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.
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.
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.
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:
Our minds are flooded with images of places we have never been, yet still know, people we have never met, yet still know and in accordance with which we, to a considerable extent, live our lives. The feeling this gives that the world is small, tightly enclosed around itself, without openings to anywhere else, is almost incestuous, and although I knew this to be deeply untrue, since actually we know nothing about anything, still I could not escape it.
Through a child's eyes again
Back in Toronto, I played snatches of Candy Crush Saga, the computer game to which 93 million human beings are currently addicted, in between bouts of My Struggle. Reading Mr. Knausgaard made me worry that I was not seizing my life, which in turn made me anxious; playing Candy Crush, lining up shapes and colours and making the tiny screen burst with connections and cheers, made me feel better again, at least for a few seconds. But each time Candy Crush lured me away, a wave of self-disgust followed, whereupon – alas I'm not exaggerating – I turned back to Mr. Knausgaard, hoping to cleanse myself.
Sometimes all it took was a single passage. Volume 3, Boyhood Island, is Mr. Knausgaard's seamless memory of growing up on a freshly minted suburban housing estate in Norway after 1975. He remembers the boundless specificity of childhood, when everything is new to us: the gravel and asphalt of freshly laid driveways ("Oh, that alone, the driveways of childhood! And the 70s cars parked in them!" – that'd be Mr. Knausgaard parodying the conventions of memoir), the distinctive smell of a friend's house, the way children anthropomorphize everything ("It was strange how all large trees had their own personalities…"), the "immense antiquity" of houses and cars, the thrill of a new pair of running shoes. Childhood is the last time we live entirely and happily within our inner selves.
All you had to do was stick your head out the door and something absolutely fantastic happened. Just walking up ... and waiting for the bus was an event, even though it had been repeated almost every day for many years. Why? ... Oh, because of the wet snow. Because of the wet down jackets. Because of the many good-looking girls. Because of the bus rattling along with chains on its tyres. Because of the condensation on the windows when we went inside...
It crushes me to admit that we notice these details less as we grow older. The fade starts early, at puberty, when we begin to believe the outer world is what matters most, when we start to think we've seen it all before. The details are still there, of course. We just panic and pretend they aren't worth noting any more, because time is running out and we require more instantly affirming thrills, whether it's Candy Crush or the steady suspense of Breaking Bad or the sluttish come-on of a new e-mail message.
How comforting it would be if Mr. Knausgaard had an easy answer: that if we gave up Parenthood and rededicated ourselves to serious mindfare, all would feel meaningful again. Alas, that's not the way the human rolls. Even Mr. Knausgaard admits it. By the time he turned 40, he writes, "I hardly read books any more. If there was a newspaper around I would prefer to read that. And the threshold just kept rising. It was idiotic because this life gave you nothing, it only made time pass." He and his wife mean to watch serious art films, but, when evening comes and the kids are in bed, they gravitate to fluff like the rest of us. "We wanted to be entertained. And it had to be with as little effort and inconvenience as possible."
In other words, even Karl Ove Knausgaard, the great chronicler of the modern condition, regrets the laziness of his unlived life. But that's the redeeming trait of the unlived life: It's still life. If someone takes the trouble to remember the details and write them down for us to read on our own time, in the privacy of our own heads, we get a second chance to live it.