REVIEWED:My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard (trans. Don Bartlett). Archipelago Books. 430pp, $18.00.
In the run-up to this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, Ladbrokes laid the odds out at 33/1 that Karl Ove Knausgaard would be the recipient. Though not a household name in North America, in Norway his six-volume saga, of which My Struggle is the first, has received prizes and acclaim, and spurred what Christopher Taylor in London Review of Books called “an epidemic of ‘Knausgård-manien.’” Two earlier novels are Out of the World (1998; not yet in English) and A Time for Everything (2008), also published by Archipelago Books.
My Struggle is a mixture of elements: the layering and construction we associate with fiction; the confessional mode found in memoirs; mini-essays on music (Queen, The Pixies, and many more bands), art and the purpose of writing; lyrical passages describing Norwegian scenery; and laments and tirades on domesticity. Not far in, Knausgaard tells us he’s married for the second time and the father of three young children by his current wife. His remarks on his married life and being a father can be uncomfortable to read, and require a certain type of bravery, possibly recklessness when it comes to the feelings of others, or, as Janet Malcolm said of Thomas Struth’s photography, “reserves of boorishness that not every exquisitely courteous person can summon but that the true artist unhesitatingly draws on.” Perhaps all three. Comparing his married life to that of others, Knausgaard delineates the differences with admirable firmness, as well as his own pursuits that distinguish him from what he assumes is the average family man. While children provide happiness and joy, he doesn’t consider that enough.
But joy is not my goal, never has been, what good is joy to me? The family is not my goal either. If it had been, and I could have devoted all my energy to it, we would have had a fantastic time, of that I am sure. We could have lived somewhere in Norway, gone skiing and skating in winter, with packed lunches and a thermos flask in our backpacks, and boating in the summer, swimming, fishing, camping, holidays abroad with other families, we could have kept the house tidy, spent time making good food, being with our friends, we could have been blissfully happy.
Knausgaard knows such a picture, even if verging on “caricature,” resembles what some families look like or what people aspire to. As his family life is nowhere near that, the discrepancy is felt acutely.
Why should the fact that I am a writer exclude me from that world? Why should the fact that I am a writer mean our strollers all look like junk we found on a junk heap? Why should the fact that I am a writer mean I turn up at the nursery with crazed eyes and a face stiffened into a mask of frustration? Why should the fact that I am a writer mean that our children do their utmost to get their own way, whatever the consequences? Where does all this mess in our lives come from?
Further: “When I look at a beautiful painting I have tears in my eyes, but not when I look at my children. That does not mean I do not love them, because I do, with all my heart, it simply means that the meaning they produce is not sufficient to fulfill a whole life. Not mine at any rate.” Earlier, he tells us he’s shaken one of his daughters “until she starts crying.”
Convinced they’ve scandalized their audience (and provided material for future grievances from their offspring), some writers might stop there, but then Knausgaard upends the emotional cart, creating epitaphs for himself that are dour, sorrowful, self-pitying, humorous, and satirical. As he states what other parents may quietly believe (children aren’t enough, a spouse isn’t everything) with a melancholy bordering on bitterness, or, in much of the book, what it means to fear and hate your father, the momentum of the clauses, verbs, repeated words or phrases and metaphors keep the narrative from sinking into a morass of Scandinavian guilt and misery.
That domestic scene does not begin the book; rather it starts, as it ends, with death: “For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops.” The stoppage of that organ leads to a passage on the rush of bacteria throughout the cooling body, why corpses are not allowed to remain where they died, in full view of everyone, and are hidden in lower depths rather than on higher floors. It is completely true to the narrator and his tale, we learn as we read (or we are taught to read as we go), that this chain of corruption and society’s refusal to see it lead Knausgaard, naturally, to relate that at the age of eight, while watching a television news program, he saw a face in the ocean. By chance, the only person around to tell this to is his father, who must be approached with caution. “Was it Jesus you saw?” his father asks; “He finds it rather embarrassing that I am a Christian; all he wants of me is that I do not stand out from the other kids . . .” From this incident we jump thirty years to the time of wretched strollers and Knausgaard trying to write a different book from the one we’re reading, and then back to his life at 16, where we stay for some time.
The adventures of a young man in Norway are very much like those of similar teenagers in other countries. There are attempts at romance, at being the guitarist in a band, listening to music (“Talk Talk and U2, the Waterboys and Talking Heads . . .”), reading (Bernhard is invoked), changing alliances between friends (yet always outside every circle), and drinking without his parents knowing. Paradoxically, this everyday banality is enriched by the sheer concentration Knausgaard bestows on it. No internal or external editor appears to have interfered with the flood of memories and the description of social interactions.
No matter the overlaying subject, every page implies the figure that will not sink from the narrator’s consciousness or the reader’s sight, Knausgaard’s father, who chose to cultivate a poor relationship with his three children: Karl Ove (as he calls himself), his older brother Yngve, and their unseen sister. Partway into My Struggle, Knausgaard, in the book’s present, considers the problem of writing about him in the appropriate manner. He declares: “If any of literature’s other elements are stronger than form, such as style, plot, theme, if any of these overtake form, the result suffers. . . . Strong themes and styles have to be broken down before literature can come into being. It is this breaking down that is called ‘writing.’” No sooner has he said that then the subject of his thoughts changes, as if he can’t allow himself, as an adult, to be caught thinking of his father. It recalls when, as a young boy, he tried not to attract his father’s attention, and it may be the main reason for his adult watchfulness: “I kept a beady eye on those around me, then as now.” This suspicion occasionally lapses, or else he’d not drink to the point of blacking out, and it is a minor indication of his inner conflict.
Speculation over the purpose of such oblivion leads us to wonder what happened to Knausgaard between the ages of eight and 16. Memories of life in college and after, with its minor successes and embarrassments, mob the reader in the brilliantly orchestrated second half of the book, with its changing tempo, small cast, humor and pathos, emotional openness and the presence of secrets and mysteries. On the way to see his dead father Knausgaard repeats, in different ways, the statement “Dad is dead” (italics in original), and tells us that he remained calm while his “heart beast faster again, as though it was on a trip of its own.” (Without wanting to perform eisegesis, this division in his self does bring to mind dissociative states of mind and the complex reaction some people have while re-experiencing traumatic feelings. It may be that future volumes speak to this.) The recollections don’t form a whole, yet their fragmentary nature does not damage the powerful foreboding present throughout—the palpable power of Knausgaard’s father.
My Struggle contains recantations of youthful experiences that the novelist Michael Faber considers a fault: “The bulk of the text, however, consists of mundane family life described in microscopic detail. All the dull stuff that most novelists would omit, Knausgaard leaves in.” Viewing it from Faber’s angle, we might ask why there’s so much about drinking, particularly since it causes the 16-year-old Knausgaard to wake up in strange surroundings, but firm in the belief that drinking “was good for me; it set things in motion.” Later we endure, along with the narrator and his brother, the astounding final 200 pages illustrating how alcoholism has damaged their grandmother and father. The disheveled home that housed mother and son requires a tremendous clean-up, and its wretched, filthy state stands in for their malfunctioning minds and bodies. We can choose to regard this purely as a comment on family matters, or we can interpret it as an intimate view of Norwegian life and the mores of two generations. (The popularity of these six volumes in Norway may be due to such a societal diagnosis, one that removes the lid off a “collective act of repression”; while Knausgaard is speaking of death in that phrase, the remark can be extended to the book as a whole.)
Repetitions and frequent list-making serve to bring together the threads of an apparently meandering tale and to recreate the sense of Knausgaard’s life at the time. It takes a skillful writer to persist in this method. “At the same time I see that precisely this repetitiveness, this enclosedness, this unchangingness is necessary, it protects me,” Knausgaard says early on. “On the few occasions I have left it, all the old ills return.” Thus we must accept repetition as part of the process whereby he reveals his psychological makeup.
The airing of family strife in My Struggle has caused pain and suffering to some of Knausgaard’s family, and, consequently, to him. He has been quoted as saying: “If I had known then what I know now, then no, definitely no, I wouldn’t dare [write about the family].” We might be tempted to agree that there is an unseemly aspect to this six-volume work, except for three reasons: artists create what they have to, and must bear the responsibility for their actions; there is a universality to what we see of this Norwegian writer and his parents and other relatives that addresses us on a level higher than that of gossip; and Knausgaard has articulated ideas and feelings in a gripping way. “Contemporary art . . . the art which in principle ought to be of relevance to me, did not consider the feelings a work of art generated as valuable,” says Knausgaard after contemplating a book of Constable’s paintings. My Struggle requires readers to immerse themselves in the shifting worlds Karl Ove Knausgaard has created, and to respond from the brain and heart.
Canadian writer Jeff Bursey has written reviews and articles for journals in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. His first book, Verbatim: A Novel, was published in October 2010 by Enfield & Wizenty.
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