This faux factuality is the hallmark of all six volumes. Book 2 begins in the “present” of 2008, when Knausgaard, nearing 40, is living in Malmo, Sweden, with his wife, Linda, and their children, contemplating the novel that would become “My Struggle.” These scenes alternate with flashbacks to the period several years earlier when he had left Norway for Sweden; it is there, crippled by emotional and intellectual insecurities, that he arduously courts Linda, a poet with psychological troubles of her own. Book 3 leapfrogs back in time to provide an unexpected and often charming glimpse of his childhood and teenage years — the source of those awful insecurities (he describes his childhood as a “ghetto-like state of incompleteness”); in this volume, the author’s desire to recreate every aspect of the past extends to descriptions of his bowel movements. Book 4 finds the 18-year-old Karl Ove living in a tiny town in northern Norway, where he spends a year as a schoolteacher, struggling with an increasingly alarming drinking problem, his attraction to some of the underage girls in his class and his attempts to write serious fiction. Book 5 moves on to the author’s 20s and early 30s — those 14 years during which he lived in Bergen and experienced his first literary failures and successes, as well as an early marriage that collapsed in part because of his infidelity.
As this summary suggests, the life recounted here is one of unusually intense emotional extremes of the sort that can make for powerful writing. The childhood abuse, the alcoholism, the affairs and breakups are the stuff of many a memoir — a genre that, curiously, doesn’t figure at all in the numerous digressions on literature that dot the landscape of intentional quotidian banality here, even though “My Struggle” has far more in common with memoir than it does with fiction. (I suspect that Knausgaard decided to call his work a novel because memoir continues to be seen as a “soft” genre, and he’s after bigger literary game.)
And yet, despite all the emotional drama, I was rarely moved by this vast and often impressive work. As with some blogs or soap operas, the ongoing narration, however tedious it often is, can be weirdly addictive, and the suggestive play with fact and fiction can be intriguing. But in the end, the books left me cold and, not infrequently, exasperated. “Suits,” on the other hand, was offering just about everything that “My Struggle” wasn’t, and now and then even left me in tears — as artfully constructed narratives can do, propelling us toward emotions that flow naturally from certain kinds of situations. (There’s a marvelous scene in Season 5 when the young lawyer, guilt-ridden over the way in which his secret has compromised his friends’ and colleagues’ integrity, finally breaks down — as you will, too.)
As it happens, the ability to evoke emotions through art is something the author of “My Struggle” worries about, too. Writing in Book 3 about his father once more, he acknowledges that “even with the greatest effort of will I am unable to recreate the fear; the feelings I had for him.” But why not? Why, when to give the reader access to the emotions the writer wants to conjure is one of the great aims of any kind of writing, does Knausgaard make this strange confession of defeat? Why, if “Suits” can catch you up in its characters’ often preposterous crises, can’t “My Struggle”?
The answers to these questions become clear when you finally get to Book 6. In many ways, the final volume represents a continuation of the author’s characteristic matter and method — with the addition of a hall-of-mirrors story line, since this climactic installment is, in fact, about the publication and reception of the “My Struggle” books in Norway. It opens in autumn 2009, just as the first volume is about to appear, and closes two years later, at the moment the author finishes writing the very book you’re reading. If the previous volumes track the narrator’s evolution into a writer (the same arc traced in Proust’s novel), this one shows him at the moment he grasps the golden ring.
For that reason, one recurrent theme of the preceding volumes — the difficulty of balancing life and writing — comes to dominate this final book. Earlier, the fine-grained narration of lived life occasionally blossomed into ruminations on art, literature, music and life. Here, the two strains seem to be in desperate competition, each demanding more and more space until the narrative literally breaks apart, its two autobiographical sections — the first 400 and final 300 pages — separated by a 440-page digression on literature and history. (One of the many literary models that Knausgaard cites in this extended reflection on art and life is James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which, he implies, inspired the structure of his own novel: He observes that Joyce’s epic contains a lengthy section, Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, that in tone, content and style is nothing like the rest of the book.)
Perhaps because they have so much more to compete with, this volume’s evocations of domestic life — fraught spats with Linda about who will mind the children in the apartment in Malmo, grueling family vacations, simmering irritation with the stridently politically correct parents of the kids’ school friends, shopping for dinner parties — are not only exhaustive, but downright exhausting. Do we really need to know that his apartment building’s elevator is “the dark and narrow shaft that ran through the middle of the building”? It’s as if the particular, the concrete reality of “life” to which this author attaches so much importance, were trying to assert its claims in the face of the increasing preponderance of “art”: the metastasizing meditations on his method (writing must be “raw, in the sense of unrefined, direct, without metaphors or other linguistic decoration”), the proliferating and often brilliant mini-disquisitions on works of art and literature. These range over everything from the paintings of Munch, Turner and Leonardo (the latter’s canvases “so perfect” that — a wonderful if jarring thought — they seem “rather lazy”); to “Hamlet,” Francis Bacon and Kafka. At one point in his young manhood, Knausgaard writes in Book 5, he worried that he might end up as just a critic; there were moments when I wished he had.