By Karl Ove Knausgaard, from My Struggle, Book Two: A Man in Love, the second volume of his six-volume autobiographical novel, to be published next month by Archipelago Books. Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett.
The idea was to get as close as possible to my life, so I wrote about Linda and John sleeping in the adjacent room, Vanja and Heidi, who were at the nursery, the view from the window and the music I was listening to. The next day I went to the rented cabin, I wrote more there, some ultramodernistic-style passages about faces and the patterns that exist in all big systems, sand heaps, clouds, economies, traffic, occasionally went into the garden to smoke and watch the birds flying hither and thither in the sky, it was February and there was no one around in the enormous allotment compound, just row upon row of small, well-kept doll’s houses in small gardens, so perfect they looked like living rooms. In the evening a huge flock of crows flew over, there must have been several hundred, a dark cloud of flapping wings drifting past and flying on. Night fell, and apart from what was lit up by the light streaming out the open door at the other end of the garden, everything around me was dark. So still was I, where I sat, that a hedgehog shuffled by, half a meter from my feet.
“Well, hello there,” I said, and waited until it had reached the hedge before getting up and going in. The next day I began to write about the spring Dad moved out from Mom and me, and even though I hated every sentence I decided to persist, I had to come to terms with it, to tell the story I had tried for so long to tell. Back at home, I continued with some notes I made when I was eighteen and for some reason had not disposed of, “bags of beer in the ditch” caught my eye, a reference to one New Year’s Eve when I was a teenager, I could use that, so long as I wasn’t too bothered and shelved any idea of aiming for the sublime. The weeks passed, I wrote, walked the children to the nursery or collected them, spent the afternoons with them in one of the many parks, cooked dinner, read to them and put them to bed, worked on reader reports and other odd jobs in the evenings. Every Sunday I cycled to Limhamnsfältet and played football for two hours, that was my only leisure activity, everything else was either work or children. Limhamnsfältet was an enormous grassy area outside the town, by the sea. Since the end of the 1960s a motley collection of men have gathered there every Sunday at a quarter past ten. The youngest are sixteen or seventeen while the oldest, Kai, is closer to eighty — he is on the wing and the ball has to be played to his feet, but if he gets it, there is still enough football left in him to whip in a center, and now and then he even scores a goal. But the majority of the players are between thirty and forty, come from all walks of life and all they really have in common is the joy of playing football. The last Sunday in February Linda and the children came along, Vanja and Heidi cheered me on for a bit, then they went to the play area by the beach while I carried on playing. There had been a ground frost, the usually soft layer of grass was rock-hard, and when after half an hour I was sent flying by a tackle and landed smack on my shoulder I realized at once that something was wrong. I stayed down, the others gathered around, I was nauseated with the pain, hobbled slowly with my shoulder hunched behind the goal, the others knew that this wasn’t just a little knock and the game was called off, it was half past eleven anyway.
Fredrik, a fifty-something writer and classic poacher who still bangs in goals in Swedish nonleague football, drove me to the hospital while Martin, a two-meter-plus giant of a Dane I knew through the nursery, undertook to inform Linda and the children about what had happened. The emergency room was full, I took a number from the machine and sat down to wait, my shoulder burned and there was a stab of pain every time I moved it, but it was bearable for the half hour it would take before it was my turn. I explained the situation to the nurse in reception, who came out to give me a quick examination, grabbed my arm and moved it slowly to the side. I screamed at the top of my lungs. AAAAAAgggghhh! Everyone stared at me, a man approaching forty, wearing an Argentina national shirt and football shoes, his long hair tied in a knot like a pineapple with an elastic band on top of his head, howling with pain.
“You’d better come with me,” the nurse said. “So we can have you examined properly.”
I went into a room nearby, where she asked me to wait, a few minutes later another nurse came, she made the same movement with my arm, I screamed again.
“Sorry,” I said. “But I can’t help it.”
“No problem,” she said, gently removing my tracksuit top. “We’ll have to take your shirt off as well,” she said. “Do you think that’ll be okay?”
She pulled at the sleeve, I screamed, she paused, tried again. Took a step back. Looked at me. I felt like an oversize child.
“We’ll have to cut it off.”
Now it was my turn to look at her. Cut up my Argentina shirt?
She came back with some scissors and cut up the sleeves, then asked me to sit on a bed once the shirt was off and stuck a needle in my lower arm, just above the wrist. She was going to give me a bit of morphine, she said. After it was done, although I noticed nothing, she rolled me into another room, perhaps fifty meters deeper into the labyrinthine building, where I was left alone to wait for an X-ray, not without some dread because I thought my shoulder must have been dislocated and, if so, I knew putting it back would be painful. But it was a fracture, the doctor confirmed. It would take between eight and twelve weeks to heal. They gave me some painkillers, a prescription for more, tied a bandage in a taut figure eight over and under the shoulders, hung my tracksuit top on me, and sent me home.
When I opened the door to the flat Vanja and Heidi came toward me at a run. They were excited, Daddy had been to the hospital, it was an adventure. I told them and Linda, who followed with John on her arm, that I had broken my collarbone and had a sling, it was nothing major, but I couldn’t lift or carry or use my arm for the next two months.
“Are you serious?” Linda asked. “Two months?”
“Three at worst,” I said.
“You must never play football again, that’s for sure,” Linda said.
“Oh?” I said. “So that’s your decision, is it?”
“It’s me who has to put up with the consequences,” she said. “How am I going to take care of the children on my own for two months, if I might ask?”
“It’ll be fine,” I said. “Relax. I’ve broken my collarbone, after all. It hurts, and it’s not as if I did it on purpose.”
I went into the living room to sit down on the sofa. I had to make every movement slowly and plan it in advance. Every little deviation sent a pain through me. Agh, ohh, oooh, I said, slowly lowering myself. Vanja and Heidi watched with saucer eyes.
I smiled at them while trying to put the big cushion behind my back. They came up close. Heidi ran her hand across my chest as if to examine it.
“Can we have a look at the bandage?” Vanja asked.
“Afterward,” I said. “It hurts a little to take clothes off and put them back on, you see.”
“Food’s up!” Linda shouted from the kitchen.
John was sitting in his baby chair banging his knife and fork on the table. Vanja and Heidi stared at me and my slow, laborious movements as I sat down.
“What a day!” Linda said. “Martin didn’t know a thing, only that you’d been taken to the emergency room. He brought us home, luckily, but when I was opening the door the key broke. Oh my God. I visualized us having to stay with them tonight. But then I double-checked my bag, and there it was, Berit’s key. What a stroke of luck! I hadn’t hung it up. And then you come home with a broken collarbone . . . ”
She looked at me.
“I’m so tired,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “It’ll probably only be the first few days that I can’t do anything. And then one arm will be perfectly okay.”
After eating I lay down on the sofa with a cushion behind my back watching an Italian football match on TV. In the four years we’d had children I had only done something like this once. At the time I was so ill I couldn’t move, I lay on the sofa for a whole day, saw ten minutes of the first Jason Bourne film, slept for a bit, saw ten minutes, slept for a bit, threw up intermittently, and even though my whole body ached and basically it was absolutely unbearable, I still enjoyed every second. Lying on the sofa and watching a film in the middle of the day! Not one single obligation! No clothes to be washed, no floor to be scrubbed, no dishes to be done, no children to look after.
Now I had that same feeling. I was not in a position to do anything. However much my shoulder burned and stung and ached, the pleasure at being able to lie in total peace was greater.
Vanja and Heidi circled around me, coming close every so often and gently stroking my shoulder, then they went out of the room to play, and came back. For them this was probably unprecedented, I mused, my being completely passive and still. It was as though they had discovered a new side of me.
When the match was over I went for a bath. We didn’t have a cradle for the showerhead, we had to hold it in one hand, and that option was out of the question now, so all I could do was run the bath and climb into the tub with difficulty. Vanja and Heidi watched me.
“Do you need any help with washing, Daddy?” Vanja asked. “Can we wash you?”
“Yes, that would be nice,” I said. “Can you see the cloths there? Take one each, and then dip it in the water and rub some soap into it.”
Vanja followed the instructions precisely, Heidi copied her. And they stood there, leaning over the edge of the bath and washing me with their cloths. Heidi laughed, Vanja was serious and businesslike. They washed my arms, neck, and chest. Heidi was bored after a few seconds and ran into the living room, while Vanja stayed for a while longer.
“Is that good?” she asked at length.
I smiled. That was what I usually asked.
“Yes, it’s great,” I said. “I don’t know what I’d do without you!”
She brightened up, and then she ran into the living room as well.
I wallowed in the water until it turned cold. First football on TV, then a long bath. What a Sunday!
Vanja came in a couple of times to see. I supposed she was waiting for the bandage to be put on. She spoke Swedish, of course, still with Stockholm intonation, but when I had been with her for a morning or an afternoon, or she felt close to me for some other reason, words from my dialect appeared more frequently in her conversation. Very often she would say mæ instead of the Swedish mig, me. “Lyft upp mæ!” Lift me up, she would say, for example. I laughed every time.
“Can you go and get Mommy?” I said.
She nodded and ran off. I got out of the bath gingerly, and had dried myself by the time she came back.
“Could you put the bandage on?” I asked.
“No problem,” she said.
I explained how it was supposed to be, and said she had to pull it hard, otherwise it wasn’t doing its job.
“Doesn’t it hurt?”
“A bit, but the tauter it is the less it hurts when I move.”
“Okay,” she said. “If you say so.”
And then she pulled from behind.
“Aaaaagh!” I said.
“Was that too hard?”
“No, that was good,” I said. I turned toward her.
“I’m sorry I was so grumpy,” she said. “But I had such a terrible vision of the future, me doing everything on my own for months on end.”
“It won’t be like that though,” I said. “I’ll be able to take them to school and pick them up as usual within a few days, I’m sure.”
“I know it hurts, and it’s not your fault. But I’m just so tired.”
“I know. It’ll be fine. Things’ll sort themselves out.”
On Friday Linda was so tired that I went with John to pick the girls up from the nursery. Going there was easy, I pushed John in the stroller with my right hand while walking behind as carefully as I could. The way back was more problematic. I pulled John after me with my right hand, clutching the injured left hand to my side and somehow shunting Vanja and Heidi in the double carriage with my whole body. Occasional pains shot through me and I had no defense except to emit little screams. It must have been a bizarre sight, and people did stare at us as we trundled along. It was also a strange experience for me during those weeks. Not being able to lift or carry, and finding it difficult to sit down and get up, gave me a sense of helplessness that went beyond physical restrictions. Suddenly I had no authority, no strength, and the feeling of control I had taken for granted until now became manifest. I sat still, I was passive, and it was as though I had lost control of my surroundings. So, had I always felt I controlled them and had power over them? Yes, I must have. I hadn’t needed to make any use of the power and the control, it had been enough to know that it existed, it permeated everything I did and everything I thought. Now it was gone, and I saw it for the first time. Even stranger was the fact that the same applied to writing. Also with it I had a sense of power and control, which disappeared with the broken collarbone. Suddenly I was under the text, suddenly it had power over me, and it was only with the greatest effort of will that I managed to write the five pages a day I had set myself as a goal. But I managed, I managed that too. I hated every syllable, every word, every sentence, but not liking what I was doing didn’t mean I shouldn’t do it. One year and it would be over, and then I would be able to write about something else. The pages mounted, the story advanced and then one day I came to another of the places where I had made a note in the book I had kept for the past twenty years, about a party Dad had held for friends and colleagues the summer I turned sixteen, a gathering that in the late-autumn darkness merged into one with my own enormous pleasure and Dad crying, it was so emotional, such an impossible evening, everything converged there and now at last I was going to write about it. Once it was done, the rest would be about Dad’s death. This was a heavy door to open, it was hard being inside, but I approached it in the new way: five pages every day, regardless. Then I got up, switched off the computer, took the trash with me, disposed of it in the basement and went to collect the children. The horror lodged in my chest dissipated when they came running toward me across the playground. They competed with each other, seeing who could shout loudest and give me the biggest hug. If John was with us he sat smiling and shouting, for him his two sisters were the tops. They scattered their lives around him, he sat lapping it all up, and copied whatever he could, and even Heidi, who could still become so jealous of him that she would scratch or knock or thump him if we didn’t keep an eagle eye open, didn’t hold any fears for him, he never viewed her with fear. Did he forget? Or was there so much goodness there the rest was lost in it?