"For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops." Those lines open Vol. 1 of My Struggle, a massive, six-volume remembrance of things past by Norwegian literary sensation Karl Ove Knausgaard. From there the book immediately plunges into an extended and somber philosophical reverie about death — its rituals, its social implications. This, by the way, is a novel. Sort of. It's probably best thought of as an extremely granular, extremely autobiographical strip-mining of the mundanity of everyday life, lightly fictionalized but clearly Knausgaard's everyday life. It's a gutsy move, presuming to interest readers in six volumes about your day-to-day.
If you follow what Terry Southern cheekily termed The Quality-Lit Game, you know that despite all the contraindicators — modernist European author; downer title; six volumes — that gutsy move has made Knausgaard a genuine sensation. The family revelations in his book, and the resulting publicity in Norway, ravaged his family and drove them into hibernation, as detailed in a recent New Republic profile. But as the books dribble out in English — the third volume comes out in May — it's not the nimbus of gossipy drama that makes them notable, it's that they are widely considered a literary triumph, praised in pretty much every corner of the literary universe. Even GQ momentarily paused its litany of mustache grooming tips and chipper plaudits for $3,500 suits to push My Struggle on its readers. "Strangely addictive," the magazine judged; "… the combination of detail and intimacy creates an illusion of being inside somebody else's brain."
"It's wonderful," says outgoing Black Mountain Institute Executive Director Carol Harter, and we're not quoting her at random.
Because, as it turns out, BMI — through its Rainmaker Translations project — is paying to bring out Knausgaard's epic in English. "We've underwritten two, and this year we're underwriting the third volume," she told us during an interview that will appear in the May issue of Desert Companion. "This year's $20,000 goes for that."
Along with its very visible effort to bring notable writers, scholars and commentators to Las Vegas, Black Mountain has this quiet but important parallel program. "We wish it were more well-known, too," Harter says, "although it's starting to be a little bit and people get to know the writers involved." Books by Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury and Salvadoran Horacio Castellanos Moya are among its accomplishments so far. "We've tried to do more than one book by several writers in order to have that overarching responsibility for having helped get those things into English."
She adds that BMI was scheduled to host a Knausgaard event, for which Harter hoped to entice New Yorker book critic James Wood and acclaimed novelist Zadie Smith as co-participants. "But (Knausgaard's) wife tried to commit suicide, and when that happened he decided to cancel all of his stateside activity and just focus on his family." She hopes that now domestic tranquility has been re-established, BMI can one day try again. The struggle continues.