In my copy of volume one, close to Mr. Knausgaard’s Constable anecdote, are my notes, in pencil, of the lunch I had made and was eating as I read: a sandwich of canned smoked tuna and mayonnaise and balsamic vinegar on toasted rosemary focaccia, with a blood orange for dessert. I was reading and eating and making notes in the kitchen when I heard a frantic scrabbling at the back door. I jumped up to let the dog in. She was happy to be back inside. But why am I telling you this? Why include such details in an article about reading a difficult book? Because they happened in the course of the reading. Because maybe they are as real, as “important,” as anything else within the frame of the article and its so-called ideas. Most contemporary art, Mr. Knausgaard insists, suffers from two weaknesses: it considers naturalistic depictions of reality to be old-fashioned; and it doesn’t care if it rouses any feelings in an onlooker. It celebrates intellect – ideas, and ideas about ideas, which are then pinged and pinned and shared and tweeted.
But the moment Mr. Knausgaard focused on the Constable paintings in the book on his lap, “all my reasoning vanished in the surge of energy and beauty that arose in me. Yes, yes, yes, I heard. That’s where it is. That’s where I have to go. But what was it I had said yes to? Where was it I had to go?”
Those are the questions of an artist trying to make his art come alive. But they’re the same questions every sensate person asks him or herself in the middle of the night: what, precisely, makes me feel unapologetically alert and alive? What will I remember as I die? Is it this? Is it the sandwich, made with such care? Is it this book, or that one? Is it art or love or pleasure or people? In the days before the world went digital – and I say this not as a complaint, simply as an observation, because I live in the digital world as much as anyone – in pre-digital times, events and people and objects and sensations established their importance slowly. They earned their place in our memories. Today, on a smartphone – such an ironic name! – everything claims to be important at once, and so nothing is important. You remember very little of it. Then you wonder why your life feels so empty.
‘The rails of routine’
I started My Struggle in Toronto and lugged it with me for a week of backcountry skiing in the Rocky Mountains. I read it mostly in the middle of the night. A few weeks later, I had to fly to Australia and carted it there as well. Volume two weighs a kilo on its own. In Australia, it was harder to read about writerly alienation in wintry Norway: maybe it was the heat and the parrots and the shiny eucalyptus trees, their thin silvery leaves flashing in the air like schools of airborne herring. It was only in my hotel in Sydney, on my way home, that I once again felt the need to read Mr. Knausgaard.
The hotel, the Pier One, was the kind of chic place that makes you feel special when you check in and not so special when you come down the next morning and have to pay $25 for fruit and yogurt. My room was the epitome of contemporary cool: white, narrow, uncluttered, hanging breathlessly over Sydney’s famous harbour. There was a miniature dome over the hand soap in the bathroom, as if it were a tiny pheasant under glass. And the alarm clock! It was one of those silver, electronic cubes whose alarm is impossible to set but that lets you play your iPod, because, you know, your music – you have to have your music, right? Your music is like oxygen, there is no way you can go somewhere without the intravenous plasma of your personally curated taste insulating you from the reality around you. In any event, the hotel made me feel lonely, so I plunged into Karl Ove again.
By then I was well into volume two, A Man in Love, in which Mr. Knausgaard, now 39, recounts, in the course of 573 pages – and this would be a bare-bones description – his struggle with marital domesticity. He’s a classic fortyish dad and husband: he hates himself for being conventional, but he’s afraid to live any other way. (Does this sound familiar?) His disillusionment – with “the prefabricated nature of the days in this world I was reacting to, the rails of routine we followed,” with “the sameness that was spreading through the world and making everything smaller” – is the predicament of modern Western culture. Hegel (a favourite of Mr. Knausgaard’s) said this would happen. We’ve replaced an all-knowing God, the authority that made the world mysterious, with the authority of men and information and the news, know-it-all pipsqueaks by comparison. Everything is accessible to us, but very little of it reaches into us, Mr. Knausgaard writes: