The Proustian achievement of Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard
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A Death in the Family: My Struggle Book 1, by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Don Bartlett, Vintage RRP£8.99, 416 pages
A Man in Love: My Struggle Book 2, by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Don Bartlett, Vintage RRP£8.99, 544 pages
Boyhood Island: My Struggle Book 3, by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Don Bartlett, Harvill Secker RRP£12.99, 496 pages, Published in the US by Archipelago as My Struggle Books One, Two and Three
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle is a hard sell: a 3,600-page work published in six volumes, without a plot to speak of. It is translated from Norwegian, and it has a troubling title. It contains a description of cleaning a very dirty house that lasts for 100 pages, and an account of a children’s party that lasts for 40. (A typical passage: “Then the topic moved to buying CO2 quotas, and after that to the newly introduced chartered train journeys. I could definitely have offered an opinion about that, but I didn’t, small talk is one of the infinite number of talents I don’t master, so I sat nodding at what was said, as usual, smiling when the others smiled, while ardently wishing myself miles away.”) If it is surprising that the third volume, to be published in English this month, is one of the most anticipated books of the year (or the decade), there is no easy explanation.
The six books were published in Norway between 2009 and 2011, where they sold half a million copies and attracted controversy for revealing the private lives of the author’s grandmother, ex-wife and friends. The titular reference to Hitler’s autobiography, though clearly self-ironising, has been seen by some as an unnecessary provocation. Perhaps the greatest surprise is the books’ growing popularity among British and American readers – and in particular writers. As James Wood put it in a New Yorker review, “There is something ceaselessly compelling about Knausgaard’s book: even when I was bored, I was interested.” Knausgaard has been praised by Jonathan Lethem, who called him “an emperor whose nakedness surpasses royal finery”, and by Zadie Smith, who wrote an essay about the narrator’s “ability, rare these days, to be fully present in and mindful of his own existence. Every detail is put down without apparent vanity or decoration, as if the writing and the living are happening simultaneously. There shouldn’t be anything remarkable about any of it except for the fact that it immerses you totally.”
Knausgaard has been compared to Proust, whose In Search of Lost Time he “virtually imbibed” when it was first translated into Norwegian, and has claimed an affinity with the Norwegian poet Olav H Hauge, whose 3,000-page diaries about “thinking and harvesting apples” he found “hypnotic”. Equally mysterious is the relationship between the author and his alter-ego; Knausgaard and the narrator of My Struggle share the same name, relatives, friends and ideas, but the work can’t really be called non-fiction. “I remember rooms and landscapes,” Knausgaard has said. “What I do not remember [is] what the people in these rooms were telling me.”
That Knausgaard’s world feels utterly real, as well as completely pleasurable to be in, is in part because of the details on every page – too numerous and specific to be remembered, or too ordinary to make up – which lead the reader to wonder where she is being taken, even when the narrator simply seems to be just passing the time. “I got up and went into the kitchen,” writes Karl Ove in a typical passage, “put a plate of meatballs and spaghetti in the microwave, because I hadn’t eaten since the lunch the day before, went into the bathroom and showered, mostly to pass the minutes it took for the food to heat, dressed, found myself a knife and fork, poured a glass of water, fetched the plate, sat down to eat.”
The books’ peculiar appeal might also come from the candour of the narrator, who speaks with an unusually articulate, measured kind of honesty – about his writerly ambitions, his desire to escape the daily grind, his longing for other women to find him attractive, the humiliation of pushing a buggy, and about the “meaning” children produce (he has three), which is, he writes, “not sufficient to fulfil a whole life”. He writes about the experience of looking after a child: “It was wonderful sitting with her, but also a bit boring. I wanted to be out on the veranda, alone with a cigarette and a cup of coffee.”
This is a work that seems designed to refute Nietzsche’s tenet that “whatever is profound loves the mask”. Karl Ove is too close to certain people and aspects of his life to see them with any perspective; he gets so drunk he blacks out, is awful to his wife when hungover, and is often too filled with shame and loathing to think of anything but his desire to get some distance from his life or to escape it for somewhere like Japan, where things would be more interesting and one would be “surrounded by all this foreignness, all the things one saw but did not understand, whose meaning one might intuit without ever being sure”.
Yet, by describing his responses to the moment, past or present, Knausgaard creates a picture of his life that is uniquely full; meaning, he constantly reminds us, is imposed after the fact. In the second volume, A Man in Love, Karl Ove describes meeting Linda, his second wife: “The sun rose in my life,” he writes. “At first, as dawn breaking on the horizon, almost as if to say, this is where you have to look. Then came the first rays of sunshine, everything became clearer, lighter, more alive . . . ” Later, he breaks down the encounter over many pages, filling in the gaps, looping back to get to the real beginning, which in fact – he had omitted to tell us – took place years before, when Linda fell for his friend at a writers’ colony (Karl Ove repeatedly cut his own face with a shard of glass in a fit of drunken jealousy) and involves a date when he complains that she has lost her “boyish leanness”. The effect is unromantic but rings true; you never know that you’re about to fall in love.
Phases of life don’t end; they are overtaken by other phases: “We got up, went to the nearest café, ordered breakfast, that is, porridge, yoghurt, toast, eggs, juice and coffee,” Karl Ove writes. “I read the papers, Linda stared down at the table or into the room, said at length, do you have to read, couldn’t we talk? Yes, of course, I said, closing the newspaper, and we chatted, it was fine, the tiny black spot in my heart was barely noticeable, a little hankering to be alone and read in peace without anyone demanding anything of me was forgotten in a flash.”
The complexity of the narrator’s relationship with his overbearing, intimidating father is portrayed not over pages but volumes. As we learn in the first book, A Death in the Family, Karl Ove’s father is a middle-school teacher, a local politician, and one of the country’s leading stamp collectors; he seems to like to distract himself with manual labour like chopping wood; he becomes an alcoholic and drinks himself to death in the house belonging to his mother, leaving it and her in a terrible shape. Yet our grasp on the man remains shaky; he seems to change shape, weeping in one vignette, intimidating the author in the next. The effect is of a figure too close to capture – an impression that is emphasised after his death, when Karl Ove goes with his brother to his grandmother’s house. Karl Ove immerses himself in organising the funeral, working on the garden (like someone else, perhaps) and cleaning the rooms, which are in a terrible state; the carpet reeks of urine and there is a pile of rotting laundry in the laundry room. “When the last item of clothing had been carried out, I sprinkled the Klorin over the floor, using half of the bottle,” he writes, “and then I scrubbed it with the broom before hosing it all down the drain. Then I emptied the rest of the green soap all over it, and scrubbed it again, this time with a cloth . . . ” After much hesitation, he and his brother help themselves to a vodka; Karl Ove works through the bottle. As his account makes clear, Karl Ove’s is a mind distracting itself from death. A mind, perhaps, not so dissimilar from his father’s.
Reading Knausgaard’s third volume, Boyhood Island, is an experience much like flicking through a childhood photo album (an image that opens the book). Passages bring back memories from earlier volumes – such as the description of Karl Ove’s first day of school, when his mother got lost en route, which the reader will remember from a speech given by the narrator at his mother’s 60th. Similarly, we have already heard, during a dinner party in A Man in Love, about the time when the young Karl Ove lost a sock at the swimming pool, and was told by his father that he could never go to the baths again. (“Ha ha ha!” laughs one of the party guests. “A man after my own heart! Consistent to the last.”)
Boyhood Island is set almost entirely in Karl Ove’s childhood; the narrator’s vocabulary and vision are pointedly narrower. Complaints about the tedium of family life (or the joys of writing) are replaced with sheer enthusiasm (the smell of his football uniform, a secret dumping ground in the woods, A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin, listening to “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles, and the feeling of a girl’s little breasts under a white blouse are all “fantastic”). The story of the lost sock, when we get there, takes up six pages and is actually thrilling: by treating each phase of the story with the unease with which it was first experienced (little Karl Ove on the bus worrying: “Oh no, oh no. What was going to happen? What was going to happen? Oh no oh no oh no . . . ”), the tension builds; the moment when the little boy must expose his bare foot to his father – “Have you LOST your sock?” – is weirdly painful.
Gradually, a pattern emerges: an alternating focus between Karl Ove’s outdoor adventures in the woods and the indoor aftermath of such escapades (his anxiety, the fear of punishment, the sound of his father’s “heavy footsteps” before another scolding). The lessons learnt are numerous – too numerous, perhaps, not to seem intentionally repetitive over more than 400 pages. There is the moment Karl Ove is told off for opening a birthday present without his father’s approval, and the time he is mocked for picking flowers; the moment he falls off his skis on purpose (to protect his father’s pride), and the moment he drinks milk that has gone sour (an indirect attempt to avoid confrontation at the breakfast table). He is scolded and weeps, for which he is scolded.
Knausgaard has described the experience of reading Proust as like “visiting a wood you have been in before, a long time ago . . . and when you start walking, the memories start coming back”. The image is apt; long books are spacious – you can move around in them, and play with things. Reading Boyhood Island, it is hard not to build bridges – between the father’s mockery and the son’s sense of shame, for instance, or the young boy’s preoccupation with his father’s house rules and the author’s apparent inability to write a traditional chapter. The narrator, or perhaps the author, is in a space just off the page, like a wood at the end of the garden.