Volume 1 of Karl Knausgaard’s six volume My Struggle focussed on his father, using his father’s death as a starting point for his exploration of their relationship, reliving moments from his childhood and teenage years as he sought to both define and understand the man in his absence. In volume 2 another relationship forms the core of the story, that of Knausgaard and his second wife, Linda. In it he writes of their first meeting, the growth of their love for each other, and the birth of their two children. Typically this does not happen chronologically as Knausgaard seems intent in these books to mimic the movements of memory, beginning at a present point and building around it. The opening of A Man in Love finds him an unhappy husband and parent, an unsuccessful search for a restaurant with hungry children having left everyone’s tempers on edge:
“I would have left her because she was always moaning, she always wanted something else, never did anything to improve things, just moaned, moaned, moaned, could never face up to difficult situations, and if reality did not live up to her expectations, she blamed me in matters large and small.”
One might be forgiven for thinking that Knausgaard intends the title be ironic at this point, but that is not the case: he is simply establishing his modus operandi. By immediately sharing an unpleasant memory, he makes it clear that, once again, nothing is off limits, and that his description of their relationship will be as honest as he can make it, even when it portrays him in a bad light. Perhaps the most noteworthy example of this is when he describes his reaction to his initial rejection by Linda, who prefers a friend of his:
“I…grabbed the glass on the sink and hurled it at the wall with all the strength I could muster…Then I took the biggest shard I could find and started cutting my face. I did methodically, making the cuts as deep as I could, and covered my whole face.”
Of course, the fact that they later get together makes this moment more meaningful than if the rejection was simply an end point; it makes it part of the ‘love story’. And Knausgaard is often very certain of the intensity of that love:
“The spring I moved to Stockholm and met Linda, for example, the world had suddenly opened, the intensity in it increased at breakneck speed. I was head over heels in love and everything was possible, my happiness was at bursting point all the time and I embraced everything.”
This is what makes Knuasgaard’s work unlike most autobiographical writing: he doesn’t attempt reflective summarising but writes in the moment, giving the impression that honesty is more important than art.
He applies the same approach to any discussion of writing within his writing, and A Man in Love also contains his struggle to write his second novel, its success and his disillusionment with that success, and with the novel form:
“How can you sit there receiving applause when you know that what you have done is not good enough?”
His writing is often set in opposition to his family (something, of course, that women writers have been aware of for some time):
“I told Linda I was moving into the office, I would have to write day and night. You can’t do that, she said, that’s not on, you’ve got a family, or have you forgotten? Am I supposed to look after your daughter on my own? Yes, I said. That’s the way it is. No it isn’t, she said, I won’t let you. OK, I said, but I’ll do it anyway.”
(Again, just as with his relationship with Linda, this selfishness is contrasted with all the time he does spend with his children at other points). Most interestingly, we can see the development of the My Struggle project in the aftermath of his second novel:
“Over recent years I had increasingly lost faith in literature…the only genres which I saw value in, which still conferred meaning, were diaries and essays, the types of literature that did not deal with narrative, that were not about anything, but just consisted of a voice, the voice of your own personality, a life, a face, a gaze you could meet.”
It is possible, perhaps even easy, to level criticism at Knausgaard. The way in which he insists on his poor memory while at the same time recreating his life in great detail can be irritating. There is also a suspicious lack of financial detail – for much of the book neither Karl nor Linda work, but money never seems to be a concern. (More generally, the way in which Knausgaard seeks to lay out everyday life is to some extent undermined by its lack of contact with the world of work). However, it continues to strike me as a fascinating and valuable artistic journey – and one that can only be properly judged in its entirety.