Archive for the ‘Karl Ove Knausgaard’ Category

Boyhood Island

March 14, 2015

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As the volumes of Karl Ove Kanusgaard’s My Struggle sequence gradually appear in English (thanks to translator Don Bartlett) it becomes possible to see an alternate, chronological reading order, in which Boyhood Island becomes the opening book. It begins, after all, prior to Knausgaard’s own memory, as he is quick to point out (“Of course, I don’t remember any of this time”), as he creates a picture of his father, mother and older brother walking with baby Karl, a Karl too young yet for his own identity:

“His brother, barely eight months old, lay in the pram staring up at the sky, oblivious to where they were or where they were going.”

Knausgaard goes on, as he has done in the previous volumes, to discuss memory itself:

“Memory is not a reliable quantity in life…Memory is pragmatic, it is sly and artful, but not in any malicious way; on the contrary it does everything it can to keep its host satisfied…That which is remembered accurately is never given to you to determine.”

Once this caveat is in place, however, Boyhood Island becomes a conventional memoir of Knausgaard’s childhood, beginning as he starts school and ending in adolescence. The adult Knausgaard is largely absent; there are no detours into the present as we have seen in previous volumes, or complex weaving of time frames. Both the previous volumes worked to some extent in contrast: the first contrasted his memories of his father with the circumstances of his last years and death; the second contrasted the origins of his relationship with Linda with the stresses of being a husband and father. The chronological nature of volume 3 reflects its subject: that of growing up. However there is also a clue in the title: boyhood exists as an island for Knausgaard, a time separated from adulthood, a different world. And it in is presenting childhood as a form of life outside adult experience that the book’s success lies.

As always, Knausgaard inhabits the time he is writing about completely. This is not a writer reflecting on his childhood with irony and humour, but feeling it as it felt at the time. When his mother buys him a flowered swimming cap for his first swimming lesson, we encounter, not an amusing anecdote told in retrospect, but an excruciating moment of terror and shame. When a beautiful girl agrees to date him and the only way he can think of to kiss her is to suggest they try to beat a record of ten minutes set by a friend, a scene which in another writer’s hand would be laugh out loud funny, is imbued with paralysis and regret instead. This, I think, is part of Kausgaard’s appeal, that he awakens not so much similar memories in his readers, but similar emotions.

Boyhood Island, then, works very well as a stand-alone book. However, its spacing within the sequence adds a further layer of understanding for those who have come to it third. His fear of his father is prevalent throughout, for example when he loses a sock at swimming:

“I frantically went through my clothes again, shook item after item in the air, hoping desperately to see it drop out onto the floor in front of me.”

His father‘s unpredictability seems to be at the heart of this – his ability to become ferociously angry at the slightest infringement – but Knausgaard also paints himself as a bit of a weakling, in keeping with the self-deprecation of previous volumes. There are frequent references to him crying at very little. He also shines a light on his arrogance, particularly when he decides to vote for himself in a class election against all protocol, and receives only one vote:

“But I was the best student in the class! At least n Norwegian! And natural and social sciences! And in Maths I was the second best, or perhaps the third. But, altogether, who could be better than me?”

In the latter part of the book, the focus turns to his relationship with girls. He longs for one girl after another, but is uncertain what he is longing for:

“I was going out with Kajsa! Oh, everything I wanted was within reach! Though not yet. What would I talk to her about? What would we do?”

Only at the end does he return to memory with a comment that:

“…every detail of this landscape, every single person living in it, would forever be lodged in my memory with a ring as true as perfect pitch.”

Superficially this conveys the importance of the truth of his account, but Knausgaard is careful to preface ‘true’ with ‘ring as’; the musical simile conveys the artistic truth of the account which is important rather than the documentary nature of events.

A Man in Love

February 19, 2015

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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.