I was on page six of Knausgaard’s last book of the series, My Struggle, when I saw the first mention of Proust. Of course, I thought. Of course. There would be many mentions of Proust.
It rolled over me in a wave of comprehension: Knausgaard has done exactly what Proust did, if certainly differently, nearly a century earlier, telling a story of a life—his and his cohort’s—from childhood to adulthood and the writing life. It’s in six volumes, like so many versions of In Search, and in the last, thickest volume, which I’m devouring now, he wanders far off-narrative, into philosophical and literary diatribes that speak of his immense insight, erudition, and absolute Proustiness. Knausgaard didn’t just read Proust; he internalized how it was constructed and made it his own.
Should Karl Ove ever read this—unlikely—he might be upset to read my comment that he did “exactly what Proust did,” since he writes in this massive sixth volume that the biggest failure of a writer is to copy another. But to clarify: to say that he has replicated Proust means only that they both use a similar form. To call that copying would imply that everyone who wrote a play after Shakespeare was copying him.
It would seem, on the outside, that they wrote two very different kinds of stories, Proust’s of social climbing into higher Parisian social strata, and Knausgaard’s of a middle class existence in Norway, far from the glamour or high society salons. Proust’s iconic sentence structure, with a domino profusion of clauses, is not common in Knausgaard’s mostly straightforward prose.
Thomas Mann was the last great bourgeois novelist; together with Marcel Proust he marks the end point of an entire epoch, perhaps also, and certainly in the case of Proust, its consummation.”—Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Volume 6
What is common to both writers is a fantastic level of oddly endearing neurosis, the deep concern about everything, and the minute examination of every word, action, and reaction in ordinary life experiences. Both authors underscore the absolute banality of most life experiences, but give us the brilliant insights to be found in them. Knausgaard tells us a lot about what makes Proust so great, and demonstrates the astonishing depth of his reading of other authors. I’m currently about 50 pages into his discussion of a poem, but I couldn’t wait to finish the book before letting Proust fans know that there is a Proust for our times out there, and he is wonderful.