Review: Knausgaard wages battle against forgetfulness
MY STRUGGLE Book Two: A Man in Love. By Karl Ove Knausgaard. Translated by Don Bartlett. Archipelago Books. 573 pages. $26.
Between the years 2009 and 2011, Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard, now a superstar in Scandinavia, completed the six-volume, autobiographical novel, “My Struggle” (“Min Kamp” in Norwegian).
At home, the “My Struggle” volumes won every award and dominated the best-seller list, not to mention causing a reading frenzy that made businesses declare “Knausgaard-free” days.
The hoopla was helped along when some of Knausgaard’s family members, who all carry their own names in his books, threatened to sue.
Physically, these are robust books: chunky, fat squares around 500 pages each. Their solid material presence is itself a testament to one of Knausgaard’s obsessions: the physical reality of the world. He writes dramas of consciousness and self-presentation, thrillingly confessional with a romantic, no-holds-barred sensibility, but Knausgaard equally commits himself to the details that can be lost in the pageant (in what he calls “a new kind of language almost, of the banality of the everyday”).
Book One, subtitled “A Death in the Family,” came out last year in an excellent English translation by Don Bartlett. Until he began the “My Struggle” books, Knausgaard had written two well-received novels, but he dreamed often of his father and wanted to find a medium, really a new way of writing, that would deal with his father’s fall from grace and isolated, alcoholic death.
Here are the first lines of his epic work: “For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops.”
The novel ranges across Knausgaard’s life, especially his childhood and adolescence, before coming back in the second half to the death of the father, that most classic of topics.
Knausgaard closes out the book with his thoughts as he stares at his father’s corpse, spread out at the funeral home. What he realizes is that once the heart stops, a body is just one object among many: “And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor.”
Knausgaard’s encounter with death frames the “My Struggle” series. Romantic that he is, he has written Grecian urns of books, setting life against death, art against life. “My Struggle” is a rescue project, designed to archive life’s mundane details before they fade away. Knausgaard’s mind has its own delete button: He laments repeatedly that he’s losing the battle against forgetfulness and against time itself.
To save everything, the ecstasy and the tedium, is a risk. Readers will experience with the author the trivial, seemingly aimless instants that are usually edited out in the interest of narrative drive. At one point in Book Two, he writes, “That was where I had to go, to the essence, to the inner core of human existence. If it took forty years, so be it, it took forty years. But I should never lose sight of it, never forget it, that was where I was going. There, there, there.”
“My Struggle: Book Two,” subtitled “A Man in Love,” takes us into the core of family life, a complicated place for a man whose own family of origin broke down so dramatically.
Knausgaard begins writing Book Two one month after he finished Book One. Since the scene with his father’s corpse that closed Book One, he has left his first wife; moved to Sweden; married Linda, his second wife; and had three children. He is “on the rails of routine,” often unhappy with a wife who “moans, moans, moans.”
Theoretically, he endorses shared child-rearing. In fact, the “soft man” who pushes a stroller doesn’t square with the inner paleo-dude who wants to run wild and free. He feels trapped. Protest too much, and he loses everything: “As a result, I walked around Stockholm’s streets, modern and feminized, with a furious nineteenth-century man inside me.”
Knausgaard’s shame at a “Rhythm Time” baby dance class or his boredom at a children’s birthday party are the stuff of comedy, and ultimately, of growth.
Knausgaard tracks backward and forward in time, often reliving the same scene. Each time he reframes his father’s death, say, or the children’s demands, the context shifts. Telling, retelling, interpreting, interpreting interpretations, Knausgaard’s method owes something to remix culture and modernist pastiche, but his sensibility is his own and hard to classify. A thousand pages into his “My Struggle” sextet, Knausgaard is on a fascinating and digressive route to the core. There, there, there.
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.