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Monday, May 4, 2015

My Struggle with My Struggle

Posted By on Mon, May 4, 2015 at 11:00 AM

click to enlarge PENGUIN/RANDOM HOUSE
  • Penguin/Random House

Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard appears tonight at City Arts & Lectures, in conversation with Daniel Handler, to discuss his six-part epic
My Struggle. San Francisco author K.M. Soehnlein (You Can Say You Knew Me When, Robin and Ruby) offered The Exhibitionist this personal reflection on reading Knausgaard's work.


I’m walking down Folsom Street with a 592-page book in my hand. It’s Book 2 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. I’ve been reading it for weeks. I’m going to get a sandwich and a cup of coffee and finish the last section. The sun is bright, but this is San Francisco, so there’s a chill in the air.

Then someone calls out to me, “What’s that you’re reading?” and I stop and turn.

The speaker is a weathered-looking man seated cross-legged on a bench outside the closed doors of a restaurant. His creased face has a golden bronze hue. His eyes are pale, almost colorless, and his hair is a wiry shock of white-gray poking out from under a fisherman’s cap. If I had to guess his race I’d say mixed and if I had to guess his age I’d say mid-60s, but he’s hard to read. He’s wearing a hooded sweatshirt, a vaguely tribal rope of large wooden beads, faded jeans, and sandals, and he’s smoking a skinny cigarillo through a plastic filter. He's more bohemian than homeless — the homeless in my neighborhood tend to be quite obviously down-and-out, and rarely do they have this much of a “look” — but I shift my gaze and sure enough, there’s his overstuffed shopping cart containing, among countless items bulging out from under a red blanket, a full-size door, rising several feet above the cart’s rim.

“What’s the book?” he asks. His voice has a rasp to it, and perhaps a hint of New Orleans in the vowels. I can’t tell if he just wants to talk to someone or if he’s genuinely curious.

I show him the cover, with its black-and-white portrait of Knausgaard — long-haired, cigarette-smoking, rather weathered in appearance himself. The guy on the bench squints at it.

“He’s a Norwegian author,” I say.

“A north what?”

“He’s Norwegian,” I repeat. I suspect he may be hard of hearing. I step closer and shift my body language, facing him directly.

“Is it a memoir?”

“Yeah, sort of.” I don’t bother to elaborate that the book is labeled a novel, a distinction that maybe only matters to the author and his publisher. Everyone else reads it as Knausgaard’s actual story, because he writes in first person, using his own name and the names of his family and friends.

“Does he have an interesting life?” the guys asks. “That’s a lot of pages.”

“Mostly it’s just day-to-day stuff. Not a lot of action. He meets his wife, falls in love, has kids…” It doesn’t sound like much.

“Why keep reading it?”

“Good question.” I think about my struggle with My Struggle. What’s it really about? Why do I care about this guy? What’s the point of getting so deeply into someone else’s thoughts?

I say, “If I start a book, I like to finish it.”

He chuckles and nods in acknowledgment, and in that gesture I feel the kind of recognition that transpires when one serious reader of literature meets another.

I ask him what kind of books he likes. I’m not sure what to expect but his answer catches me by surprise.

“Turgenev. I like Turgenev.”

“He’s so good!” I exclaim. “I’ve read Fathers and Sons twice!” Now I want to know more about this guy: where he began, what happened to him, how he ended up on Folsom Street with a full-size door in his cart. Does he still read, living nomadically like this? Reading doesn’t require a home, you can do it anywhere, but it must be impossible to concentrate, living on the street. Then I wonder if his squinting eyes are in need of glasses. You don’t see homeless people with glasses, but almost everyone I know needs them after 40.

“I like Dickens,” he says. “I like those big books that have a lot going on. You know, Dickens wrote them in sections and people would wait for the next one to come out.”

“Maybe you would like this guy,” I say. This is the second in a series of six volumes being released at one per year in English. Only three translations have appeared so far. Knausgaard’s devoted international following suggests there’s something universal in the writing — the more specific a writer is about his or her own life, the more that others find common ground, even if the circumstances are quite different. But how far does that kind of universality go? What would Knausgaard, with his artistic angst and his middle-class domestic dramas, mean to this guy?

For that matter, what does Knausgaard mean to me? In Book 1, I found myself relating to an episode where as a teenager he concocts an elaborate plan to procure beer for a New Year’s Eve party. (Later, I related to his adult reckoning with how out-of-hand his drinking had gotten.) I clicked with his time as an aspiring writer trying to make his way in university, where all the other aspiring artists seemed cooler, their aesthetics already defined. And I connected to his sense of shame at having somehow failed his father, after his death, although the circumstances of my own mother’s death were completely different. When someone’s gone, when it’s over, you’re aware of everything you didn’t get around to doing.

Book 2, the one I’m carrying, has turned out to be a different beast. Here the focus is on Karl Ove’s relationship with Linda, the woman he falls in love with. They have a misbegotten beginning that involves rejection, blackout drunkenness, and horrific self-mutilation. After time apart, they reconnect, fall in love, enjoy about six months of bliss, and then, as they’re getting serious and talking about children, fall into the kind of bickering that takes root in some relationships like weeds in a garden. Kids come along, one two three, while Karl Ove and Linda cycle through scenes of mutual annoyance and deeply loving appreciation. Karl Ove’s self-criticism is foregrounded, sometimes in long passages that read like a template for the famously gloomy Scandinavian psyche.

To read Knausgaard is in part to wonder why one is reading Knausgaard. For me the answer is literary: his ability as a writer to create a self-portrait with unflinching honesty. He strips away so many of the crutches that contemporary authors rely on to give their narratives meaning and their protagonists virtue: the piety of liberal values, the sentimentality of victimhood, the pop-psychological clichés that pass for original insight. He questions it all. What rises up in the absence of all those pre-approved markers is the struggle to live with the awareness one’s own thoughts. The struggle of consciousness, and the deep sense of shame he — we — carry around as we make choices, and second guess them, every minute of every day.

I’m not able to put all this into words for the Old Bohemian on the bench. He’s still talking about Dickens, saying he needs to read him again. I don’t have any Dickens on my shelves at home, or I might have walked back around the corner to my apartment and picked out a book to give him. Do I have something else he’d like? Some Tolstoy, perhaps? (There’s that unread copy of War and Peace, taunting me for years now. Will I ever get to it? Should I give it to this guy? The print was so small — would I need to give him a pair of reading glasses, too?) Maybe what I should give him is Book 1 of My Struggle, and he could decide for himself if it’s interesting. But I’m not yet ready to part with it, I’ve filled the margins with notes, making a record of my reading, a keepsake, something to cling to. I could invite him into my home and let him pick what he wants. No, I’m not going to do that. What if he refused to leave, what if it got weird? I should just give him a dollar or two — that’s what he probably needs most. What an insulting way to end a conversation about literature, though. He hasn’t asked for a handout.

“I’ve only got a little bit to go,” I say, showing him my bookmark. “I’m gonna go finish it now.”

He nods and wags his cigarillo at me, fully attuned to the moment a stranger decides he’s had enough of an unasked-for conversation. I say, “Good talking to you,” and as I walk away, past his cart, down the sidewalk toward the café where I’ll eat and drink and read for the next hour, the elation I felt at having stopped to engage with this solitary, singular man, this fellow fan of Turgenev, quickly shifts into something heavier. I understand that I kept him at arm’s length, preserved our separateness out of a sense of status, and considered a number of things I might give him but in fact gave him none of them. I stop at the corner, overtaken by a very Knausgaardian sense of shame at my small, passing failure to truly connect. The light is red. I wait for it to change.


Karl Ove Kanusgaard in Conversation with Daniel Handler, Monday, May 4, 7:30 p.m., at the Nourse Theater, 275 Hayes St., 415-392-4400, $27.

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About The Author

K. M. Soehnlein

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