When Beyoncé put out her hugely popular self-titled album on December 13 of last year, everybody had something to say about it. Beyoncé, which was recorded in secret and preceded by zero PR hype, was something rare in that it took most of us by surprise. Shock and awe tactics aside, though, the record release made a piece of art into an event. Granted, it was put out by one of the biggest pop stars in the world, but it broke through the noise of a 24-hour news cycle and demanded basically everyone’s undivided attention. For me, the single most interesting thing about Beyoncé‘s release was the fact that news of it could never have gone viral so quickly even a decade ago, before Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and all the second-by-second updates these platforms offer us.
It sounds funny to say, but Beyoncé got me to thinking that the old-fashioned cultural event — the one that took us time to find out about and appreciate — is becoming more and more rare when instant gratification is the norm. Music, movies, and even books are released into the world, and we can learn about and discuss them with friends, family, and millions of strangers thanks to the internet. But then, almost immediately, it’s over. We move on to the next thing.
That’s what makes the My Struggle series by Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård such a treat to experience: stretched out over six books (and published in an English translation by Archipelago Books) Knausgaard’s autobiographical novel was compared to Proust just about as often as reviewers abused the term “Dickensian” in reviews of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. But with all due respect to Tartt, plenty of contemporary authors — and even some TV shows, like The Wire – are compared to Charles Dickens; the Dickensian tradition is still alive and well. The line many have drawn between My Struggle (let’s just admit the awkward fact that it shares its title with Adolf Hitler’s infamous autobiography and move on) and Marcel Proust is a rarer and more monumental thing. Both Knausgaard’s Proustian style and the fact that his work is one long book stretched out into many volumes, just like In Search of Lost Time, should signal that it’s a literary event the likes of which we probably will not see again in our lifetimes. Of course, the fact that Tartt publishes roughly one book per decade made The Goldfinch‘s release an event, too — but what Knausgaard is doing is something else entirely because we’re still in the middle of.
As we near the May release of the third English-language volume in the series, The New Yorker has published an excerpt from the book, one that can stand alone but that will surely be nothing like experiencing the whole, completed work. Since I’ve only read the first book so far, I felt like I was cheating by looking ahead, but was satisfied nonetheless with the story that finds Knausgaard recalling his 1970s youth, with a focus on the music he loved as a 12-year-old. It is a great piece, but essentially a drop in the big, blue ocean that is My Struggle. A big, blue ocean that there’s still plenty of time to jump into and participate in, as each new English translation appears. Unlike almost every other work of art released in the 21st century, Knausgaard’s massive book is an ongoing cultural event that we’re being afforded the opportunity to savor.