The success of Norwegian writer Karl-Ove Knausgaard is baffling to me. His 6-volume Min Kamp (My Struggle) series of memoirs has been an international bestseller. Rachel Cusk calls it ‘the most significant literary enterprise of our times’ and comparisons with Proust abound. What is it that readers find to admire? I confess I’m at a complete loss.
I’ve just finished Volume 1 of the series, A Death in the Family, covering Knausgaard’s early life and the titular death of his father. Virtually every paragraph of this supposed memoir falls into one of the following three categories.
1 Page after page after page of inconsequential dialogue supposedly recalled from decades previously. Something like the following telephone conversation between Knausgaard and his wife:
‘Hello?’ I said.
‘Hi, it’s me.’
‘I was just wondering how things were going. Are you managing OK down there?’
She sounded happy.
‘I don’t know. I’ve only been here a few hours,’ I said.
‘Are you coming home soon?’
‘You don’t need to hassle me.’ I said. ‘I’ll come when I come.’
She didn’t answer.
‘Shall I buy something on the way?’ I asked at length.
‘No, I’ve done the shopping.’
‘OK. See you then.’
‘Right. Bye. Hold it. Cocoa.’
‘Cocoa,’ I said. ‘Anything else?’
‘No, that’s all.’
2 Long lists of common everyday activities, spelled out in stultifying detail. Something like the following: ‘I drained my drink and poured myself a fresh one, took out a Rizla, laid a line of tobacco, spread it evenly to get the best possible draught, rolled the paper a few times, pressed down the end and closed it, licked the glue, removed any shreds of tobacco, dropped them in the pouch, put the somewhat skew-whiff roll-up in my mouth and lit it with Yngve’s green, semi-transparent lighter.’
Or he could have just written: ‘I rolled a cigarette’.
3 Endless catalogues of the momentary impressions that supposedly passed through the author’s brain at various times in the past, again apparently recollected with total recall. Something like the following, which ends Part One: ‘A gust of wind blew across the yard. The overhanging flaps of the tablecloth fluttered. A serviette went flying across the lawn. The foliage above us swished. I lifted my glass and drank…’
It’s clear what Knausgaard is trying to do: to capture the texture of lived experience, the welter of ephemeral impressions – sights, sounds, smells, thoughts – that traverse our consciousness moment by moment and are immediately forgotten. Lost time, to use Proust’s phrase. But is the result worth the effort? Does it require nearly 400 pages of dull and often banal prose to make the point? Proust may not be everyone’s cup of tea but at least his sentences, long and complex as they are, are beautifully crafted and laden with meaning. Knausgaard isn’t even a pale imitator of Proust. He’s more like Proust’s dumber younger brother.
I won’t be reading volumes 2 to 6.