Judging from the popularity of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Jo Nesb?’s Harry Hole series, we like our Nordic literary imports dark, nihilistic, and page-turning. But the most recent publishing phenomenon to come out of Scandinavia, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume, 3,600-page autobiography — with the audacious title My Struggle — stands in a genre of its own.
In Norway, Knausgaard was well regarded for his fiction, but it wasn’t until My Struggle hit shelves between 2009 and 2011, selling 468,000 copies (one for every nine adults), that he became one of the country’s biggest tabloid sensations. Knausgaard wrote with utter candor about his personal dramas — an alcoholic father, past and present marital problems, ambivalence about parenthood — without changing the names of many people involved. Family feuds played out in the Norwegian press, and Knausgaard moved to rural Sweden to escape the scrutiny. ”It’s frightening enough to think of 10,000 people reading every detail of your life, let alone a million people,” says Kendall Storey of Archipelago Books, Knausgaard’s U.S. publisher. ”He was surprised that people even wanted to read it.”
The first volume of My Struggle was published here in May 2012 (there are now three volumes out, and the fourth is scheduled for June 2015). From the beginning, no one expected a repeat of the success in Norway. Sure, the book was crammed with salacious detail, but it was mostly about mundane experiences: changing diapers, compulsive self-Googling, cooking meals — sort of like a written-down Truman Show. But what happened next was surprising. First, a handful of fellow authors — Zadie Smith, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Jonathan Lethem — deemed it groundbreaking literature. Novelist and critic Francine Prose, an early fan, says, ”The length, the ambition, the honesty, and putting essays in the middle of the narrative — it’s all very new.” She adds, ”As a novelist, you’re supposed to leave all the boring, trivial minutiae out. He puts it all in. Way subversive.” And second, the book began to sell.
It’s hard to imagine a world in which a massive work of confessional performance art would sell out at Walmart, but Knausgaard drew huge crowds during a recent U.S. reading tour. ”It was the literary equivalent of Beatlemania,” says Michele Filgate, who oversaw his June 4 appearance at the Community Bookstore in Brooklyn. ”He’s getting the kind of attention that commercial writers get.” Has Knausgaard started a lasting trend? ”I hope editors are more open to interesting structures, but I also hope people don’t follow in his footsteps,” says Prose. ”The thought of another 3,600-page memoir…I just don’t think that’s going to be that big.”