private work of art for weeks on end – might actually be more rewarding, if only because when you die, you won’t regret that you wasted your life. Not that this makes it any easier to turn away from Season 4 of Shameless, but it is an obvious point I seem to have forgotten. I wonder why. Mr. Knausgaard has an answer, sort of.
The confessional reinvented
My Struggle has been a phenomenon in Europe for five years. Mr. Knausgaard had two prize-winning novels under his belt when, approaching the cliff of 40 (if you want to call that a cliff; it seems more like an uneven paving stone to me), writing fiction suddenly “made me feel nauseous.” The world was awash in stories and narrative verisimilitude, fictional and otherwise; he found himself drawn, instead, to diaries and essays – “the types of literature that did not deal with narrative, that were not about anything, but just consisted of a voice, the voice of your own personality, a life, a face, a gaze you could meet.” A solitary voice, in other words, in a media environment the late David Foster Wallace once described as “Total Noise.”
Three years later in 2009, at the age of 40, Mr. Knausgaard published volume one of My Struggle. Five more volumes (3,500 pages in total) burst out of him over the next two years. Mr. Knausgaard went to bed with his young children and rose before dawn, writing through the day (with breaks to take the kids to and from school) to produce up to 20 pages of prose.
Sales exploded. Quite apart from Mr. Knausgaard’s daring attempt to reinvent the confessional novel, his stinging honesty and refusal to fictionalize names caused a scandal. He outs his current wife as a manic-depressive moaner, his father as an abusive drunk, and his mother-in-law, a well-known Norwegian actress, as an alcoholic, to cite just a few of his revelations. Some members of the family threatened to sue. Mr. Knausgaard has since expressed regret over betraying so many people, but his readers adore him.
It’s certainly not for the plot. As volume one (A Death in the Family) opens, Mr. Knausgaard is a 38-year-old writer with three children by his second wife. Between descriptions of his daily routine, he recalls his life in intricate detail – the struggle of a smart, sad, overly sensitive but often drunk teenaged punk-rocker coping with girls, school, self-hatred, a band (Blood Clot is its name), and especially his physically and verbally abusive father, who even mocks his lisp. A single set of memories – such as Mr. Knausgaard’s step-by-step journey with his brother back to his father’s house after the hated old man dies, complete with waiting in airports suffused in grief, silent scrolling car rides back through the terrain of the past, ambushing memories – can lope on for 200 pages.
But it’s his talent for ascending invisibly from the granular to the grand view that keeps you pasted to the page. The book ends in a funeral home, to which Mr. Knausgaard has forced himself to return, alone, to see his father’s body one last time:
Now I saw his lifeless state. And that there was no longer any difference between what once had been my father and the table he was lying on ... 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.
An astonishing memory
I could manage 40 pages before I had to lie down. Mr. Knausgaard’s attention to routine and detail – his attempt to find the sublime in the ordinary – was relentless. It was also relentlessly daring. The whole enterprise felt like it might collapse under its own weight at any moment. It was like carrying two mortgages at once, like living two lives at once – my own, and Mr. Knausgaard’s. No wonder I needed a nap.