Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle is an embarrassing book to read on the train—I kept expecting an elderly woman in a fur coat to hiss “Nazi filth!” at me—but it’s well worth the potential commuting debacle. Here are the first few lines:
For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops. Sooner or later, one day, this pounding action will cease of its own accord, and the blood will begin to run towards the body’s lowest point, where it will collect in a small pool, visible from outside as a dark, soft patch on ever whitening skin, as the temperature sinks, the limbs stiffen and the intestines drain.
It’s good to head into the weekend with a cheery reminder that death is imminent, no? And that’s what My Struggle is, really: reading this 430-page autobiography is like sticking a giant post-it note to your fridge with YOU WILL DIE scrawled on it in night-black sharpie. (If you’re headed to a baby shower tomorrow, it would make an excellent gift.)
Here’s the plot summary, booming movie trailer style: Ten years ago, novelist Karl Knausgaard’s father drank himself to death… now watch as our hero struggles to avoid his father’s fate! Can he put down the bottle and pick up a pen? Will he ever find peace of mind? (Cue shot of thirty-something man slouched at desk, eyes darting furiously between Jack Daniel’s in left hand and ballpoint in right hand.)
Knausgaard is Norwegian, and handsome in that tedious “beardy literary bloke who listens to Bach while chopping wood and thinking mean thoughts about his third wife” kind of way. In Norway he is apparently very famous and much gossiped about, and this book is a source of controversy because the various people mentioned in it are real and identifiable and perhaps not so thrilled with their roles. But, happily, we get to read his autobiography in translation, out of pop-cultural context, and can avoid having to think too hard about whether or not Knausgaard has been fair or decent. He’s just been excellent.
He eschews irony. He’s both weepy and unflinching. You know the old deathbed cliché of one’s life flashing before one’s eyes? That’s what My Struggle feels like: an entire life recalled at the moment of death, a flickering moment that somehow lasts forever and encompasses everything: the big deals—despair; heartbreak—and the tiniest details—the smell of your mother’s dressing gown and those rippling bands of shadow on your childhood ceiling and all that other maudlin minutiae that reduces you to tears in an instant.
But if I’m making it sound like kind of… a drag, it’s not. It’s a page turner to rival the very best Ruth Rendell, and for much the same reason: death is coming. There’s page after page of teenage ephemera—cigarettes and guitars and hanging around in the fields at night—and countless glimpses of a distant, terrifying father, a father encountered briefly in the hallway, or spotted through a window, and it all goes on for an eternity and yet somehow it’s the most thrilling thing I’ve read in ages because death is lurking in every syllable. You know you are galloping towards a shit-smeared couch, a filthy house of empty bottles, a body on a slab. As James Wood writes in his New Yorker review, “even when I was bored, I was interested.”
It’s a mad, Proustian project, and one that spans six volumes, so after you put down Book One and have a good weep and add draw up will and skydiving lessons? to your To Do list and write YOLO! on your Facebook wall, you can commence getting on with your life, safe in the knowledge that by the time you’ve restored your complacency and filled your days to bursting with arguments about whose turn it is to do the laundry, Karl Knausgaard will be back to remind you YOU WILL DIE.