The badness of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s prose is, as everyone from Zadie Smith to James Wood has argued, of a curiously compelling kind. Though Knausgaard seems utterly indifferent to style, his is not the badness of someone who doesn’t care about how language works. Nor, although he’s not averse to cliché, is his the badness of the overwrought and underwritten. Knausgaard’s badness is more interesting than that.
Taken on its own, Dancing in the Dark, the fourth volume in Knausgaard’s six-volume work of autofiction My Struggle, is a fairly straightforward Bildungsroman. As the novel opens, Knausgaard is on the cusp of manhood. He has completed his high school education and got a gig writing record reviews for a local newspaper. His parents have split up and he lives with his mother. Sometimes he visits his alcoholic father, who we heard a lot about in volume three, but these are not happy occasions. Not knowing quite what to do, but knowing he’s sick of studying, he takes a job at an isolated rural school.
Knausgaard arrives in Håfjord, a tiny town in northern Norway, wearing a black beret, with an extensive and sophisticated record collection, a typewriter and the desire to be a writer. He is a hopeless and irresponsible teacher: he fantasises about his students, gets drunk and spends most of his time going to parties, where he falls in love and fails to get laid (his struggles in this department make him a kind of anti-Portnoy). He smokes with gusto. The beers and vodkas he drinks are catalogued with a trainspotter’s numbing desire for completeness. He eats plenty of fish and potatoes.
Dancing in the Dark also describes Knausgaard’s struggle to become a writer. His heroes are the Beats and a few postmodernist Norwegian novelists. He idolises Hemingway, too, and, like him, wants to write fiction that is “straight to the point. Simple and clear. With weight behind it.” Everything is described in flat, workmanlike prose that makes little distinction between moments of intense feeling and the mundanities of daily life. His isn’t the iceberg theory of fiction — according to which, as Hemingway argued, nine-tenths of a story should lie below the surface — but the tundra theory, in which a vast and chilly plain of accumulated detail stretches before the eye.
Some of the badness of the prose may be down to the translation. Though Don Bartlett’s renderings of Knausgaard’s Norwegian feel technically accurate, they do on occasion seem to miss the mark tonally. Bartlett often reaches for outdated idioms, making Knausgaard’s 1980s teens sound a bit like minor characters in a Carry On . . . film. The 18-year-old Karl Ove calls people “prats” and “wimps”; he “snogs” or “smooches” girls, and is constantly beset by inappropriate “stiffies”. He doesn’t get drunk, he gets “pie-eyed”; his penis is his “todger” or, even worse, his “member” (at one particularly EL Jamesian moment he describes how his “member ached with desire”). A quickie is a “knee-trembler”. Is this how teenagers spoke in the 1980s? Perhaps it is. I can’t remember.
At other times the badness of Dancing in the Dark is Knausgaard’s own. He’s fond of using clunky onomatopoeic outbursts to convey intensity. The sublimity of a mountain view is described as follows: “Ohhh . . . Wow. This was just brilliant!” Being sick (he’s sick a lot in this volume) is equally tortuous: “OOOOOHH I went. OOOHHHH. I wrapped my arms around the toilet bowl and hung my head over the bowl, but nothing came, I was empty . . . OOOHH. OOOHH. OOOHH.” You get the idea.
And yet, as those who have read the first three volumes of My Struggle will know, none of this really matters. Dancing in the Dark, like the rest of what is now rather grandly called Knausgaard’s “project”, is an encyclopedic catalogue of inconsequential moments that often feels far greater than the sum of its parts.
The attraction of the writing is that it generates a kind of artificial authenticity, an authenticity founded not necessarily on accuracy but on the appearance of it. Many critics have invoked the name of Proust in relation to Knausgaard and he has described the way he “virtually imbibed” A la recherche du temps perdu when it was published in Norwegian in the 1980s. But a better comparison for English readers might be Dorothy Richardson’s 13-volume novel sequence Pilgrimage, which was hailed by May Sinclair in 1918 for its pioneering deployment of the stream of consciousness technique. Like Richardson, Knausgaard seems more interested in evoking how it is that minds work, and how memory functions, than he is in plot.
What really fascinates him is how all of us remember our pasts as a form of narrative. Near the middle of the book he remembers, or thinks he remembers, a break-in at his grandmother’s house. She says he’s wrong. “Had someone told me it in my dreams?,” he thinks. “Had it been in one of the countless novels I had read . . . which in some mysterious way I had superimposed on vague characters in the family and thus drawn into the heart of the narrative?” In the end it doesn’t really matter. The language available to all of us is riven with cliché, and what’s moving about the worn idioms we reach for in moments of emotional intensity, Knausgaard’s method implies, is that everyone else reaches for these idioms, too. There’s comfort in the universality of his badness.
Dancing in the Dark: My Struggle: Book 4, by Karl Ove Knausgaard translated by Don Bartlett, Harvill Secker, RRP£17.99, 560 pages
Published in the US next month by Archipelago Books
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