MY STRUGGLE: Book Three. By Karl Ove Knausgaard. Translated by Don Bartlett. Archipelago Books. 427 pages. $27.
Norwegian mega-star Karl Ove Knausgaard begins Book Three of his epic six-volume autobiographical novel with a scene that might come out of a modern fable. A little family on a bus wends its way "between gardens and rocks, meadows and woods" toward a new life. When the bus stops, out steps the "altogether ordinary family": tall, slim father (whom we left as a corpse on the last page of Book One); stroller-pushing mother; trudging 4-year-old, Yngve; and 8-month-old baby, Knausgaard himself.
After describing in detail the procession toward their new house, Knausgaard steps back to say that of course he doesn't remember anything from that time and feels uncomfortable using the pronoun "me" to describe his infant self.
The questions that follow get to the nub of Knausgaard's project: "Is this creature the same person as the one sitting here in Malmo writing? And will the forty-year-old creature who is sitting here in Malmo writing this one overcast September day ... be the same as the gray, hunched geriatric who forty years from now might be sitting dribbling and trembling ... somewhere in the Swedish woods?"
Knausgaard writes dramas of consciousness that both insist on and question the idea of a continuous self.
For everyone, as he writes in Book One, "time is blowing and unremittingly sweeping large chunks of meaning along with it." If certain kinds of knowledge require abstraction and distance, self-knowledge needs the opposite. Knausgaard seeks to abolish distance and snatch what's up close, even the most banal memories, before they're lost. He takes a risk in rescuing life's minutiae from the great sweep, but readers have hung on. "Book Three: Boyhood" is the most linear, least digressive of Knausgaard's volumes so far. His narrative sticks to the years that he lived on Tromoya Island, from the ages of 8 months to 13 years.
Knausgaard's touch with childhood is absolute and exhilarating. Scenes that might not seem to bear retelling - finding a garbage dump deep in the woods, say, or trying out the new blue satchel that he'll wear on the first day of school - come alive in all their freewheeling joy.
He writes, "All you had to do was stick your head out the door and something fantastic happened."
Many of Knausgaard's memories have a neo-Romantic flavor. He goes out into the world and becomes what he looks at. In one lovely early scene, for instance, he wakes in the night and looks out the window to find a cat toying with a mouse. "The animals' fleet movements seemed to linger on in me," he writes. Long after, he notices that his heart is still racing: "Perhaps because it too was a little animal?"
The other emotion that dominates Knausgaard's childhood is the opposite of joy - fear. In the first volume of "My Struggle," he describes himself: "I was on the side of the soft ones, I was against war and authority, hierarchies and all forms of hardness ... I wanted everyone to have a share of life's pleasures." The hardest of the hard ones is his father, a stern, solitary man whose downfall Knausgaard regards as the central story of his own life.
During their years on Tromoya Island, Dad is a respected teacher and councilman with an urge to dominate and a nose to sniff out every malefaction. As a result, Knausgaard tries to achieve only one aim with his own children: "that they shouldn't be afraid of their own father."
The "existential search," as he has called it, that led Knausgaard to write "My Struggle" also drew him back to his father. Forty and feeling that his life was moving "closer to meaninglessness," Knausgaard came to a fresh understanding of his dad, who must have felt the same way. At any rate, Dad left the family at 40 and started an alcoholic decline that killed him. The double perspective - Knausgaard being both the child he was and the man he is, in some ways like his father - frames everything on the page. His book restores the world and nails what it is to be Karl Ove Knausgaard. But, unexpectedly, it also takes us back to Book One and closes the distance between son and father.
It's almost impossible to speak about Knausgaard's work without acknowledging the hoopla that attached to its publication. Within his family, Knausgaard was lambasted - 14 relatives sent a public letter to the paper - for giving away, and sensationalizing, family secrets. In one of many interviews available on YouTube, Knausgaard answers detractors by sealing the link with his father. "I didn't die of drinking, but I did this," he says. "I was careless and ruthless, and I just did it."
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.