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.