MY STRUGGLE Book Three: Boyhood, by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett. Archipelago, 428 pp., $27.
Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard's "My Struggle" is the buzz book of the moment -- or, more accurately, a certain kind of buzz book for a certain kind of audience. (Knausgaard recently read to standing-room-only crowds in Manhattan and Brooklyn on his U.S. book tour.) It is also a provocation, sharing its title with one of the most notorious works of the 20th century (Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf") while seeking to break down everything we thought we knew about personal narrative.
And yet, deep in the second book of this six-volume, 3,600-page autobiographical project, Knausgaard offers us an unexpected key.
"A life is simple to understand," he explains, "the elements that determine it are few. In mine there were two. My father and the fact that I had never belonged anywhere." There you have it, "My Struggle" in a nutshell ... although how to get at this simplicity is something else again.
Self-absorbed, expansive, constantly doubling back on itself, "My Struggle" is an attempt to make an epic of the banal facts of the author's existence, from the distant reaches of childhood to his more recent experience as the father of three (now four) small children, for whom he bears an intense, if ambivalent, love.
"Everyday life," he writes, "with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or that made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change diapers but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. ... I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts."
As it happens, I've had this feeling also, not unlike (I suspect) most people who have lived with young kids. The wonder of the observation is not in what he says but in his willingness to put it on the page. At the same time, that makes it difficult to assess "My Struggle," since Knausgaard isn't really writing for us. Rather, he is engaged in an act of self-expiation, a public reckoning.
This is what makes Books 1 and 2 of "My Struggle" so brilliant: the understanding that in recalling or re-creating our history, we give it a meaning it would not otherwise possess. For Knausgaard, that involves a minute set of reconstructions; the last half of Book 1 describes, at length, the preparations for his father's funeral, while Book 2 features a 60-page account of a 4-year-old's birthday party, which becomes its own peculiarly incidental vision of hell.
This is prologue for Book 3 of "My Struggle," which comes with the subtitle "Boyhood" and has just been published in English. Knausgaard returns to childhood, offering what is in some ways a traditional bildungsroman about his grammar school years on the Norwegian island of Tromoya -- transliterated, with unintended irony, as "Trauma" on his club soccer team's uniform.
Knausgaard's trauma begins at home, with his father, a teacher who doles out punishment for transgressions from losing a sock to throwing rocks at cars on a local motorway. "Inside my room," he writes, "there was only one thing I longed for, and that was to grow up. To have total control over my own life. I hated Dad, but I was in his hands, I couldn't escape his power. It was impossible to exact my revenge on him. Except in the much acclaimed mind and imagination, there I was able to crush him."
Book 3 is less reflective than Books 1 and 2, which makes it less effective on its own terms -- a portrait of a childhood in which time is measured out in school and social life, and the drama, such as it is, revolves around music and girls.
Among Knausgaard's intentions with "My Struggle" is to write his way out of writing. The final line of the saga (not yet translated into English) is, apparently, "And I'm so happy I'm no longer an author." This, of course, is one more provocation, since if Knausgaard is not an author, then what is he? Especially in a world as mass-mediated as ours, what else can art do, if indeed it can do anything, but push back against the boundaries between what is lived and what is said?