Reviews — From the July 2014 issue

Master of the Mundane

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s encyclopedic novels

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Discussed in this essay:

My Struggle: Book Three, by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Archipelago. 300 pages. $27.

 

Few of us are glad to be seated, on a long-distance flight, next to a loquacious stranger who ignores the signals of our open book, our headphones, the sleep mask we pull down over our eyes. Imagine, then, that the stranger in question is a craggy, middle-aged Norwegian determined to tell us everything that ever happened to him — every boyhood memory, every random association or metaphysical speculation, every song he listened to, every book he read, every detail he can recall about his parents, his first friendships, his three children’s personalities, the diapers he changed, the meals he cooked, and the highs and lows of his marriages. Would we like to hear about how much his father liked seafood, or about the eating habits of an airport Burger King customer? The situation is not all that difficult to imagine, but what seems far more improbable is that we might actually become riveted by our companion’s story.

The Bicycle Thief, by Lars Elling. Courtesy the artist and Galleri Brandstrup, Oslo.

The Bicycle Thief, by Lars Elling. Courtesy the artist and Galleri Brandstrup, Oslo.

That unlikely scenario approximates the unusual experience — and the mystery — of reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, a dense, complex, and (judging from the three volumes that have so far appeared in English) brilliant six-volume work, totaling more than 3,500 pages, that might be described as a cross between a memoir and an autobiographical novel. The series has been a critical and popular success in Europe, where it has won several important literary prizes. It was a sensation in Norway, its notoriety boosted by Knausgaard’s nervy decision to borrow the title (Min Kamp, in Norwegian) of Hitler’s literary call to arms and by the media scandals that erupted when his ex-wife and uncle objected to the way in which they had been portrayed.

In a masterful translation by Don Bartlett that follows Knausgaard’s tonal shifts between the colloquial and the lyric, the first two volumes, subtitled A Death in the Family and A Man in Love, were published in English in 2012 and 2013, respectively. They gained a cult following, especially among writers, that has gradually broadened to include a larger base of readers, most of whom agree that this is an unclassifiable work, a genre of its own. Knausgaard has frequently been compared to Proust, but in fact the two writers have little in common except the length and ambition of their books and their fascination with memory. Even at their most poetic, Knausgaard’s sentences are shorter and punchier than Proust’s, less ornately strung with dependent clauses. And Knausgaard seems obsessed less with recapturing the past than with escaping it. It is a tribute to his prodigious grace and skill that although he goes on and on about himself, My Struggle possesses not a hint of the narcissism and solipsism that tend to mar memoirs and autobiographical novels.

The third volume, Boyhood, was released in May, and is (like the first half of A Death in the Family) an account of the author’s childhood — his loving but distant mother, his tyrannical father, his adored elder brother, Yngve, his teachers and neighbors, and the local girls who become the objects of his first romantic obsessions. What Boyhood shares with its predecessors is not just Knausgaard’s alternations between narration and essayistic rumination but also its author’s determination to include everything, no matter how prosaic, trivial, or embarrassing. Nothing is held back, nothing is left out — not the party at which he gets drunk and alienates his wife’s friends, not the childhood game in which he and a friend defecate in the woods and later return to see what time and nature have done to the turds they’ve left in the forest.

Boyhood poses the same questions as the previous books: How do we construct a self from each experience and impression? How can the ghosts of the past be exorcised? And why, given the volumes’ unexceptional subject matter and the author’s encyclopedic approach, is the series nonetheless so hypnotic, a word that keeps cropping up in reviews? Why do we follow, with breathless excitement, the seventy-page account, in A Death in the Family, of the teenage Karl Ove’s efforts to procure beer for a New Year’s Eve gathering? Why do we so happily indulge his description, in Boyhood, of how he liked his breakfast cereal?

In this new volume, Karl Ove (as the character is called) could be Everyboy. He and his friends, a ragtag gang of Scandinavian Huckleberry Finns, search for the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, play soccer, start fires, and visit the local dump to watch some guys shoot rats. They learn to swim, go fishing, pore over a treasured cache of porn. They grow older, compete on the playing field, in their classrooms, and in a school election. Karl Ove joins a terrible rock band with the generationally perfect name of Blood Clot and falls in love with a succession of girls who ditch him for more attractive and popular boys. He wrecks an early romance by persuading his sweetheart that they should try to break the local record for length of time spent kissing; he is mocked by the other kids when his mother buys him a swimming cap decorated with flowers; a family crisis erupts when he loses a sock. “Landscape in childhood,” Karl Ove writes of this lost-forever world in which he came of age,

is not like the landscape that follows later; they are charged in very different ways. In that landscape every rock, every tree had a meaning, and because everything was seen for the first time and because it was seen so many times, it was anchored in the depths of your consciousness, not as something vague or approximate, the way a landscape outside a house appears to an adult if they close their eyes and it has to be summoned forth, but as something with immense precision and detail. In my mind, I have only to open the door and go outside for the images to come streaming towards me. The gravel in the driveway, almost bluish in color in the summer. Oh, that alone, the driveways of childhood!

Knausgaard is determined to record not only the incidents of the past but also the child’s way of seeing the world, before that bright view is dulled and tarnished by age. (In an interview with The Believer last year, he called the whole of My Struggle “infantile”: “It seems like a child has written it. There are childishness, stupidity, lack of wisdom, fantasies. At the same time, that’s where my creativity can be found.”)

The freshness of childhood, but also the fear. In A Death in the Family, we witnessed Karl Ove’s Pavlovian response to his father’s presence. Just the sound of Dad’s footsteps on the stairs was enough to inspire a watchful unease, perpetually on the brink of panic. And so too in the third volume the boyhood idylls come to a halt whenever Dad appears onstage to perform his petty acts of cruelty, impatience, and injustice. As stern, omnipotent, and implacable as the Old Testament God, Dad is uninterested in the difference between intentional and accidental, disobedience and carelessness, innocence and guilt. Perhaps it’s true that Karl Ove got five kroner from an old woman he and his friends helped by removing a fallen tree from a stream, but the punishment — slapping, ear-pulling, shouting, humiliation — is the same as if the boy were lying. When Dad’s capricious unfairness makes the child cry, his tears not only shame him but further enrage Dad, whose son is weak enough to cry like a girl. After his father punishes him for eating too many apples by making him eat so many apples he nearly vomits, Karl Ove fantasizes,

I could hurl him against the wall or throw him down the stairs. I could grab him by the neck and smash his face against the table. That was how I could think, but the instant I was in the same room as he was, everything crumbled, he was my father, a grown man, so much bigger than me that everything had to bend to his will. He bent my will as if it were nothing.

Yet Karl Ove monitors Dad for the slightest sign of approval and derives helpless joy from his father’s infrequent moments of contentment. A trip to the fish market and the record store, where Karl Ove’s choice of music (Elvis!) pleases Dad, ends with an almost ecstatic interlude during which Dad shows his son how to “cure” the warts on his hands by rubbing them with bacon grease. The pair’s tense relationship continues until, three quarters of the way through Boyhood, Dad leaves for Bergen, on Norway’s western coast, to “major in Nordic literature and become a senior teacher.” “Many years later,” Karl Ove tells us, “he was to say that Bergen was where he started drinking.”

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is the author, most recently, of Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 (Harper). She is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine.

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