By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Karl Ove Knausgaard
Narration by: Edoardo Ballerini
Karl Knausgaard’s “My Struggle, Book 1” is akin to Proust’s oeuvre about life and coming of age. This comparison is somewhat apt but Knausgaard’s journey is visceral and parochial while Proust’s is intellectual and universal. A listener feels like they are peeking into Knausgaard’s personal diary; while Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” is an intellectual exercise.
This is not a criticism of Knausgaard’s or Proust’s writing. Knausgaard and Proust are like spiders that weave words into webs that capture listener’s consciousness. With Knausgaard, a listener feels stuck in a web, without exit; with Proust, one feels stuck but sees a way out. Even the name of Knausgaard’s book, “My Struggle”, has an emotional feel and personal meaning. In contrast, Proust’s first book is called “Swann’s Way”; i.e. inferring a more abstract and recollected universal insight.
“My Struggle, Book 1” is an excellent memoir of boyhood. It is filled with experiences that remind adult men of what it is like to grow-up in modern times. Some embrace the “Sturm und Drang” of life while others close themselves off and become observers rather than participants. Knausgaard is an observer.
Knausgaard reveres both his mother and father. He deeply loves both but is ambivalent and somewhat fearful of his father. At fifteen, Knausgaard is struggling with his need for independence. Knausgaard’s need is served by a mother and father that become separated, first as a result of work, but in the end by divorce. Knausgaard begins to effectively live alone when his mother and father separate. The way Knausgaard views life waivers between anarchism and the radical left. He is financially supported by his father but his father allows Knausgaard to live largely by himself. When parental divorce becomes a fait accompli, Knausgaard emotionally cleaves to his mother while revising views of his father.
Knausgaard struggles with his freedom. On the one hand, he likes the independence; on the other, he misses the stability associated with family. He becomes accustomed to being alone. He covets being alone, even among friends. Knausgaard craves the oblivion of alcohol. Acquiring alcohol becomes a challenge that is met by having others buy it for him and eventually using his 6’ 2” height to fool corner store owners into selling him beer. He seeks companionship to compensate for unstructured independence but shies away from intimacy. He struggles with growing interest in sex. He has his first ejaculation in an unconsummated bedroom experience with a girl schoolmate. He is sixteen years old.
Knausgaard begins to see his father as an individual; as a vulnerable human being, capable of crying and subject to the same weaknesses of all men. Knausgaard is less observant of his mother’s humanness because he measures his life against his father’s actions and reactions. In consequence, his understanding and relationship with women is degraded. He is married twice. He is driven by desire for success with relationships in life as a means to an end rather than ends to a mean.
Knausgaard’s depiction of his father’s death in the squalor of Knausgaard’s grandmother’s home shocks the senses. It reflects a truth about neglect of the poor, the physically or mentally challenged, and elderly in cultures based on self-interest. Children who grow into relatively healthy adults believe they are immortal; i.e. “boys grown to men” believe achieving economic security, psychological health, and physical well-being is part of every life’s struggle. Knausgaard infers that when life’s struggle slaps people down, the recovered forget the un-recovered.
The recovered in a self-interest’ culture believe failure to overcome life’s struggle is the un-recovered’s fault. Knausgaard tells of his father’s descent into alcoholism, and his grandmother’s mental collapse. Both are ignored by Knausgaard and his brother until confronted by Knausgaard’s father’s death in their demented grandmother’s pee and shit-stained house.
There is a homeopathic comfort in hearing Knausgaard’s vignettes of life because they remind one of life as a boy growing into a man. There are no revelations in Knausgaard’s journey to adulthood. However, there are interesting and informative recollections. Knausgaard’s precise descriptions of a lived life reminds listeners of how much men have in common, whether Norwegian, American, or other. It reminds us that we are human, imperfect, and ephemeral.