Discussed in this essay:
My Struggle: Book Six, by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Translated from the Norwegian by Dan Bartlett and Martin Aitken. Archipelago Books. 1,160 pages. $33.
A Time for Everything (2009), Karl Ove Knausgaard’s exceedingly strange and intermittently beautiful second novel, concludes with a novella-length coda, written in the first person, about a summer day when the narrator’s father takes him and his older brother crabbing on the Norwegian coast. Along the way, the narrator spots a seagull carcass. “Did you know that seagulls were angels once?” his father asks. Naturally the boy doesn’t take this claim seriously: “He lied about everything, but his lies were various; this one fortunately was only meant to tease us.” The father picks up the bird, turns it over, and shows it to his sons:
“Can you see?” he asked.
“What?” I said.
“Come right up close, then you’ll see.”
I bent forward. And then I saw it. A tiny little arm, no longer than the tip of my finger, thin as a piece of wire, lay against its breast under the wing.
“It’s a hand,” Dad said. “Can’t you see?”
The narrator in these pages is named Henrik, his brother is Klaus, but readers of My Struggle—the monumental autobiographical novel that has made Knausgaard an international literary superstar and whose sixth and last volume has finally appeared in English—will recognize the pair as Karl Ove and his older brother, Yngve. They will recognize too the father who
normally . . . never did anything with us, preferring to stay in his office in the basement, silent and somber and tormented. When he did come up, he often flew into rages, so that our relationship with him was one of fear and apprehension rather than love.
A Time for Everything ends, as My Struggle begins, with the death of this feared and unloved father. Throughout Knausgaard’s childhood, his father was abusive and mercurial but not much of a drinker; after leaving the family, he descended into alcoholism, and spent the last years of his life living with his mother, who was apparently suffering from dementia. After his death, Karl Ove and Yngve returned to their grandmother’s house to find it filled with garbage, empty bottles, dirty clothes mildewed to the point of decay. Neither one had spoken to their father in years, and they were horrified to see the depths to which he’d sunk.
Just as this death shapes everything that comes after it in My Struggle—Knausgaard has said that the entire project was an effort to “get rid of his presence inside me”—it retroactively transforms A Time for Everything into a grand attempt to build a world in which a father might be taken at his word, in which the enchantment of youth can somehow be preserved into adulthood. Indeed, the novel might be read as a kind of prologue or overture to the later project, announcing its major themes, particularly the longing for a period—whether childhood or some lost moment in history—when life held more meaning than contemporary secular culture seems to offer.