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My struggle

by Karl Ove Knausgård; Don Bartlett

  Print book : Fiction  |  1st Archipelago books edition

Bildungsroman from modern Norway   (2013-05-07)


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by vleighton

My prediction: you will either love or hate this text, not much ground between. This novel/memoir is the story of the author's gradual maturation. The prose is well-wrought, the imagery is good, and the philosophical musings behind the prose are serious and deep. But it does not have a gripping plot, and if you are not enthralled by the prose, you might find it long-winded. And if you reject the philosophical musings as shallow, you might say it is narcissistic. For example, what does one make of his claim that he was enriched by reading Adorno because he saw himself as someone who read Adorno (323)? I personally liked the book, but YMMV.

Though it has been well-received among those looking for Literature (capital L), it has not swept the Norwegian youth market. I happened to ask a couple of Norwegian teenagers if they liked the book, and they had never heard of it. One said she liked Stephen King. This is not some edgy, sexy Stieg Larsson book, but the painful experiences of sensitive youth are well-told. As the narrator says, "Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows" (190). I am reminded of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses, because this book also spends a great deal of time examining the fine details of an inconsequential life in search of meaning. And like with Ulysses, to appreciate the book, you need to be a little masochistic. "My Struggle" could refer to the author's attempts to deal with a world apparently devoid of meaning, or it could refer to the reader trying to get through the book, especially if you go on to read the other five volumes.

The novel recounts the childhood and development of the narrator, who is apparently the author in both name and character. I am told the project caused a scandal in Norway, as it aired the dirty laundry in the author's extended family. It is the story of an emotionally sensitive young man and his relationship to his family members, especially (in volume one) his harsh and abusive father. In the end, he must reconcile himself to his father's death and his problematic relationship with his grandmother. If you like meditative, reflective books, this is a good one. It has all the rollicking good humor of an Ingmar Bergman film. In the text, he reflects on the nature of literature and art. His sole law of literature is that "everything has to submit to form" (195). Character, plot, theme must all relinquish to form.

One comment about technique: Knausgaard will focus on an overarching theme for a section of the book, such as the two brothers dealing with the grandmother and her house after their father's death, but then, within that section, he will go on lengthy digressions, sometimes twenty pages or more, that fill in parts of his life story. The digressions are not pointless. There is a reason for each, and each ends by tying itself into the overarching theme. I personally enjoyed the technique of using digressions, because the life story was told within the context of a purpose. It is not telling a family story just to tell a family story. Part one of the book opens with him as a child seeing a human face in some swirls of water, and 180 pages later, part two opens with him seeing a crucified Christ in the grain of a piece of wood. I interpret the point to be: we read meaning into the random swirls of existence.

Applying Evolutionary Literary Criticism

Because I have been reading evolutionary literary criticism (ELC), it has occurred to me that I should be trying to apply it at every turn. So here is my attempt with Knausgaard's text.

Evolutionary Literary Criticism Explanation Boilerplate

For theory, I will be drawing primarily on the collection "The Literary Animal" (abbreviated below as TLA) edited by Gottschall, and Gottschall's own book, "The Storytelling Animal" (TSA). One problem with offering an evolutionary interpretation of the text is that there are three different versions of evolutionary literary criticism (ELC). The first (ELC1) simply observes that humans are fascinated by stories featuring survival, social status, and mating themes (boy loses girl, maiden guarded by dragon, boy hangs from cliff, etc.). In TLA, this line is promoted by McEwan, Nettle, Carroll, Nordlund, Fox, Gottschall himself, Kruger, and Salmon.

The second version (ELC2) is to emphasize that storytelling itself is an adaptation, and that humans are wired to enjoy and transmit stories. In TLA, this position is presented by Boyd and Sugiyama, and it is the thesis of Gottschall's own book, TSA. ELC2 also allows one to explore the degree to which the author intentionally (or perhaps unintentionally) tries to conform to or challenge the expectations of a genre. In other words, how good of a job did the author do telling the tale, and how was it received by the readers or listeners?

The third version (ELC3) is that stories have been a method of storing cultural information throughout human history, and as such, they preserve cultural entities and allow for cultural evolution. Stories here include religious texts and political histories. This position is argued by David Sloan Wilson's essay in TLA and by Gottschall in TSA to a limited degree. Wilson's position is partially related to version one, in that he says that human nature is not infinitely flexible, and texts that stray too far from evolutionarily interesting themes will fail to be embraced and retold. But Wilson's position also allows for a sort of historicism or ideological critique, in which the subtext of a narrative or of its reception might be to  support the current cultural status quo or to advocate for a different cultural state. So the cultural meaning of a text might be quite different from what the author had in mind when it was written. Culturally powerful elements may promote a story that justifies their own hegemony.

ELC3 should also encompass the use of a storytelling tradition to indicate group membership. Knowledge of a canon of stories, or the proper form of a storytelling genre, can act as the sign of worthiness for membership as much as any other demonstration of mastery of a behavior or belief system. Reading Joyce's Ulysses may not keep you riveted at the edge of your seat turning the pages (ELC2), and it may not recount the harrowing adventures of survival or the boy getting the girl (ELC1), but having read the book might indicate the membership of the reader within a social class. It indicates both the ability to perform the task and the value system of the group. To be knowledgable about the details of a large canon of stories, whether it is Proust's In Search of Lost Time or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you must first have the ability and free time to learn those details, and you must also have the inner motivation to learn them, a motivation often achieved by belonging to a group that considers them worth knowing. Establishing one's worthiness for membership in any group potentially allows one to share in the tangible benefits of the group (resources, social hierarchy, etc.), whether or not one is consciously aware of such benefits. For example, the shipwrecked Odysseus was treated as noble because he demonstrated mastery of a particular behavior—an aristocratic form of address.

Knausgaard via ELC1

The Knausgaard book does not fit easily into ELC1. The narrator is not much of a hero. The plot does not dangle a tale of high-stakes courtship with the woman of his dreams or  a high-stakes struggle for greatness or death. The narrator cannot be called a hero in the traditional sense of grandness.

That having been said, the plot does deal with the human relationships among the characters and their attempts to get along with one another. If one accepts that human psychology has an evolutionary influence, then some of the interest in human relationships in general stems from a hardwired concern for one's evolutionary success. There are episodes where the narrator is trying to date a girl or is facing the fact that his rock band is musically quite bad. The narrator's parents break up. In gymnasium, he exerts a great deal of effort to fit in with the social hierarchy. He is haunted by the degree to which his father's approval matters to him. So the book does, in its quiet way, deal with the sorts of personal issues that may make the difference between social and reproductive success and failure. Small-scale features of sex and status do exist. It is low-key, but ELC1 is there.

The narrator as a child was too emotionally sensitive and was somewhat of a disappointment to his father, and he often was on the point of tears if not actually crying as a youth. In the end, he is able to look at his father's corpse without the flood of emotion he battles. He can deal with his grandmother's alcoholism without succumbing to it also. So he has achieved the courage to face life and death. He has come through the minor trials of love and courage that are part of life for all of us, and he is keenly aware of the preciousness of the most mundane existence.

This book doesn't fit the profile of ELC1 told in grand and sublime scales. But then, it has also not fired the imagination of the masses of narrative seekers with its glamour. It appeals to meditative, reflective readers who appreciate the technique of the writing and can identify with the modest, human struggles of the narrator.

Knausgaard via ELC2

One of the repeated themes of Knausgaard's text is that we humans inject meaning and significance into our vision of the world. Further, his own recounting of his past becomes self-consciously a fiction with himself as the protagonist. At one point, he watches the rhythm of life going on around him, and all he can think of is death. His struggle may be against his own instinctive impulses to turn his experiences into a narrative with a tidy moral. So he fights against ELC2. But he embraces the human desire to know ones past, to find out what really happened.

Another part of ELC2 is: how well told is the tale? Again, as mentioned above, the film version would not be in either the action section or the comedy section of the video store. For what it is, it is well done.

Knausgaard via ELC3

Looking at Knausgaard in a broader context, he seems to embrace a post-modern questioning of the possibility of meaning and order in the world, but he does not create a book that is unreadable. It requires patience, but it offers the reader a sense of fulfillment in a secular world without transcendence.

As an esoteric sign of group membership, it serves well. One would have to want to travel into his vision of the world to push on through the later volumes. Without that motive, one would drown in the K-Mart Realism of named musical groups and cleaning products. (His grandmother's house was a pit.)

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