My Struggle was, in a way, the product of Knausgård’s existential crisis, the kind that comes with middle age. Nearing forty, and having penned two award-winning novels, he was living in a nice house with his wife and three children. He should have been happy. ‘You are in the middle of your life and you think, how did I get here?’ This sober reassessment gave him new insight on his relationship with his father who was of the same age when he left his wife and kids and began drinking himself to death.
For four years Knausgård had tried to turn their complex relationship into fiction but his attempts consistently failed. ‘Everybody has one important story, and this was mine,’ he explains, ‘but if a writer knows a story too well, it is almost impossible to make it alive.’ One day, almost by accident, he used his father’s real name as he wrote, then his own, and then the name of the street in which he grew up. The energy of the words immediately changed. ‘If I knew then that this would be the beginning of a work that would take me three years to finish, that it would be three thousand and six hundred pages long, and that it would make half of my family turn their backs on me, I never would have done it.’
To write in what he calls ‘the language of self’ he had to keep the material raw and direct. ‘The most dangerous thing for a writer is wanting to sound clever,’ he says, though letting go of that impulse was not easy. There was no plot, no revisions, no editing, with the exception of very few passages. His goal was to experience the act of writing, from moment to moment, without knowing where it was leading him. He was not dictating the novel’s direction; it was the other way around. The page count rose at a galloping rate of twenty pages per day. Speed was what helped him access the parts of himself that were still unknown to him. ‘Of course then you start writing bad sentences. But what is “quality” in writing? It has nothing to do, I think, with good sentences.’ In fact, none of the conventional writing mantras, such as ‘show, don’t tell’ worked for him. For six years he tried to follow all the rules and his prose felt dead. ‘Then I thought, what if I did the opposite? What if I tried to tell everything about a person or scene?’ He hopes that eventually a subtext will arise from it, the distilled essence of the work. This was also why he chose the unorthodox title. ‘It was a combination of the personal, my struggle, everyday struggle, but I was also saying something about the whole. My view of life and what life is.’
Life and literature are similar in this, he believes: form cannot be imposed on them; it is something they create. Still, he will never revisit the work. ‘The only way I could do something like this was to have no self-criticism. People tell me it is good, and I know there is a quality in there, but I cannot bear to read it. It’s embarrassing.’ Not that this should matter. Only strangers were meant to read it, anyway.
Photograph by Robin Linderborg