Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: The Documented Life in an Era of Personal Narrative


Social media creates a multitude of fascinating new pathways for individuals to share their lives, down to the smallest detail. This paper examines how art expounds on the changing reality that emanates from these shifts and specifically how Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, a preeminent work in the contemporary era of personal narrative literature, exemplifies the trend toward a documented life. The unique style of Knausgaard’s novel, and its popularity, is a testament to the detail that is present in the personal and historical narratives in the internet age.[1. This paper mainly address trends evident in the United States and Europe but the research on internet use has shown a dramatic increase in internet access and wireless devices through both the developed and developing world. It is very likely that many of the trends discussed in this paper will apply throughout the world as internet access and social media use continue to grow. Recent studies show that two-thirds of the world’s nearly three billion internet users are in the developing world (“Internet well on its way to 3 billion users,” 2014).] By examining Knausgaard’s work, we can see how our understanding of identity and culture are shaping literature, and how the documented life is both virtual and literary.

The more I have read of memoir and essay, the more easily I have seen how long a history it has, this nonfiction persona, and how great is its capacity for adaptation to cultural change. As the last century wore on, the idea of “becoming oneself” altered—in literature as in life—almost beyond recognition. But whether that self is posited as whole or fragmented, real or alien, intimate or strange, the non-fiction persona—like the persona in novels and poems—has kept re-inventing itself with a strength and resourcefulness that are really quite remarkable. Whatever the story has been, as we approach the millennium, there’s been a situation to contain it and a truth speaker to interpret it.
-Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story

Today no subject is too small to write about. This rule does not just apply to the modernist poet or the established author; it applies to everyone with access to the internet. Millions of people produce and distribute text and other media via the internet, and nothing is too vain, inconsequential, or irrelevant to be excluded. Social media [2. Professor Nicole Ellison explains that “there is no universally agreed upon definition of social media although most agree that a key differentiator between social media and traditional, broadcast technologies (such as television or print newspapers) is found in the fact that social media allow users to create, share, consume, and collaborate around content in ways not previously supported by earlier technologies” (Ellison, 2013, 4). ] —blogs, Facebook posts, tweets, Instagram photos—have created a multitude of fascinating new pathways for individuals to share their lives, down to the smallest detail[3. The vulgar, offensive, and threatening can still be regulated by private corporations policing their own users. In the United States there is a balancing act between the First Amendment and the police powers of the state in the virtual world (Chemerinsky, 2012). ]. This paper examines how art expounds on the changing reality that emanates from these shifts and specifically how Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, a preeminent work in the contemporary era of personal narrative literature, exemplifies the trend toward a documented life.

For the purposes of this paper, I will look at My Struggle: Book 1, although Knausgaard’s confessional, rambling style and attention to detail are apparent in the other volumes of this work. Knausgaard has written a 3,600-page, six volume personal narrative, a literary triumph of creative non-fiction. In Norway it was published as a novel, although the English print editions do not mark the first four translations as either novel or memoir. Francine Prose suggests that the work might be considered “a cross between a memoir and an autobiographical novel” but she notes that many agree the work is “unclassifiable” and “a genre of its own” (Prose, 2014). Choosing to call it a novel at the very least removes any concerns about the veracity of the story, but more than likely makes a distinct statement about the synthesis between the fiction and non-fiction genres. My Struggle is an examination of much of his life in intricate detail including his relationships, work, child rearing, and writing. His work has been widely consumed in Norway and captivated the Norwegian audience (Schillinger, 2014)[4. The first three volumes have been translated into English by Don Bartlett and sold more than 40,000 copies (Schillinger, 2014). ]. My Struggle: Book One examines the author’s childhood, his relationship with his father, his father’s death, and his present life as he is writing. The style of writing includes thorough descriptions of his actions and lengthy digressions on his feelings about life.

The work is likened to À la recherche du temps perdu, Marcel Proust’s seven part novel about a man’s life [6. Proust’s work is referenced in My Struggle: Book One, “I not only read Marcel Proust’s novel . . . but virtually imbedded it” (Knausgaard 29). The author himself embraces the comparison as well, “Writing is recalling. In this matter I am a classic Proustian” (Barron, 2013). ]. This comparison is arguably appropriate given the subject matter, realistic detail, and voluminous years covered by the narrator. Although writing a six volume memoiristic account of one man’s life is rather extraordinary, the similarity to Proust is evidence that the extended length of his piece has a historical reference. Ben Yagoda’s recently published book, Memoir: A History, begins with an introduction to the seemingly endless variations on the modern memoir, hinting at its obnoxious ubiquity. Daniel Mendelsohn, a professor and author, in his review of Yagoda’s book highlights what the “tsunami” of memoirs says about our culture, “something . . . has shifted, profoundly, in the way we think about ourselves and our relation to the world around us” (2014, 5). Mendelsohn also recognizes that the internet has changed memoir culture, “The greatest outpouring of personal narratives in the history of the planet has occurred on the internet . . . people enthusiastically paid to disseminate their autobiographies, commentaries, opinions, and reviews, happily assuming the role of both author and publisher” (2014, 22).

Yagoda sees the memoir as something larger than a literary genre. “Memoir has become the central form of the culture: not only the ways stories are told, but the way arguments are put forth, products and properties marketed, ideas floated, acts justified, reputations constructed or salvaged” (2009, 28). The documented life has infiltrated various aspects of the American and Western cultural psyche. As individuals seek out the personal narrative of others and long to tell their own, it is apparent that the era of personal narrative will not be limited to a constant stream of blog posts and a few growing memoir aisles in the bookstore. If Knausgaard’s work is the personal narrative era’s Proustian accomplishment, if memoir that has reinvented the novel, then this literary achievement should be viewed alongside the larger cultural shifts that surround the work.

In My Struggle: Book One, the older Karl Ove—our narrator—tells the story of his youth. The book has no formal chapter breaks but moves back and forth between the present day adult narrator and his younger self. When he first introduces the young Karl Ove, he is watching the news:

A fishing smack sinks off the coast of northern Norway one night, the crew of seven drowns, next morning the event is described in all the newspapers, it is a so-called mystery, the weather was calm and no mayday call was sent from the boat, it just disappeared, a fact which the TV stations underline that evening by flying over the scene of the drama in a helicopter and showing pictures of the empty sea. (7)

The young Karl sits and watches— noting that he is not listening to the report and remarking that his father is working in the garden. The author is training the reader from the start—no detail is too small, nothing will be left out. The narration continues:

[S]uddenly the outline of a face emerges. I don’t know how long it stays there, a few seconds perhaps, but long enough for it to have a huge impact on me. The moment the face disappears I have to get up to find someone I can tell . . . so it has to be Dad, I think, and hurry down the stairs, jump into shoes, thread my arms through the sleeves of my jacket, open the door, and run around the house. (7)

This moment and others in My Struggle: Book One are reminiscent of a screenplay. There is direct narration in the scenes with intricate details so that the author takes the reader with him as he moves through his memories, recapturing each moment:

The town outside, with its low, steady drone of cars and buildings, was absent from my consciousness, returning only in waves as though I were in motion. But I was not, I lay reading, completely motionless, until half past eleven when I brushed my teeth, undressed and went to bed. (44)

I put the bag and the satchel in the trunk, closed the lid carefully so as not to rouse his ire, took a seat at the front, pulled the belt across my chest, and clicked the buckle into the locking mechanism . . . The dashboard lit up. The car in front of us and a section of the slope down to the river as well. (50)

Even when the details seem minute and inconsequential, even where the scene has functionally been set, Knausgaard provides more. He is not providing the reader with solutions or resolutions; he is displaying things as they are in his view.

Knausgaard himself explains that documentation is part of his style and a central feature of My Struggle:

In Min Kamp, I wanted to see how far it was possible to take realism before it would be impossible to read. My first book had a strong story, strong narration. Then I would see how far I could take a digression out before I needed to go back to the narration, and I discovered I could go for thirty or forty pages, and then the digressions took over. So in Min Kamp I’m doing nothing but digressions, no story lines. Language itself takes care of it. The form gives something back. (Barron, 2014)

Using a documentary style of writing that is more akin to a police report than a novel allows the reader to focus more on the “reality” of the tale and less on the cohesiveness of the narration. This style echoes the rise of “reality” as entertainment—reading blog posts about people’s lives, reading memoirs instead of fiction, watching reality television instead of scripted drama. In Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, David Shield’s writes “as work gets more autobiographical, more intimate, more confessional, more embarrassing, it breaks into fragments. Our lives aren’t prepackaged along narrative lines, and therefore, by its very nature, reality-based art—underprocessed, underproduced—splinters and explodes” (2010, 27). An urgency emerges from this documenting style that propels the reader further into the work, despite the lack of climax, and in doing so evokes the urgency of the present in such real-time media genres as twenty-four hour news programs and television contests. A general suspense, reflective of a society that demands instant access and constant coverage, is living in-between the lines of My Struggle.

How does the documented life in the virtual world interact with the documented life in literature? Mendelsohn investigates the cultural trends that have precipitated the memoir’s popularity. He points to the talk shows of the 1980s in which normal people became entertainment for the masses when their broken marriages and everyday sagas were broadcast into millions of homes. Reality television followed, increasing the demand for programs where average people participate in staged and un-staged activities as a source of television entertainment. Mendelsohn notes that “these TV shows helped create and promulgate the wider culture of self-discussion and self-exposure without which the recent flurry of memoir-writing and reading would be unthinkable” (2014, 22). The popularity of memoir is at the literary heart of the personal narrative era.

The “over-sharing” in carefully formulated memoirs, daytime talk shows, and reality television is also evident in social media and blog posts. These new forms of interactive media capture audiences with the production and dissemination of personal narratives. The advent of real-time news coverage and the immediacy of being able to watch live broadcasts over the internet has changed not just how things are viewed but what things are viewed. Many of the top fifty television shows in America are real-time or reality television contests, including American Idol, The Voice, Dancing with the Stars, Survivor, and The Amazing Race (Rice, 2014). The immediacy of these programs coincides with an increase in the presence of real-time media interactions, including news coverage, online-gaming, web chatting, and performances and it is believed that their concept of identity is changing, proof that the entertainment industry and the virtual world are more focused than ever on non-fiction. Information sharing, storytelling, and documentation are occurring in real-time as the technology for their production and distribution rapidly evolves. These cultural shifts have and will continue to affect Western literature.

The detail in Knausgaard’s writing allows the smallest aspects of life to be presented, something rarely done in either fiction or non-fiction, at least not as the prevalent stylistic technique. The passages go on for pages with seemingly irrelevant detail and often move into musing digressions before falling back into a chronology of events. The following excerpt is from a passage nearly four pages long and details the older Knausgaard leaving his apartment to head to work.

We kissed, and I closed the door behind me. The elevator was on its way up, and I caught a brief glimpse of the neighbor from the floor above as she glided past with her face lowered in front of the mirror. She was a lawyer, usually wore black trousers or black, knee-length skirts, gave a curt greeting, always with a pinched mouth and radiating hostility, at least to me. . .

Downstairs in the hall, I decided to smoke a cigarette before proceeding on my way, walked along the corridor past the laundry room and out into the back yard where I put my computer down, leaned against the wall, and peered up at the sky. . . .

I walked to the fence separating the innermost part of the yard from the nursery at the rear, now deserted, as the children were indoors eating at this time of day, rested my elbows on it and smoked while looking up at the two towers rising from Kungsgatan.

Built in a kind of new baroque style, and testimony to the 1920s, they filled me with longing, as so often before. At night the towers were floodlit, and while in the daylight you could clearly distinguish the various details and see how different the materials in the wall were from the materials in the windows and the gilt statutes and the verdigris copper surfaces, the artificial light bound them together. Perhaps it was the light itself that did this, or perhaps it was a result of the combination of the light and the surroundings; whatever the cause, it was as if the statues “talked” at night. Not that they came to life, they were as lifeless as before, it was more that the lifeless expression was changed, and in a way intensified. During the day there was nothing; at night this nothing found expression. . .

I took my computer bag and went down the narrow grotto-like corridor, where the garbage cans stood, unlocked the metal gate, and came out onto the street, hurried off in the direction of KGB and the steps down to Tunnelgatan. (215-218)

Critics have noted that Knausgaard’s writing is constantly on the edge of boring (Wood, 2012)[7. James Wood in his New Yorker review said, “There is a flatness and a prolixity to the prose; the long sentences have about them an almost careless avant-gardism, with their conversational additions and splayed run-ons” (Woods, 2012).]. The criticism generally is that Knausgaard has included details that another writer would feel compelled to cut out or sum up in a sentence. However it is the style of the work, the inclusiveness of Knausgaard’s story, that exemplifies the documentation, the ruminations, the digressions—the man, the author, his life. The work is a personal narrative but it also surpasses the genre. It mirrors the musings and documentation that social media site users, memoir writers, and blog authors produce but does so in an exhausting and artful way. Not unlike the action in film and television, Knausgaard’s daily activities become entertainment for his readers. This detailed and active style is reflective of a broader Western culture where information is open and accessible, nothing is taboo, nothing is hidden, and the irrelevant details of our daily life are widely broadcast and endlessly consumed. The advent of technology that allows society to document so much, so easily, in a format that could potentially last forever has made it so that nothing is too small to be written about. Part of Knausgaard’s literary achievement is proving that the documented life can be both artful and intriguing.

Knausgaard appears to be both documenting his earlier memories as well as chronicling his life adult life at the time he is authoring the work. The apparent connections between truth and fiction are evidenced both by the characters and chronology of the work, which mirror the author’s friends and family as well as his work and location. But the narrator also informs the reader that, “The time is 11:43 p.m. I, Karl Ove Knausgaard, was born in December 1968, and at the time of writing I am thirty-nine years old” (Knausgaard, 2009). The audience is given every indication they are reading a memoir. Knausgaard’s realism, the verisimilitude on the page, is evocative of a culture obsessive with chronicling their own lives. Births and deaths are announced in Facebook posts. Photos and text display lives in daily and even hourly updates. Bloggers share intimate moments about their own mental health, marriages, and grief. Tweets provide up to the minute reporting on one’s location as well as her participation in any range of daily events.

The idea of writing one’s life is an evolving theme in internet studies, which has begun the necessary consideration of examining how the internet may alter identity formation, both personal identity and cultural identity. Nicole Ellison, a professor at the University of Michigan Center for Information, finds that social media sites and interactive internet programs “have the potential to affect identity—to reshape how individuals view themselves and others” (2013, 3). The United Kingdom’s Government Office of Science recently released an in-depth study, a Foresight Report [8. Foresight Reports use scientific evidence and futures analysis to examine public policy issues. The reports are published by the United Kingdom Government Office for Science. ], on the changing nature of identity, which includes Ellison’s work. Hundreds of researchers and academic experts in various fields wrote the report and the supporting papers which provide perspectives on the future of identity in the United Kingdom, changes that are arguably consistent with the changing nature of identity throughout the Western world. The report looked at changing economies, global migration, and the trend toward ‘hyper-connectivity’ and found that “technological trends could be transformative for some aspects of identities” (Beddington, 2014, 32). Ellison notes that websites capture data from users and the software tracks them through the virtual and the physical world, in essence documenting movements of their daily lives. The World Wide Web acts as a vast database that holds and shares these personal narratives in a way that no other technology could. The report is noteworthy for providing scientific data to support what most of developed world knows already—that a large portion of society is willing interacting with multiple technologies that passively and actively track and document our movements, thoughts, and daily life, creating a record that in many instances cannot be erased. This is the documented life.

Jack Linchuan Chi, a journalism and communications theorist studying new media, provides some context to the discussion of the new historical narrative created and disseminated on the internet. Linchuan Chi explains that this collection of narratives written and saved in a way that was never before possible is crucial to identity formation, “what we have learned from internet studies . . . is that the sequencing of events has become less stable, more pluralistic, and, in a way, closer to the complexity of social reality (if the construction of alternative online histories is not pure performance)” (2013, 6) [9. Linchuan Chi argues that as “the global network society expands and accelerates” the fear of cultures and nations disappearing into the virtual world (2013, 3). This produces both a “counter movement centered on the Self” and potentially mobilizes movements centered on traditional culture, religious fundamentalism, and nationalism (2013, 3). ]. Linchuan Chi finds that historical documentation is happening rapidly on a large scale as individuals “log” their life in a multitude of ways to be preserved virtual, potentially without end (2013, 6).

The historical narrative that is created on the internet and the documentation of millions of lives, as Linchuan Chi has studied, are phenomena that have changed the cultural understanding of how we view ourselves and our various narratives. The potential changes for identity formation have not gone unnoticed (Lievrouw, 2006, 41-43; Fourie, 2008, 258). Theorists have used linguistic and communication theory to analyze how new forms of communication—via the internet—have the potential to alter identity formation (Langmia and Mpande, 2014, 64). Because how we perceive ourselves is often based on how others perceive us, the ways in which we communicate with each other informs our view of ourselves and is changing with social media [9. Kehbuma Langmia and Stella-Monica Mpande discuss how online communication can affect identity formation in their chapter “Social Media and Critical Pedagogy,” noting that communication through new media can allow for identity “chaos” and that identity formation has changed as forms of communication have changed (Langmia and Mpande, 2014, 66). ]. As social media use increases, our private and public lives will continue to merge. The publication and storage of our personal and historical narratives have affected the identities and narratives themselves and have resulted in more nuanced, more diverse, and more detailed mosaics. Knausgaard’s inclusionary style, his documentation and detail, and his reality written in prose is the preeminent example of this phenomenon in contemporary literature.

In an overview of Knausgaard’s reception, Liesl Schillinger quotes authors and reviewers who are both enthralled by and bored with My Struggle (Schillinger, 2014). Knausgaard’s own comments on My Struggle center on the physical aspects of daily life, in his own words the book is not intended to be an ideological work. “My book is completely anti-ideology, in all senses. It is about the opposite of ideology. It’s about the little and the small, where in life we are” (Barron, 2013). The sheer volume of the text is symbolic of a cultural excess, a textual excess, and an excess of personal narratives. The documentation of his reality reflects a culture saturated by reality television, the non-fiction genre generally, and the memoir specifically.

The value of the documented life as entertainment has preceded its value as an art, and Knausgaard has bridged that gap. By lambasting memoir for its self-absorption [10. Mendelsohn and Yagoda both explore the historical and contemporary criticism of the memoir genre, both noting egotism and exhibitionism as perennial criticisms for the memoir genre (Mendelsohn, 2014; Yagoda, 2009). ] or dismissing new medias for their vanities or their lack of worthwhile aesthetic, we underestimate the value of their impact on culture and identity. The work of Knausgaard, whether loved or hated, pushes the definitions of genre and truth. Knausgaard discusses his books truthful origin in an interview with Bookforum,

For four years, I tried to tell it as fiction, but I couldn’t, it was impossible because I didn’t believe in it. It was my father I wanted to write about, not an imaginary father. But when I finally started to use his name and the names of everybody around him, and at the same time I began to follow the rule that everything that I wrote must be true in the most banal sense of the word, something happened. It felt dangerous, and that danger was energizing. It felt deeply relevant in ways my other fictitious writing hadn’t (Jockim, 2013).

Knausgaard found relevance in his story, in the truth of small moments. If there is a cultural obsession with both reality and memoir, he has made the obsession art.

My Struggle mimics and exploits the mundane, egotistical, existential, common, and exploitatively quotidian that is evident in an era of personal narrative. What is new and captivating in Knausgaard’s style is the influence of new media—the trend toward a documented life—and that is without a doubt a literary achievement that expounds on the modern identity and opens the door for the further examination of the culture his work reflects.

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