Elaine Blair has a worthwhile essay on My Struggle in the current NYRB. The essay covers some topics that I haven’t really seen a ton of attention given to so far in the writing about My Struggle, mostly to do with the way the books process time and Knausgaard’s love of portraying minutia in them.
Much as there is to praise about Blair’s essay, one thing that I do find a little unsettling here (and Blair is definitely not alone in this) is how she willfully transforms Knausgaard’s weaknesses into strengths:
And then there is the beauty of Book Three itself. In the earlier volumes, Knausgaard’s insistence that we witness all the steps the narrator takes to cook his dinner, from turning on the oven to forking the finished product onto his plate, sometimes seemed an irritating exercise in literary estrangement. But the young Karl Ove’s attention to his dinner is in perfect keeping with the child’s perspective, in which details of such daily events are a real source of interest and the focus of attention. It’s as though we were finally let in on the secret referent of Knausgaard’s style.
Book Four is another long plunge into the past, this time into adolescence. It is distinctly unbeautiful, the most sloppily joined and repetitive of the volumes so far, but its repetitions have a darkly comic energy that is unique to Book Four.
I suppose that for Book Three there is something to this argument, but as to Book Four, Knausgaard has been pretty forthcoming in saying that it’s beneath his talents (and many critics have agreed). You don’t have to look hard to find interviews where he has said that it was essentially hackwork that he can’t bear to read any longer. Of course, we can take these comments with a grain of salt (Knausgaard is media-savvy, and we should always be wary of letting the author comment on his/her own work), but Blair very willfully turns even these remarks to his benefit:
This is one of few intrusions that the forty-year-old Karl Ove makes in Book Four. As is often the case in My Struggle, Karl Ove’s reflection seems inadequate or even contradictory to what we’ve just experienced with him. The narrator’s companionable intelligence is one of the great pleasures of My Struggle. Yet almost none of that intelligence is gathered into concentrated thought. Knausgaard has described the style of the narration as “infantile,” “idiotic,” and “not to my standard”—meaning that a lot of the writing is underworked, and that the narrator engages only in as much intellection as he really would have in the moment. Knausgaard has said that he could only let himself go and capture the feeling of the flow of his life if he did not closely edit and revise the manuscript. The result is a book that doesn’t think in the way that we expect novels to, which can be hard to get used to. You wait for some sort of deeper consideration of what’s happening, and it may come but more likely it will not—the book, like the life, keeps moving.
I suppose this is plausible. I’m open-minded to this sort of thinking. But I would say that it’s at least as equally plausible that Book Four just isn’t very good, that is was hastily written, not well-edited, and let go as it was to satisfy a ridiculous publishing schedule Knausgaard had put him self upon during a time of enormous stress and pressure.
In all honesty, I enjoyed reading Book Four, but I thought Books One and Two were vastly superior as works of literature. I took Four for what it was: the middle portion of an immense novel. Which is to say, considering it in context I think you can make an argument for it, and you can be more forgiving with its weaknesses that you would if you were reading it on its own. But you still have to be honest that its shortcomings are, well, shortcomings.
I’m fascinated by critics like Blair who will create rationales to explain how these shortcomings are actually strengths (and in other interviews Knausgaard has been a willing participant in this, just as much as he has willingly antagonized Book Four). But, it’s my opinion that, ultimately, these critics are fooling themselves and have gotten a little too caught up in this phenomenon that has taken our little literary world by storm. I could well be wrong about that (time will tell), but I think critics would be better off if they showed a little more skepticism about My Struggle. Yes, it is a major literary work with much interest to it and many strengths. But there is no need for all of the six books that compose this work to be equally good, and we can admit it as a worthy, interesting work of literature while still acknowledging some serious flaws.