More is more
I just finished reading volume one of Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume novel, My Struggle. (We’re talking 3600 pages altogether, boys and girls.)
My Struggle is officially classified as fiction, but it’s really autobiography. The author is the protagonist, and his family members – in particular, his father, brother, wife, and grandmother, all of whom are referred to by their real names – are among the most important characters.
Critic James Wood had this to say about Knausgaard’s magnum opus:
Many writers strive to give you the effect, the illusion, of reality. Knausgaard seems to want to give his readers the reality of reality – to strip away the literary tricks, to burst through language, to explode the artifice. And he achieves this. You read Knausgaard almost as if in real time.
Wood goes on to say that "even when I was bored, I was interested." That is exactly right. My Struggle is both compelling and boring, and what makes it compelling is the same thing that makes it boring. The book doesn’t just appear to be about real life — it is about real life.
Knausgaard leaves very little out of the book. Relatively mundane events are described in excruciating detail. For example, he spends about seventy pages describing one New Year’s Eve when he was a teenager living in a rural area in Norway. (Like American teenagers, Norwegian teenagers believe that the only point of New Year’s Eve is to go to a party and get drunk.)
Much of the second half of the volume one is an account of the aftermath of Knausgaard’s estranged father’s death.
After separating from his second wife, the father had moved in with his mother – the author’s grandmother. Both of them became hopeless alcoholics who lived in absolute squalor. When the author and his brother showed up to make arrangements for their father’s funeral and their grandmother’s care, they were faced with a cleaning job of Herculean proportions.
I personally would have rather tackled the Augean stables and let good old Hercules deal with the Knausgaard family home, the contents of which included hundreds of empty beer and liquor bottles, several months’ worth of unwashed dishes and carryout containers full of rotting leftovers, and massive piles of urine-soaked and feces-stained clothing – not to mention a house full of urine-soaked and feces-stained mattresses, couches, and chairs.
Many writers believe in wringing the excess verbiage out of a first draft until no unnecessary words are left behind — the more time such an author spends on a book, the shorter it gets. That’s how Knausgaard wrote, but one day he found himself facing a creative dead end:
The critical reading of the texts always resulted in parts being deleted. So that was what I did. My writing became more and more minimalist. In the end, I couldn't write at all. For seven or eight years, I hardly wrote.
Suddenly the proverbial light bulb went on over his head:
I had a revelation. What if I did the opposite? What if, when a sentence or a scene was bad, I expanded it, and poured in more and more? After I started to do that, I became free in my writing. Fuck quality, fuck perfection, fuck minimalism. My world isn't minimalist; my world isn't perfect, so why on earth should my writing be?
Knausgaard is a man after my own heart. I’ve been following his example for years even though I had never heard of him until recently.
Like Knausgaard, I say f*ck quality, f*ck perfection, f*ck minimalism. Just pile the prose higher and higher. That’s what 2 or 3 lines is all about.
Less isn’t more, Mies van der Rohe notwithstanding. More is more.
(Isn’t that obvious?)
(Isn’t that obvious?)
* * * * *
Krista Siegfrids is Finnish, which isn't exactly the same thing as being Norwegian – but it's close enough for 2 or 3 lines.
“More Is More” is the first track on her debut album, Ding Dong!, which was released in 2013. If you’re running short on Katy Perry and Ke$ha songs, Krista is the answer to your prayers.
Here’s “More Is More”: