“My Struggle: Book 1”
My father was an idiot, I wanted nothing to do with him, and it cost me nothing to keep well away from him. It wasn’t a question of keeping away from something, it was a question of the something not existing; nothing about him touched me. That was how it had been, but then I had sat down to write, and the tears poured forth.
In Norway, revealing personal information and family secrets is considered shameful so when Karl Ove Knausgaard, the award-winning, best-selling author wrote a 6 volume autobiographical account of his life, the public took notice, read the critics’ reviews but ultimately decided to buy the books.
Published over a 3-year period (2009-2011), Min Kamp which translates to My Struggle is controversial for what it reveals but popular for feeding the reader’s appetite for more (most great writers churn out a book every 5-10 years). The words poured out of the newly minted literary bad boy and his devoted followers couldn’t get enough even if critics called his work disgraceful. It was as if the flood gates opened at both ends and people realized the damn was never really needed.
Originally written in Norwegian, the books are numerically sequenced (Book 1, Book 2, Book 3, etc) but have been given different titles when translated because of the controversy over the title Min Kamp being the same as Hitler’s 2-volume autobiographical books entitled Mein Kampf – also meaning My Struggle. Hitler doesn’t have a stronghold on personal struggles – we all have our struggles – but the sensitivity and the association with the Nazi regime led the British version of My Struggle: Book 1 to be titled A Death in the Family and the German version to be renamed To Die. In the United States, only the first three books have been translated into English to date and are simply known as My Struggle: Book 1, My Struggle: Book 2, and My Struggle: Book 3.
My Struggle: Book 1 is the story of Knausgaard coming to terms with himself as a son, brother, grandson, friend, lover, husband, father, and most importantly, as an author whose goal has always been “to write something exceptional.” Born into a middle-class family in Norway in 1968, Knausgaard was a sensitive child who loved literature, music, and art. A self-described outsider, Knausgaard details a troubling childhood with an emotionally distant, highly critical father – not unlike Jonathan Franzen did in his autobiographical book The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History that details growing up with a difficult father and an older brother who escaped only to leave the author in harm’s way of the Herculean critic at home.
In Knausgaard’s struggle to be the writer he envisioned himself to be, he had to step back and examine the relationships that influenced him. He reveals and interprets but doesn’t explain or blame and that is the beauty of the book. It is what it is and that’s enough dear reader is what Knausgaard seems to be saying. Although Knausgaard’s father’s death is central to the story, the author is no less revealing of himself and his shortcomings. Not afraid to reveal the most intimate details of his life – the awkwardness of discovering his penis is bent when he has an erection and his adolescent despair of thinking he would never have sex because a woman would see his deformity – and his youthful quest for beer, cigarettes, sex, and to fit in, Knausgaard writes about what most of us would never admit, much less reveal in a book. But, the revelations don’t stop there because nothing is sacred with Knausgaard: not his father’s alcoholism, his grandmother’s incontinence, his uncle’s insincerity, his brother’s cruelties, and his own self-destructive and anti-social behavior.
The reader meets the middle-aged Knausgaard in the beginning of the book when he is on the cusp of turning 40, in his second marriage with three small children and finding life difficult. He loves his family but craves solitude and feels shame about the boredom and tedium of family life. His family does not bring him joy – joyful moments, yes – but not the happiness that a quiet room sitting at a desk elicits. Looking back, Knausgaard admits he was naive: he thought all he had to do was be kind to his kids and they would be fine – a misconception that revealed itself rather quickly after their births and the rearing of their strong personalities and never-ending needs. His mixed feelings towards his own family seemed to free Knausgaard to write about his own father’s shortcomings which gets to the heart of his struggle: how to reconcile the depths of hurt and shame while doing what makes him happy.
Life – particularly childhood – has always been a struggle for which we all must undergo but as Knausgaard so eloquently writes: “As your perspective of the world increases not only is the pain it inflicts on you less but also its meaning.” Knausgaard learned to endure life, “never to question it, and to burn up the longing generated by this in writing.” He may have hated his father, but he also loved him. The tears came because deep down, Knausgaard knew his father really did matter.
Feelings are like water, they always adapt to their surroundings.