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Karl Ove Knausgaard suddenly found fiction ‘nauseating,’ and drowning in stories. (Dan Hansson/SvD/TT News Agency)
Karl Ove Knausgaard suddenly found fiction ‘nauseating,’ and drowning in stories. (Dan Hansson/SvD/TT News Agency)

Why I read a difficult six-volume diary by a Norwegian novelist Add to ...

Mr. Knausgaard seemed to be able to write about anything. He was so good I didn’t even envy him. His memory was astonishing and apparently universal. He remembers not just doors slamming and the crunch of feet on gravel, but emotional surrounds as well:

I fished out the pack of cigarettes and lit up. Pall Mall mild, not exactly the coolest cigarette around and, standing there with the all-white cigarette in my hand – the filter was white, too – I regretted not having bought Prince.

No detail of existence escapes his notice: the layout of his subdivision (the names of the streets and the kids and their parents and their professions intact), the way people look different indoors and out, the routine of boarding a plane (“I opened the outside pocket of my bag and took out the ticket”).

But because Mr. Knausgaard is writing a chronicle and not a novel, the books are as plotless as real life. Action (a witheringly self-conscious birthday party for a child in his daughter’s class) mutates into a meditation on aesthetics (on the triple consciousness of a late Rembrandt self-portrait: “in this picture he sees himself seeing whilst also being seen,” which is also Mr. Knausgaard’s method) and from there into his specialty: his passion for the beauty of the ordinary – the moments in a life that suddenly step forward from the rest of it.

I got up, rubbed my hands on my thighs a few times, and walked down to the intersection. The passing cars left tails of swirling snow behind them. A huge articulated truck came down the hill with its chains clanking, it braked and just managed to shudder to a halt before the crosswalk as the lights changed to red. I always had a bad conscience whenever vehicles had to stop because of me, a kind of imbalance rose, I felt as though I owed them something. The bigger the vehicle, the worse the guilt. I tried to catch the driver’s eye as I crossed so that I could nod to restore the balance.

These are the moments that make a life, Mr. Knausgaard would have his readers believe. Given that a life is so short, so fleeting, we should pay attention to every detail in it. But we never do.

‘That’s where it is’

Wherever I read Mr. Knausgaard – in the car in front of my house at the end of the day, for an hour before breakfast – he put me on edge. Time is elastic in My Struggle, but it was always racing by as I turned the pages, as if the author was playing a clever trick: he was stopping time, while I spent it, on him.

I liked the books; they were absorbing the way painting a room is absorbing, but an unavoidable tension ran through them, in which the specifics of his life were always arguing against the impersonality of the larger world – the existential smackdown between seeing and hearing and feeling and smelling and touching and being, and therefore aching, on the one hand, and the total extinction that lies on the other side of the river, when you’re dead. The question of what a life means and how it should be lived (not to mention how a writer should capture it) is at stake on every page of My Struggle, and it made me cranky.

After I had been reading Mr. Knausgaard for an hour one morning, my wife floated into the kitchen in her dressing gown and said, “Good morning, did you feed the dog?” A perfectly reasonable question! But fury flooded my brain, I literally curled my lip. “What did I do?” she said, backing away. Not that I blamed her: We all breach one another’s privacy these days as if it were a communal bowl of taco chips in a sports bar. But My Struggle is a book so private it feels like a sanctuary.

One night, trapped in a bout of insomnia, flipping through a volume of Constable’s paintings, Mr. Knausgaard describes “the feeling of inexhaustibility” that great artists arouse in him, in the same way that, as a reader, you want to crawl inside the watchfulness of great prose. Maybe this is why we feel we should read books that demand close attention, so we can remember what shared intellectual energy feels like. It’s not the same as inhaling, say, The Wire. The Wire is brilliant television, but it comes to you, seduces you with its effortlessness, even pulls your pants down with visuals of sex and bodies. A difficult book, on the other hand, is prim and insists you meet its family before it will consider even going out for lunch.

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