MY STRUGGLE: Book Four. By Karl Ove Knausgaard. Archipelago. 485 pages. $27.
Book Four of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic six-volume “My Struggle” opens with a pair of suitcases slowly gliding around on a carousel. There it is, in a single image: the promise of new ventures and time’s forward motion, along with the reality of cycles and circles, as events are replayed in real time and in memory.
Knausgaard’s work is an ongoing fight against impermanence. He reminds readers that time is passing for us, as it is for him, and that huge segments of our experience may become unreachable to us.
Given the urgency of his reclamation project, Knausgaard became impatient with literature’s selectivity. He wondered if a book could be made to include everything, especially all the throwaway details and banished thoughts that fill our days. The answer is yes.
In an interview, Knausgaard admits a desire to “do something heroic ... to do something in which I completely disappear, which isn’t possible anymore.”
Instead, he becomes heroic by daring to appear, not as he wants to be, but as he is. Ideals restrict good (that is, open and complex) writing, Knausgaard has said. By becoming a spectator of his own life, and making a public spectacle of it, he declares his own significance. He is no longer a bit player in a script written by someone else. He is fallible but free. He wishes his father were dead. He has constant horny thoughts about his students. He drinks himself into a puking stupor on many occasions. Wrong or right, it’s just life.
Back to those suitcases: As Book Four begins, Karl Ove Knausgaard, 18 years old and a recent graduate of gymnas (high school) is on his way to a teaching gig in the raw coastal north of Norway. Taking the bus there, a thought sends him a flash of pleasure: “I was on my way. I was on my way.” He has no real interest in teaching, but he has a glorious mission — to spend all his time writing. He promises himself, “All of this was to culminate in a novel.”
In preparation for the real work of his northern sojourn, Knausgaard has been reading the Beats, Hemingway, and other “books about young men who struggled to fit into society, who wanted more from life than routines, more from life than a family, basically, young men who hated middle class values and sought freedom.”
For the first time, Knausgaard feels that he has control of his life. His future glitters, and his goals are clear — writing is primary, but his close secondary interests are drinking and hopes of fornicating.
He vows to “be big.” He tells himself, “I will be the greatest ever.” Even as a young blundering man, crossing over from boyhood to manhood, Karl Ove Knausgaard is not flimsy or ridiculous. His exploits are comical, often buoyant, and to read about him is highly pleasurable. He arrives in the northern village of approximately 250 citizens, most of them fishermen, with a few key possessions: an advanced record collection (“thanks to music I became someone in the forefront”), a black beret, and a jacket that might have been worn by someone in a band.
Immediately, the door bell starts to ring. Everyone, from pupils to fellow teachers and passers-by, is interested in the new teacher from the South. Knausgaard dedicates himself to the truth of memory by staying in contact with all the people he used to be. He remembers what it is to hide in plain sight. On one hand, the young Knausgaard is exactly what his neighbors see: the boyish man answering the door, a teacher walking to and from work, someone conscientious and often tender with his pupils. On the other hand, he is a radical artist, working on his craft and willing to use anything to hand, including his neighbors and family.
Each volume of “My Struggle” works its way back to Knaugaard’s father, whose downfall Knausgaard regards as the central story of his own life. At 40, the father left his family and began the slow suicide of drinking himself to death. An eerie duplication runs through the books. As Knausgaard is gaining control, his father is losing it. Book Four is not as digressive as Books One and Two.
When he does leave straightforward narrative behind, Knausgaard flashes back to his father and the time when he left the family home. After their father dies, his sons find his notebooks from that time period, recording the everyday details of his life, including struggles with drink.
The spectacle of a writing father, doing in secret what the son does in the open and dying an inarticulate death, is heartbreaking. Both use language as a measure of the truth, but only one, Karl Ove, finds a way to transfigure life through art.
Writers, Knausgaard has said, are wrecked people. Books are the miracles that come out of the wreckage.
Karl Ove Knausgaard writes about trivialities, he admits, but the details accrete to make a thrilling and momentous record of one person’s passage through time. Focusing in Book Four on the events of a single year, he takes advantage of the daily and seasonal movement from light to dark and back. In the final pages, as Spring comes again, Knausgaard writes, “Everything that had happened — the darkness, when life had closed around me and even the tiniest details had been charged with tension and destiny — seemed incredible now, for out in the open, beneath the slow deluge of light, I saw it how it was.” He then interrogates himself: “How was it? It was nothing special. It was how it was.”
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.