This week, the WFIU Arts Desk launches an occasional series just for the web. The WFIU Book Club invites readers in our community to share their reading choices with our audience. For our first installment, Dave Torneo discusses the first of six volumes of Karl Ove Knausgård’s autobiographical novel My Struggle (2009). The first four volumes of the novel have been translated from the Norwegian into 22 languages; and one in nine adults in Norway owns the book.
A California native, Torneo is the publisher of Ledge Mule Press, a small, Bloomington-based press that focuses on limited-edition poetry books incorporating letter press and wood block printing techniques. He is also a poet. For 16 years, Torneo was the clinical coordinator of the Monroe County Youth Shelter; and he was a founding member of Stepping Stones, an agency providing transitional housing for homeless youth. You may listen to the conversation about My Struggle above, or read a transcript, below.
I looked down at Dad. The fingers, which had been interlaced and placed over his stomach. The yellow patch of nicotine along his forefinger. A discoloring, the way a carpet is discolored…Then the face. It was not at rest. For even though it was peaceful and calm, it was not vacant. There were still traces of what I could only describe as determination. It struck me that I had always tried to interpret the expression on his face. That I had never been able to look at it without trying to read it at the same time.
–Karl Ove Knausgård, My Struggle
Dave Torneo: I had no idea who he was. I saw the book in California. I was in Santa Barbara with my sons a couple of summers ago. I was at Chaucer’s Bookstore–one of the best bookstores I’ve ever been to–and this book was on display. And who is this guy?! He’s got thick hair and a beard, and he’s pretty handsome, and he’s always smoking a cigarette. So he kind of appeals to this stereotypical kind of writer–but not an academic–maybe at loose ends, this struggling artist! [laughs] And I read the cover, where Jonathan Lethem, the novelist, said, “A living hero who landed on greatness by abandoning every typical literary feint, an emperor whose nakedness surpasses royal finery” [The Guardian]. Wow.
Probably the main issue or topic is his relationship with his father, and his father’s later leaving the family and entering this morass of alcoholism and isolation, and his father’s ultimate death, and then how the family dealt with that. There are some really moving and kind of creepy parts of the book where he and his older brother go to their paternal grandmother’s home where the father had been living, holed up there–after the father is dead and the body has been removed–and finding the entire home full of alcohol bottles. And the community health agencies had to come in and clean the house, it was so bad.
YK: In certain ways it sounds extremely Scandinavian. Things that we associate with the kind of austere strain of Scandinavian literature and film–Bergman films and Ibsen and Strindberg and that sort of thing. [laughs] But that’s not part of your heritage. Tell me how you gained purchase in this book. How did you hook in?
DT: I think the sheer honesty. The kind of authentic voice. There’s no artifice. Also, dealing with the day-to-day, little things that we all would ignore in novels. That maybe a novelist would shirk, or ignore, and not include. But he talks about shaving, or looking at his own body, kind of mundane things–the banal, maybe–but the way he writes about it, you don’t receive it in that way. I didn’t. It’s a 441-page book, and I didn’t feel bogged down by any of the detail [laughs].
YK: I had assumed from what I’d heard about it that it was autobiographical, but you’re saying it’s classified as fiction.
DT: If you go to a bookstore it’s in the fiction section. But he does admit that he keeps a lot of the same names. He doesn’t change anyone’s name. And maybe that’s what pulls us along so much, because of our own voyeurism or something. [laughs] But, he is a novelist. His first two books were very well received in Norway. And he struggled to write a third novel, and he talks about that quite a bit. He became kind of bogged down and struggled with form. So he decided to shelve any idea of form or style and just wrote. He just put it all down. He said that he wrote each volume in about eight weeks. And didn’t really edit along the way.
YK: [Laughs] Most people, and even most writers, couldn’t just spew the story of their life in eight weeks per volume, and have it come out to be a much extolled literary masterpiece. So, I’m still really curious about what takes it to that level. And how someone could simply describe the contents of their existence with such banal detail and have it come out transformed alchemically into something that has captured the world by storm.
DT: Yeah, that’s a great question, and that’s what intrigued me. To read about, maybe, your daily life that you take for granted, but to read it in that way–it makes you feel better about being a human being yourself [laughs]. Yeah, life can be wonderful, but it’s also a struggle at the same time. And maybe that’s what he’s saying too–it’s a struggle, but there are these glorious moments.
YK: So I’m curious whether you will pursue the struggle through all six volumes.
DT: Yeah, I plan on reading more. I’m taking a break now.
YK: [Laughs] Does it feel necessary?
DT: It feels necessary to take a minute, maybe read a couple other books. I read a biography in between, now I’m reading a short novel. But I do want to go back!”
‘Shall we go,’ he said. I nodded. The funeral director was waiting for us in the ante-room. Even though I knew it was irrational, I didn’t want Dad lying there on his own.
–Karl Ove Knausgård, My Struggle