I’ve read three volumes of My Struggle so far, and I’m almost certain that I like Vol 2 the best. I hate comparisons of My Struggle to Proust because they always end up being purely superficial, but I’m going to make another superficial comparison for reasons that I hope will be evident: I kind of liken this volume to the second volume of Proust. Nine out of ten people adore Within a Budding Grove the most of all volumes of Proust because it’s the love volume. Proust is using all of his talents to describe love at its most rapturous and incandescent phase, and he’s processing it through his own memory, which of course makes it even more romantic and memorable. Not to mention, love stories tend to make for great narratives, another thing that makes the second volume of Proust much easier to read and more memorable than other volumes. There’s a certain sort of immediacy there that’s hard to match with any other kind of story.
Even though I would never compare Knausgaard’s prose or aims, or well, just about anything he does, to Proust—I’m not trying to be judgmental or elitist or say one is better than the other, I’m just saying that they’re not very similar except superficially—I think the deal with Vol 2 of My Struggle is much the same. After all, the subtitle is “A Man in Love.” This is the story of Knausgaard falling in love with his wife, and, well, it’s quite amazing. Knausgaard’s description of being carried away by a romance must be experienced! It alone makes the book stand out from the rest of the pack for me.
But in addition to that, the structure of Vol 2 is intricate and fascinating. It’s all structured around a lavish dinner that Knausgaard and his wife are throwing for a couple of friends. It’s one of those incredibly long, alcohol-sodden dinners, so it just goes on and on, and Knausgaard comes back to it throughout the volume as a touchstone of sorts. Interspersed with the dinner are the stories that bring him to this moment: falling in love with his wife, the arrival of the couple’s children, Knausgaard’s maturation as an adult and his sometimes-difficult emergence as a father, and, of course, his evolution from a promising-but-under-achieving writer experiencing a very serious dry spell to the man who eventually has the idea for My Struggle. In addition to all that, Knausgaard strings out for the length of the entire volume this utterly hilarious and tabloid-level fascinating story of his neighbor from hell, this Russian whore who plays incredibly abrasive techno “music” in the middle of the night and with whom he and his wife have this on-and-off feud for months. That last is such perfect Knausgaard: the ultimate sort of fascinating anecdote that that bottom-feeding reader in all of us just loves to hear, and the sort of an anecdote that Knausgaard tells like nobody else can. (Oh, and on that subject, the section where Knausgaard’s wife gives birth to their first child is simply AMAZING; it is long and drawn out and excruciating and simply shows realist writing at its very, very best. I think I almost fainted.)
And just one last thing: it’s in this volume that Knausgaard’s (best? closest? only real?) friend Geir comes into his own as an intellectual foil for our author. We learn about Geir’s book about boxing, which in turn becomes a way for Knausgaard to explain Geir’s ideas about masculinity, which then contrast with Knausgaard’s most spectacularly. This all leads up to one of my favorite moments in the entire first three volumes, where Knausgaard and Geir have this lengthy conversation in a bar sort of about the state of freedom and personal potential in the prototypical modern Western society. It’s this absolutely nuanced, complex treatment of the question that reaches back to the volume of Dostoevsky that Knausgaard reads throughout Vol 2 (and which, in my opinion, shows Dostoevsky as much more the intellectual and stylistic forebear to My Struggle than Proust).Yes, all this is found in Volume 2! It’s really a remarkable book. I know that people have very legitimate critiques of My Struggle, and I do sympathize with and even share those critiques to varying extents. But my gut feeling is that when it’s all said and done, Vol 2 might just turn out to be the best of the volumes, the one that shows the project to be a work of genius. So, it may well be the best chance to give this project the Best Translated Book Award. All this, then, I think, makes for a possibly compelling case for why this book should take the BTBA this year against some admittedly stiff competition.
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
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