When I received the go-ahead to review Karl Ove Knausgaard’s latest book, my editor asked me to “deal with the big question so many have: What is so great about this guy?” What is so great about this Norwegian writer that would prompt critics and his fellow writers to almost universally praise his work? That would compel his fans during last year’s book tour to line up around the block to see and hear him read? Or make fanatical readers like me so eager to get their hands on the latest installment of his six-volume autobiographical novel, an extremely long chronicle of a not so extraordinary life?
Though Knausgaard does exude a rock-star aura—his long hair and craggy, bearded face makes him appear as if he’d spent his life on the road—his writing expresses little of the bravado. On the contrary, in much of his work he seems intent on convincing you he is nothing special. Each volume of My Struggle (at least the four published in English) is filled with a succession of cringe-worthy episodes recounting his nervousness, ineptitude and shame as he struggles with the mundane realities of his life.
I’d wager there have been many readers like me who gave up on Book One, passing judgment after a few dozen pages that it wasn’t worth their time. But if you persist and pick up the book again, it’s as if a pleasurable chemical is released in your brain that makes you want to read more about him sneaking beers to a party or being bored and frustrated as he cares for his young children. With the epic accumulation of detail, you get the wonderful sense you are glimpsing something that resembles the truth.
The latest installment, Book 4, starts with the protagonist, Karl Ove, soon after graduating from high school, traveling to Northern Norway to spend a year teaching in a small fishing village to save money and write. As he arrives in town, he considers the many books he likes to read, which are “basically about the same topic”:
Books about young men who struggled to fit in to society, who wanted more from life than routines, more from life than a family, basically, young men who hated middle-class values and sought freedom. They traveled, they got drunk, they read, and they dreamed about their life’s great passion or writing the great novel.
Everything they wanted I wanted too.
It’s a promising beginning for a coming-of-age story that makes you thirsty for more insight into his influences and eager to witness first hand his first attempts to write, his struggles, failures and early triumphs. But what Knausgaard delivers here is far less romantic. Young Karl Ove does write stories, read books and listen to music (there’s a great scene when he’s dancing alone to the Talking Heads), but mostly he spends his time up north like any other wayward 18-year-old, obsessing over girls and getting drunk—so drunk in Karl Ove’s case that he often blacks out and spends the next day racked with embarrassment as he recalls fleeting images of his shameful behavior.
Throughout, a sense of dread persists that he is going to lose his teaching job or worse, get involved with an underage student. That he is going to be exposed.
Just as your patience for Karl Ove’s self-destructiveness runs thin, the narrative jumps back two years to the time when he is still in high school, living with his mother after his parents’ divorce. That’s when his principal antagonist returns to the stage—one of the great antagonists in all literature someone said and I agree—Karl Ove’s abusive, alcoholic father, who provides the gravitational pull that shapes the multi-volume narrative. And despite how much he suffered as a child, Karl Ove works hard to maintain a relationship with his father, who is sinking into the alcoholism, we know from Book One that would eventually kill him, and we develop a natural sympathy for the 16-year-old Karl Ove that eluded us when he was older up north making a fool of himself.
But the younger Karl Ove is learning to drink as well, and the drunken episodes begin to pile up in the past, too, including one particularly sorry incident at his father’s wedding to his new wife, when Karl Ove passes out in a bathroom stall for hours during the reception: “It was fantastic. I loved being drunk. I came closer to the person I really was and dared to do what I really wanted to do.” It’s a portrait of an artist as a young alcoholic, in painful slow motion with no myth-making or grand epiphanies. Rather, like real life, it’s just the sad truth.
But that’s just it. What makes these books so compelling and yes, great, is Knausgaard’s refusal to label or judge anyone’s behavior—his or his father’s or anyone else’s—no matter how shocking, inappropriate or self-destructive it may be. Despite the drunkenness that pervades almost every page, the only alcoholic labeled as such in the entire book is a bum who hangs out at the convenience store. It’s as if the entire 12-step, therapeutic, self-help culture doesn’t exist, as Knausgaard knows that labeling our experience only distances us from what really happens. He paints his selfish, superficial, shameful past with an unerring clarity and vividness. And so we read onward, with his father’s fearsome presence always looming, to see what happens next.