Fully indulging your bourgeoisosity

I just read this book.

My Struggle 1 by Karl Ove Knausgård.

Karl Ove Knausgård is a Norwegian author and he looks like this.

Some kind of Scandinavian lion.

My Struggle is a six book series - the first one was published in Norwegian in 2008, and the last in 2011. The title is the same as Hitler's - Mein Kampf. (In Norwegian, it translates as Min Kampf.)

People are really into it. In Norway the series has sold 450,000 copies (which is a lot, and in a country of fewer than 5 million people it's loads).

More than a few people have described the writing as Proustian. This is kind of an obvious reference point because My Struggle and In Search of Lost Time are long, autobiographical works. Both writers deal with memory, time and autobiography. They both use narrative to give lived experience the quality of coherence, whilst at the same time critiquing the possibility that lives can be coherent; that they can be made sense of, or reduced to a story.

But they are similar in another way, and that's because in his writing, Knausgård, like Proust, fully indulges his bourgeoisosity.

Here is Proust, by the way.

The indulgence becomes a form of confrontation. This confrontation is not political in a traditional sense - it is not a rejection of a value system. But it is a thorough critical analysis of what it is to be bourgeois. The critical analysis emerges naturally through a patient engagement with subject matter that is necessarily narcissistic and self-indulgent to write about. (The subject matter is the writers' lives and childhoods - which in different ways, were as middle class as their respective contexts allowed.)

I've read the first book of each - Proust's Swann's Way, and Knausgård's My Struggle 1. They are structured in similar ways. The first half of each is an uninhibited meandering through childhood memories, which seem to be revealed to the authors as they write them. At points the stories overwhelm you with banal detail. Both books make you very bored, and sometimes kind of angry at the writer for even daring to write about their childhood in that kind of detail. 'Who cares?' I kept thinking. 'I don't want to read these things!'. But in both cases it turned out I did want to read those things, and in fact the reason I wanted to read those things was because of the amount of detailed attention given to uninterrupted reminiscences.

 The second half of each book deals with another person, significant for the writer. This is where the books diverge in content, but not - I think - in spirit.

The second half of Swann's Way deals with slow decline of a family friend who drifts in and out of love and high society. It is a meditation on how people become attached to each to one another, what love might be made of, and how people trick themselves into believing the stories that they tell other people.  It is a melancholic story, but it is slightly detached from Proust and his life.

The second half of My Struggle 1 is about Knausgård's father who - while we readers were indulging in the details of Knausgård's childhood - became a hopeless drunk, moving back in with Knausgård's grandmother and ruining both their lives before dying on the sofa. Knausgård goes back to where he grew up, and with his brother, cleans up the house where his grandmother now lives in total squalor because of his father's behaviour in the last years of his life. It depicts the graphic reality of what happens when someone dies, and the physical and emotional mess they leave behind.

Different vibes admittedly. Knausgård's book is written in a different time - he uses the real names of people in his life, and he exposes himself to the reader in ways that Proust could never have done. But for me, the important similarity is that both writers prepare for telling the story of another person - whose stories are more "worthwhile" or "important" or "real" - by unflinchingly telling their own.

This unflinchingness is about unapologetically exploring the details of their own lives. The unflinchingness isn't just about representing the unappealing, shameful or horrific things that happen, but also the boring, comfortable, or banal things.

The title of Knausgård's book is a joke, if you hadn't already realised, My Struggle is meant to imply a mock heroic story. "What struggle?", it seems to say.

There is no excuse for writing books like Proust's and Knausgård - who wants a 3500 page autobiography of another Medium Rich White Guy? And both writers know this. But by fully indulging their bourgeoisosity, they manage to travel through some kind of ethical wormhole and turn that indulgence into a kind of self-reckoning. Both writers manage to convince you that hyper-indulgence is the only adequate response to the question of how they might go about writing a book.