Thursday, August 13, 2015

Comments on My Struggle

I read this book, mostly aloud, sometimes listening to it aloud, in the Bartlett translation, partly from paper copies, partly for the Kindle edition.

First question: what does this book have to do with Hitler’s Mein Kampf?  The titles are even more alike in Norwegian.  The two books have a general resemblance in that both portray the author’s struggle, but Hitler’s struggle is mainly expressed through politics and doctrine whereas Knausgård’s is mainly in literature and personal relations.  Mein Kamp devotes part of its first chapter to Hitler’s childhood and includes serious conflicts with his father.  But his father died suddenly of a heart attack when he was 13.  Politics crops up only occasionally in My Struggle in connection with characters' allegiance to one or another of the political movements of contemporary Norway.

Second, is this a novel?  Or does it matter?  And if so, or if not, why?  Knausgård asserts that everything in it is true.  He adds that he does not have a particularly good memory, that this rush of material appeared only when he set out to write something about his father; it just came out, and we read it unedited except for some details in the first part that were changed in the routine way of publishing, or under pressure, among other things, from lawsuits.  He asserts that, though it is not made up, it is a novel.  It is constructed like a novel.  That is, his report on his struggle is highly selective and reordered and written in the conventional style of contemporary realistic fiction. He does not narrate the whole of his life, he does not present it in chronological order, and he omits substantial parts of his life.  The same could be said of most memoirs.  For example he mentions but omits any stories about his second marriage.  He begins with an occasion when his father humiliated him as an eight-year old, continues to his life around the time the birth of his first child by his second wife, then portrays incidents in his early teen-aged years, then in his middle childhood years, and so on to the last volume, which is set in his 18th year.  All along he freely interpolates flashbacks.

Besides, there is no such thing as memory that records the past in the sense that a surveillance camera preserves the actions that take place before it year after year making a tape that some one might edit.

Memory, and some contemporary lab research supports this, seems to me like a large garden.  Only the plants we, consciously or unconsciously, tend flourish there.  In tending them we alter them.  Stories or images are either modified or forgotten.  For example, all find ourselves with childhood memories of events we are unsure we experienced-; we may only have heard about them from others sufficiently to construct our own images.  We live in a building made of memories, and as we live in it we constantly reconstruct it.  So, if you stay in an Italian hotel said to have been a nunnery in 1200, the concierge may be able to point to you that a particular feature was built in 1400 or the spot where something happened in 1568, but we have no such concierge, or no reliable one at any rate.  Perhaps there are some exceptions in what Proust called involuntary memories.

Such is the process from which Knausgård’s manuscript poured fourth.  Such is the building he reconstructed with the reliability and unreliability of our own.  It would be interesting to review evidence like the memories of other witnesses as they appear in he lawsuits.

Calling it a memoir or a novel, then, really is only a question of labeling.  We have been offered a credible tale either way.

Some say that this book has no plot.  In the step-leading-to-step sense that an Agatha Christie or the Count of Monte Cristo has a plot, that’s true, but in the wide sense of plot, in the sense Moby Dick has the plot of Ahab’s struggle for vengeance on the whale, or that Ana Karenina has the plot of how Anna is to deal with her marriage, or A la recherche du temps perdue has the plot of Marcel’s struggle to recapture the past -; in that wide sense, it has a plot.  That is why it is called My Struggle.  The struggle is to escape the oppression of his abusive father.  In the course of his life this struggle takes various forms, among others: as a child to get out of the house and play with friends or go to school, later (not in the sequence of presentation in the book) to get laid, or to understand and even get on with his father, or to become a sort of literary rock star, later to be a good father.  The struggle wrings shame out of the story.  Awareness of shame surfaces only occasionally in the 3600 pages, but it hangs always in the background.  It arises from the author’s breach of Scandinavian reticence, from his father's constant shaming him as a child, and from the sometimes disgusting details of his father's later life and death.  Knausgård has spoken of this novel as purging him, and it seems that it is shame from which he is purged, or would be.

Don’t get the impression, however, that this is a dower or oppressive read.  It is not.  Liveliness and anticipation animate it with a feeling of Knausgård’s openness to experience and willingness to take things on.  It jibes in that way with his personal impression, which is extraordinarily open, frank, and present.

There are several fully realized characters, mostly associated with family.  His father, his mother, his brother, his grandparents, his second wife, even his oldest child, who is about four the last time we see her.  Characterization is partly through description of action, partly through dialogue, and partly through attribution of taste.  Clothes are as meticulously and frequently described as in stereotypical chick lit, and preferences for rock bands and soccer clubs often appear.  But this is not a-show-don’t-tell novel, for the most important part of characterization is the protagonists’ description of people.  In the case of characters who appear at widely different times, the protagonist's descriptions of them change.  But this is not an author teasing us with an “unreliable narrator”; rather it realistically reflects how we see people differently as we mature.

The protagonist analyses characters in the sense of thoughtfully describing them, but avoids analysis in the psychodynamic sense.  We may suppose that Knausgård’s desperation comes from his treatment at the hands of his father, but he seldom makes that sort of supposition.

Here, for example, he is describing his children in order of age, youngest first:
“Their character traits, which slowly began to reveal themselves after only a few weeks, have never changed either, and so different are they inside each of them that it is difficult to imagine the conditions we provide for them, through our behavior and ways of being, have any decisive significance.  John has a mild, friendly temperament, loves his sisters, planes, trains, and buses.  Heidi is an extrovert and talks to everyone she meets, she’s obsessed with shoes and clothes, wants to wear only dresses, and is at ease with her little body, such as when she stood naked in front of the swimming pool mirror and said to Linda, “Mommy, look what a nice bottom I’ve got!”  She hates being reprimanded; if you raise your voice to her she turns away and starts crying.  Vanja, on the other hand, gives as good as she gets, has quite a temper, a strong will, is sensitive, and gets on easily with people.  She has a good memory, knows by heart most of the books we read to her as well as lines in the films we see.  She has a sense of humor and is always making us laugh when we […]”
Excerpt From: Karl Ove Knausgård & Don Bartlett.  “My Struggle: Book 2.” iBooks

The excerpt above is a fair sample of his prose as it appears in this translation.  It’s good, but unremarkable.  It is seldom awkward, and seldom thrilling. On rare occasions he waxes philosophical, for instance a discussion of Heidegger or the reflections on death that open the book.

 The detail is sometimes tedious.  He devotes c. 150 pages to his 14-year-old efforts to secretly (from his father and others) acquire a couple of cases of beer and get drunk at a party.  It’s pretty boring at times.  He devotes about 100 pages to himself, his wife, and children at a preschool party.  His account is spot on, but, again, boring at times despite it’s exactness.  If he described his whole life up until his late 30's in such detail, he would still be writing.

Yet in the long run, and it is long, the detail is what engages us.  In the long run you find yourself thinking about Knausgård as a friend, some one you know as your own memories, some one with whom you can compare your life in a way that fictional characters can seldom support.

My Struggle is some times compared to A la recherche du temps perdu.  There are many differences.  Whereas Karl Ove’s prose is plain but effective; Marcel’s is ornate, sometimes obscure, and often thrilling; whereas Marcel is trying to recapture his childhood; Karl Ove is trying to escape his.  Whereas Karl Ove treats his family with carful realism, Marcel tends to idealize his; whereas Karl Ove worries about being trapped, Marcel suffers excruciating separation anxiety; whereas Karl Ove is forthcoming about characters, Marcel tends to make successive discoveries, often disreputable, like a detective; whereas Karl Ove’s world is narrowly middle class or occasionally working class, Marcel is preoccupied with High Society; whereas Marcel is trying to recaptured the past, Karl Ove, although he notices and sometimes reflects on the passage of time, lives in the present; whereas A la recherche du temps perdue ends with Marcel looking anxiously back, My Struggle ends with Karl Ove entering adulthood eagerly looking forward.