I started reading My Struggle in the spring of 2014. I didn’t know what I was getting into, but I was excited about the prospect of being totally immersed in someone else’s world, and I was curious as to why the books had become such an international sensation. Xenia was away for a long weekend, and she’d taken our two-year-old daughter, Juno, with her. I had a splash of bourbon with dinner, something I’d never do unless home alone, and stayed up late reading. The next morning, after coffee, internet browsing, and a short jog, I returned to the book. I took a nap after lunch, listened to a podcast while I made myself some pasta, read a bit more during and after dinner, browsed through Netflix, and fell asleep in front of the television. The next day progressed along an almost identical course. By the time Xenia and Juno had returned, I was about halfway through the first volume, which I finished the following week, reading long stretches on the train rides to and from work.
In October 2018, I cracked open the sixth and final volume of My Struggle on a plane headed to San Diego. I would be away from my family, which now included two more children, for four days. I was lecturing the next morning and had meetings sprinkled throughout the following three days before heading home on a red eye. I foresaw long stretches of private, quiet time to read large chunks of the book, but I returned home with only about 200 of the 1150 pages read. I needed another six weeks to finish, which I did on a Monday morning. I woke up at 5:00 AM, went to the toilet, relieved myself, and finished the book with my pants around my legs. Outside the bathroom, Xenia was nestled under our blankets, and across the hallway from our bedroom, the kids – Juno, now 7, Mateo, 4, and Joaquin, 1 – were also getting their last doses of sleep. They’d all wake up, like clockwork, at 6:00. That’s when the day truly began. I sat on a cold toilet seat for close to an hour, savoring the time and silence required to read a life-changing book’s final moments. I read Knausgaard’s last line. Having finally completed My Struggle, he announces that he “will revel in, truly revel in, the thought that I am no longer a writer.” I smiled and closed the book.
Years from now, when scholars dissect Knausgaard’s work, I suspect that Spring, the third volume of his seasons quartet of books (released in English over the past year), will be held up as the perfect entry into his writing, the tidiest but also most accurate encapsulation of his work. Knausgaard began his seasons books intending to write 2-3 page, flash essays about everyday objects, describing the world to his then unborn daughter. In Autumn and Winter, the exercise reads sweet and also, perhaps, therapeutic for the writer to shift his focus away from the secrets of his and his family’s lives. But by Spring, he abandons the project, instead giving his readers a gorgeously written and heart wrenching account of a single day in his life, during which he drops his older kids off at school and then takes his youngest daughter (she is now an infant) to visit her mother in a psychiatric hospital. With Spring, Knausgaard seems to confess to his readers that he must write long (he abandons the flash format and opts for his usual, uninterrupted stretches of lengthy paragraphs) and personal (he confesses to not recognizing his then pregnant wife’s suicide attempt, he frets about forgetting to bring any milk for the baby, he describes an awkward trip with another, better-adjusted family to a water park). Spring will not only last as the neatest model of Knausgaard’s writing but also, in my opinion, as the pinnacle of the current auto-fiction craze.
I laughed at the last line of My Struggle because, of course, Knausgaard could never be “no longer a writer,” and because I think he’s at the forefront of a movement that is inspiring people like me to write about myself and my family and things that I might have assumed (perhaps correctly, but I hope not) readers don’t need to know, like cold toilet seats and Netflix browsing and my wife’s and kids’ names. I was barely writing in 2014 when I started My Struggle, and the few pieces I did create at that time were lyric essays that skirted with autobiography but never fully embraced the lack of concealment that Knausgaard promotes in his writing. I never mentioned my family by name. I chose to write only about events that would not betray anyone’s trust. I myself was barely recognizable as the narrator of these fragmented pieces.
The bulk of Book Six explores how the earlier volumes of My Struggle have impacted Knausgaard’s family and details the author’s quest to justify the books despite this impact. “Some people are of the opinion I had no right to do what I was doing because in doing so I was involving other people besides myself,” he writes. “My question is why we conceal the things we do. Where is the shame in human decline? The complete human catastrophe? To live the complete human catastrophe is terrible indeed, but to write about it? Why shame and concealment when what we are dealing with here is basically the most human thing of all? What’s so dangerous about it that we cannot speak of it out loud?”
Knausgaard, by his example, is encouraging others to write without shame, to lay ourselves bare on the page, in the hopes that by doing so our writing can “move toward the unfamiliar, what we know but cannot describe.” There is purpose and merit in the process. Returning to his father’s death (the main subject of Book One), Knausgaard writes in Book Six, “The priest who held the funeral service said something I’ll always remember. One must fasten one’s gaze, he said. One must fasten one’s gaze. One must fasten one’s gaze. He could have said the little things are important; but he didn’t. He could have said that loving thy neighbor is most important of all; but he didn’t. Nor did he say what that gaze must be fastened upon. All he said was that it must be fastened.” It’s clear that the writing process itself is Knausgaard’s answer to the priest’s call. He can try to understand his world only when he is putting its details down into pages and pages and pages of self-reflection.
There is purpose and merit but also risk. Book Six begins just before Book One is about to be published. Knausgaard’s uncle, Gunnar, is threatening him and his publisher with a law suit for making up much of the story of his brother’s (Knausgaard’s father’s) death. Gunnar’s vicious emails make Knausgaard question whether he did, in fact, embellish the details of his father’s end. And that doubt, in turn, makes Knausgaard question his motives in writing the books. Perhaps his memory has tricked him into writing a version of events that serves only himself. I understand this feeling. Shortly after finishing Book Two of My Struggle, I began work on what would eventually become my first book of non-fiction, Doctor, a hybrid of cultural criticism and memoir that explored my life as a physician. Knausgaard’s writing was a clear inspiration for much of the book, in particular the sections in which I discussed my family, but also for the parts where I revealed the dirtiest secrets of my profession. When the book was published earlier this year, I was worried about how some of the “characters” who appeared would react when they read their specific sections.
While in San Diego, I ran into my former division chief at a cocktail party. He had some drinks in him – he had two, instead of one, buttons open on his dress shirt – and cornered me by the bar. “I have an issue with something you wrote,” he said. I assumed he was referring to something I’d published in the medical literature, a recent editorial on the best treatment for lupus nephritis, which had come out just that week. I was shocked, therefore, when he brought up my book and the chapter on ageism. “I did not fire your mentor from fellowship because he was old,” he said, laying a strong hand on my shoulder. He was a few inches and close to a hundred pounds bigger than me. His choice of words – “mentor from fellowship,” the way I referred to my former advisor throughout the book – was spoken with disdain. He clearly hated my book. “I fired him because of his job performance, because everyone else in the division said, ‘How can you let this guy get away with this kind of work?’”
I didn’t know what to say. Perhaps he was right. I’d based my account almost entirely on what my mentor had told me. Had I been a true journalist, I’d have asked for some corroborating evidence or alternative accounts. “Well,” I said, “I made sure no one in the book is really identifiable.”
“But I can identify myself,” he said loudly. “And you got it wrong. I’m not an ageist. If I were, I wouldn’t still have an 85-year-old in my division.”
I spent the rest of the night feeling stung. I left the party earlier than I would have otherwise. The next day I sought out colleagues from that time in my life, to see if their version of events aligned with mine (theirs did, fortunately). Did I have to write that section? Did I have to share those opinions with others? I told the story of my mentor’s dismissal in the context of a much larger story I was telling in Doctor, the story of my own father’s twilight as a physician. My father was being forced out of his job not by an ageist division chief but rather an entirely new, ageist system of medicine that required computer skills and business acumen he’d never before needed. But my father’s descent into retirement was different from my mentor’s, wasn’t it? Even worse, I’d never sought permission or approval from either my father or my mentor to include their stories in the book. They’d both told me how much they liked the final product, but perhaps, deep down, they were nursing as much anger as my former division chief. These worries consumed me for the rest of my time in San Diego. That may be why I didn’t read as much of Book Six as I’d hoped I would on the trip. Instead, I jogged and watched television in my hotel room and sought out the best fish tacos near my hotel.
Only after I’d returned home and immersed myself back into the chaos of my current life, the three children’s lunches and snacks, the fighting with my wife, the pressures at work, did I let go of this concern about my book. What was done, what was written, was now in the past. I needed to keep writing, but about the present. “That was the feeling I had: the world was vanishing because it was always somewhere else, and my life was vanishing because it too was always somewhere else,” Knausgaard says in Book Six. “If I was to write a novel it would have to be about the real world the way it was, seen from the point of view of someone who was trapped inside it with his body, though not with his mind, which was trapped in something else, the powerful urge to rise out of such fusty triviality into the clear, piercing air of something immeasurably greater.” I needed to keep reaching for that something, and so I returned to reading his words and writing my own.
When I’d sent my publisher the final corrected proofs of Doctor, I warned Xenia that now I felt freed up to go “full Knausgaard.” She asked me what I meant. “I’m going to write about our family now.” She reminded me I’d already done that. “Even more,” I answered. The truth is I’d become a better doctor by writing about doctors, and so I hoped that I could become a better husband and father by writing about my wife and children. The truth was that there was no other subject matter for me to explore. Everything was now wrapped up in the kids and their schedules, their moods, their needs. Knausgaard says essentially the same thing in Book Six. “Even seeing photos of them from as recently as a year before could make me feel sadness at the fact that the children they were then no longer existed. But mostly they took up so much of our lives now and whirled up our days with such intensity there was no room left for such feelings. It was all here and now with them.”
He dives into this kid-centric viewpoint even more eloquently when he discusses traveling with his family. On a family vacation in the Canary Islands, he feels guilty about trashing the hotel and its pre-packaged entertainment and dining in late night conversations with his wife, because he sees how happy his children are. “[F]or them this is a fantastic place, and I have to keep thinking that too, if you see what I mean. This is a world for children, not for adults. And then I think that almost our whole culture is too. That it’s actually for children.” Or, after another trip that ends with a disastrous flight home and the turmoil of dragging three sleepy kids through an airport, baggage claim, taxi line, and the drive back to their apartment, he takes a moment after all the children are finally tucked into their beds. “The last thing I did was to put Heidi’s dinosaur egg in a bowl of water. So that it would have cracked and a little dinosaur would have emerged by the time she woke the following morning.” It’s a beautiful image but also one of the most accurate descriptions of parenting and its commitments. “You have to be at your post; you have to be at home,” he writes. “Yearnings and aspirations are irreconcilable with this because what you hunger for is limitless and what home does is set limits.”
In Book Six, Knausgaard’s mother-in-law, already stung by her own portrayal in Book Two as a semi-alcoholic, asks him if he worries about how his books will affect his children. What will happen when they are old enough to read these books and see these versions of themselves and their family? Xenia asked me a version of this question, too, in the past year, after I published an essay about how much I was fighting with Mateo about his bedtime. Should our son ever know how angry I was with him, how easily he got under my skin, how I viewed him as my nightly tormenter? How will he feel when, years later, he identifies himself in my writing? Will he bristle the way my former division chief did after seeing himself in Doctor? Should I care and, if I do, is that a sign that I am less of writer? Perhaps that is what Knausgaard is saying or, more precisely, hoping for in the final lines of My Struggle, as he yearns to “revel in, truly revel in, the thought that I am no longer a writer.”
When I was in my final year of fellowship and crafting out the research portion of my career, I briefly thought about moving away from clinical, human-oriented research and switching to a laboratory-based research track, experimenting with animal models and in vitro assays rather than collecting data from actual people. In the laboratory, everything could conceivably be controlled according to the scientist’s wishes. This gene could be knocked out, this enzyme could be inhibited, this medication could be introduced in an exact dose and at a precise time. Human studies, on the other hand, introduced a significant amount of uncertainty, because human subjects exhibit far more variation than animal models, and because the human body remains, to a large extent, an unexplored mystery. Unforeseen events occur in all kinds of research, both laboratory-based and clinical, but carry far more consequence with human subjects than animal subjects. The risk is greater with clinical research, but so is the reward. A successful laboratory study might require decades before its results can be translated to patient care, whereas a top-line clinical study can immediately transform the lives of the patients who participated in the study as well as other patients eagerly awaiting its results.
I thought of this internal scientific debate while reading the sections of Book Six in which Knausgaard daydreams about fiction plots he’d like to someday write. These proposed novels, which would probably be labeled post-apocalyptic fiction, didn’t sound particularly interesting to me, but Knausgaard feels a thrill in the idea of creating a new universe that is uniquely his, with no one from his real life inserting himself or herself into the proceedings. He is daydreaming about a less risky, more controllable path of writing. Thus far he hasn’t acted upon these dreams, choosing instead to finish out the final volume of My Struggle and the seasons quartet (which does, admittedly, contain a short and clunky passage of historical fiction in its final volume, Winter). Tom McAllister, the author of a memoir and, more recently, two novels, recently posted on Twitter, “[E]very time I try to write fiction lately, I get about 1 paragraph in and make a hard left turn into writing short essays about the least interesting aspects of my day.” In other words, McAllister doesn’t feel the need to create a controlled universe; instead he feels the need to describe his uncontrolled surroundings. So do I. Both of us, like so many others inspired by My Struggle, are feeling the urge to go the full Knausgaard.