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Why Karl Ove Knausgaard, The Norwegian Proust, Is (not Yet) Such A Big Deal In France

Karl Ove Knausgaard is touring New York this week, and his visit marks the culmination of tremendous buzz over the newly released translation of the third volume of his epic work My Struggle. The fascinating novel has been purchased by a whopping one out of 10 Norwegians, and it was met with similar enthusiasm in the U.S.

At McNally Bookstore in SoHo Thursday night, Knausgaard was in conversation with Zadie Smith, and one had to wait in line to get in, only to end up watching the highly captivating discussion on a big screen, since the main space was full long before the scheduled time. “I wanted everything to be in this novel”, Knausgaard said to Smith, but “I was surprised the book was read at all”.

Knausgaard has been called the “Norwegian Proust” by, among others, the New York Times and the Times Literary Supplement. And he himself brings up a comparison to In Search of Lost Time right from the first pages of his 3600-page, six-volume autobiographical work.

But this parallel is paradoxical since in Proust’s own country, My Struggle was met with relative indifference. It garnered few reviews, and the sales were unremarkable: the first volume, published in September 2012, and entitled – far less polemically – The Death of a Father, sold 326 copies in the independent bookstores network, which means far less than 1000 copies in all.

Why such a transatlantic contrast? The following offers a few conjectures.

First, Knausgaard is considered utterly acrid in the US (and in Norway) because, on top of the scandalous intertextuality of his book title, he reveals private and intimate details about his own life, family and friends. Well, that happens more often than you’d think in France. Legal action against autofiction authors is undertaken by angry (ex-)wives, (ex-)husbands, (ex-)neighbors, (ex?) children… And most of the time those battles are won by the writers, in the name of free expression.       

In France, “autofiction” (as Serge Doubrovksy calls it) is a prosperous genre, whose boundaries with autobiography and the autobiographical novel are highly blurred. It is precisely this issue that has also inspired numerous articles and debates about My Struggle in the US, with questions such as : Is everything true? How can Knausgaard remember details such as “I downed the beer in one gulp”? Has he not (re-)invented part of what he writes? In France, where “the death of the author” is still hovering over literary criticism, these matters are considered pointless.

After the great pioneer Colette, a host of French writers have carried on the tradition of autofiction: Patrick Modiano (Livret de famille. Roman, Gallimard, 1981), Alain Robbe-Grillet (Les Romanesques, Éditions de Minuit, 1985, 1988, 1994, 3 volumes), Catherine Cusset, who lives in NYC (La Haine de la famille, Confessions d’une radine, Gallimard, 2001, 2003), Camille Laurens (Gallimard 2002/ In his Arms: a Novel, Random House, 2004), Nicolas Fargues (POL, 2007/ I was Behind You, Pushkin Press, 2009), Philippe Forest (Le Siècle des nuages, Gallimard, 2010), Mathieu Lindon (Ce qu’aimer veut dire, POL, 2013), Edouard Louis (En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule, Seuil, 2014), and the hilarious parody of autofiction by Éric Chevillard (Éditions de Minuit, 2012/ The Author and Me, Archipelago, 2014).

Secondly, US critics and readers are fascinated by the detailed and even microscopic account Knausgaard offers of his life. He reveals “every cornflake” of it, as Ben Lerner wittily noted in the London Review of Books. But he makes a fantastic page-turner out of his very common existence. Author Jonathan Lethem was engrossed: “I read [the pages] compulsively; I can’t stop”.

Knausgaard gives us one striking example of what looks again like a very French phenomenon, one that has been around since Rousseau’s Confessions and Chateaubriand’s Memoirs of my Life, and continues on today. Significantly, seven years ago, Lorin Stein - editor of the Paris Review - introduced Grégoire Bouillier to the US. Grégoire, who writes, admittedly, far thinner books than Knausgaard, seeks to give a “report” on reality and to show the inventiveness of life (The Mystery Guest, Mariner Books, 2007; Report on Myself, 2009).

The list of French books in the same vein of meticulous self-analysis is nearly infinite: Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958-1963) and its sequels, The Prime of Life, The Coming of Age and A Very Easy Death; Georges Perec’s W, or the Memory of Childhood (Denoël, 1975/ David R. Godine, 1988), Annie Ernaux’s A Woman’s Story (Gallimard, 1987, Seven Stories, 2003), Nathalie Sarraute’s Childhood (Gallimard, 1983, republished last year by University of Chicago Press), Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (L’Association, 2000/ Pantheon, 2004), Marie Billetdoux’s C’est encore moi qui vous écris (Stock, 2010-2011, 2 volumes, 1482 pages), or, more recently, the 1152-page Naissance by Yann Moix (Grasset, 2013), and the exquisitely beautiful Une enfance de rêve by Catherine Millet (Flammarion, 2014).

The overwhelming amount of autobiography and autofiction in France has even led some mischievous American critics to declare that French contemporary writers lack imagination. Let’s hope that Knausgaard’s unexpected success will make them rethink their hasty judgment and consider the French production with fresh eyes.

And on the other side of the Atlantic, Knausgaard’s second volume, entitled A Man in Love, is due for the “rentrée littéraire” in September: no doubt that, like Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, the sales will pick up in France after they did in the US – and this will obviously have nothing to do with the romantic title.

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