Looking After the Knausgaards

My Struggle: Book Four

by Karl Ove Knausgaard
translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett. Archipelago, 485 pp., $27.00

Time is slipping away from me, running through my fingers like sand while I…do what? Clean floors, wash clothes, make dinner, wash up, go shopping, play with the children in the play areas, bring them home, undress them, bathe them, look after them until it is bedtime, tuck them in, hang some clothes to dry, fold others, and put them away, tidy up, wipe tables, chairs and cupboards.

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Dominique Nabokov
Karl Ove Knausgaard, New York City, 2012

Karl Ove Knausgaard, the narrator of the six-volume novel My Struggle, became a father in a culture where there were no longer any household duties from which men were presumed exempt. That culture was early-twenty-first-century Sweden, where for about six months Karl Ove even became the full-time caretaker of his baby daughter while his wife, Linda, went to graduate school. He became acquainted with every aspect of infant care.

If I had wanted it otherwise I would have had to…tell Linda before she became pregnant: Listen, I want children, but I don’t want to stay at home looking after them, is that fine with you?

He lacked the foresight to have these negotiations before his first child was born, he notes ruefully, and as a consequence he finds himself conscripted into a state of radical intimacy with his tiny child. But whatever displeasures Karl Ove found in caring for his first baby did not dissuade him from quickly having two more children, as he had wanted. “[Only] one child was absolutely out of the question for me, two were too few and too close together, but three, I reckoned, were perfect.”

From this state of perfection, Karl Ove begins narrating his story. My Struggle is, among other things, a story about what it’s like to get things that you want. Getting them is pretty good, but it’s not only good—as the preposterous title suggests, we find our struggle where we can.

When My Struggle opens, Karl Ove, who shares a name and apparently his biography with the author, is a thirty-nine-year-old novelist well known and well regarded in his native Norway. He lives with his second wife and their three children, who are all under five years of age. Only six years earlier he had been living in Norway, childless and married to a different woman. Within a short time, he left his first wife and impulsively moved to Sweden, became reacquainted with Linda (whom he had first met years before at a writer’s conference), fell in love, and became a father.

The changes in the texture of his daily life have come about so quickly and been so thorough that his new life, though it feels natural and, often, very good to him, is difficult to reconcile with what came before. During these six years he also completed his second novel, which reminded him of the singular joy of writing, time for which had to be stolen from his family or squeezed between chores. Karl Ove panics that he will never have a chance to write a significant work of literature.

Knausgaard has said in interviews that it was precisely this desperation, combined with a desire to get as close to life in his writing as possible, that drove him to begin My Struggle, a 3,600-page autobiographical narrative in which he tries to capture the flow of his own life as it comes at him. If the children take time from his writing, they also open time up for him, allowing him to feel and understand it differently. The pace and structure of My Struggle, with its expansive accounts of errand-running, meal preparation, long walks, and other episodes drawn all too plausibly from life, seem to owe something to Knausgaard’s existence in children’s time. He narrates precisely the kind of ordinary, uneventful time that is the medium of family intimacy.

The sheer amount of time you spend with your children…is immense. So many hours, so many days, such an infinite number of situations that crop up and are lived through. From my own childhood I remember only a handful of incidents, all of which I regarded as momentous, but which I now understand were a few events among many, which completely expunges their meaning, for how can I know that those particular episodes that lodged themselves in my mind were decisive, and not all the others of which I remember nothing?

We don’t know what children will remember, we don’t know why we remember what we do from our own childhoods, we don’t know which if any of today’s experiences we’ll remember in twenty years, and we don’t know which little ordinary action or dumb object might release a flood of memories. Our confident daily sorting of the noteworthy from the ordinary belies a larger uncertainty about how to appraise the significance of events. We are not wrong in identifying the momentous ones (Knausgaard writes at length about falling in love, about the birth of his first child). But we fail to anticipate how the rest of it will get recorded in memory and what it will mean to us later. Indeed we must fail to anticipate it in order to have a memory overtake us with its full force, to experience the exalted Proustian moment when we are freed from the order of time. The structural logic of My Struggle, in which minutiae get as much attention as peak experiences, seems to take into account the necessary uncertainty about what, in a life, will signify, or where meaning will accrue.

Time is the medium of Karl Ove’s intimacy with his children, and time, as expressed in number of pages read, is the medium of our intimacy with Karl Ove. We reach the newly translated fourth volume having spent many hours in Karl Ove’s company as a husband and father, as a young adult, an adolescent, and a child. Book One is a sort of overture, visiting all these different periods of Karl Ove’s life; Book Two is about his life with his second wife and children; and Book Three brazenly immerses us in four hundred pages of his childhood between the ages of six and thirteen. Having found a lot of the material about childhood and adolescence in Book One trying, I dreaded going back to it in Book Three. But something had changed in the meantime—Knausgaard and I now had Book Two between us. He had become something like a person for me; I was curious about his life as a child.

And then there is the beauty of Book Three itself. In the earlier volumes, Knausgaard’s insistence that we witness all the steps the narrator takes to cook his dinner, from turning on the oven to forking the finished product onto his plate, sometimes seemed an irritating exercise in literary estrangement. But the young Karl Ove’s attention to his dinner is in perfect keeping with the child’s perspective, in which details of such daily events are a real source of interest and the focus of attention. It’s as though we were finally let in on the secret referent of Knausgaard’s style.

Book Four is another long plunge into the past, this time into adolescence. It is distinctly unbeautiful, the most sloppily joined and repetitive of the volumes so far, but its repetitions have a darkly comic energy that is unique to Book Four. It opens with eighteen-year-old Karl Ove moving into his own place for the first time. He’s graduated from high school and accepted a one-year stint as a middle school teacher in a fishing village in northern Norway, determined to use all his spare time for writing. But the scene soon shifts back to his last years of high school. Karl Ove’s is a conspicuously ordinary middle-class adolescence. As a teenager, Knausgaard writes, “there were only three things I wanted.”

The first was a girlfriend. The second was to sleep with a girl. The third was to get drunk.

Or, if I am being totally honest, there were only two things: sleeping with a girl and getting drunk. I had lots of other interests, I was full of ambition in all sorts of areas: I liked reading, listening to music, playing the guitar, watching films, playing soccer, swimming and snorkeling, traveling abroad, having money and buying myself bits of equipment, but…when it came to the crunch there were only two things I really wanted.

No, when I actually came down to it, there was only one.

I wanted to sleep with a girl.

That was the only thing I wanted.

But wanting is complicated. He finds a number of girls ready to have sex with him, including one who is a steady girlfriend:

What I was slowly realizing, the terrible truth that my relationship with her had revealed, was that I couldn’t make love to anyone. I couldn’t do it. A naked breast or a hurried caress across the inside of a thigh was enough, I came long before anything had begun.

Every time!

A pattern emerges: desirable partner, mutual interest and nudity, premature ejaculation, shame. It is one of several repetitive cycles that give shape to the story of Karl Ove’s late adolescent years. What he and his friends do, they do over and over again. Riding the bus home from school with his best friend one evening, he feels

as if we had been catching the bus for the whole of our lives. Up and down, back and forth, day after day. Bus, bus, bus. We knew all about buses. We were bus experts. In the same way that we were experts on pointless cycling and endless footslogging, not to mention the very center of our existence, something we knew very well: using the grapevine to stay up to date with what was happening. What? Someone had The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on video? Right, over we cycled….

What was this all about? Why did we live like this? Were we waiting for something? In which case, how did we manage to be so patient?

Just as his world has started to feel small to him, it has become too large to transpose easily into fiction: there are more friends than a reader can keep straight, a tide of parties, soccer games, girls, plans to meet girls after soccer games, hangouts with friends talking about bands and girls.

When he’s sixteen and thinking about a girl he has a crush on, “he has never felt anything with such force and clarity before.” What the young Karl Ove doesn’t realize, what the forty-year-old Karl Ove observes, is that these “feelings will slowly, slowly, weaken and fade, that life, that which is now so vast and so all-embracing, will inexorably dwindle and shrink until it is a manageable entity that doesn’t hurt so much, but nor is it as good.”

This is one of few intrusions that the forty-year-old Karl Ove makes in Book Four. As is often the case in My Struggle, Karl Ove’s reflection seems inadequate or even contradictory to what we’ve just experienced with him. The narrator’s companionable intelligence is one of the great pleasures of My Struggle. Yet almost none of that intelligence is gathered into concentrated thought. Knausgaard has described the style of the narration as “infantile,” “idiotic,” and “not to my standard”—meaning that a lot of the writing is underworked, and that the narrator engages only in as much intellection as he really would have in the moment. Knausgaard has said that he could only let himself go and capture the feeling of the flow of his life if he did not closely edit and revise the manuscript. The result is a book that doesn’t think in the way that we expect novels to, which can be hard to get used to. You wait for some sort of deeper consideration of what’s happening, and it may come but more likely it will not—the book, like the life, keeps moving.

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Philip and Lynn Straus Collection
‘The Lonely Ones’; painting by Edvard Munch, 1908

Knausgaard describes adolescence as a period of life whose emotional intensity is unmatched by almost anything he would experience as an adult—a common enough view of youth. Yet there’s something in the way he writes about his teenage years that invites a different reading. Though he’s not what you’d call a comic writer, from the stuff of teenage life Knausgaard fashions his own kind of satire of circumstance. He reveals the sheer ludicrousness of high school endeavors simply by describing them with his usual patience. Book One recounts Karl Ove’s teenage preparations for smuggling alcohol to a New Year’s Eve party: he hides plastic bags of beer in the forest near his house, then, at the crucial moment, retrieves them. The beer plot takes dozens of pages to unfold and is nearly foiled several times by meddling relatives. “Getting drunk required careful planning. Alcohol had to be procured safely in advance, a secure place for storage had to be found, transport there and back had to be arranged, and parents had to be avoided when you got home.” That seems perfectly reasonable when you’re living it. With a little distance, it’s ridiculous.

Knausgaard is never less than sympathetic to his teenage narrator and his friends, but he also lets us see their movements from above. In their restless holding patterns, their earnest pursuit of small goals, their blithe search for alcoholic oblivion, they can seem to be rehearsing the darker possibilities of their future lives. Though sex eludes Karl Ove, getting drunk is quickly and regularly achieved. “When at last I was drunk I was there,” he says of one party, “in the room with them, babbling away, singing along to the songs at the top of my voice, groaning aloud, oh that one’s great! Oh shit, what a terrific song! That is one fantastic band!” At least one of his teachers is concerned enough about his hangovers and absenteeism to say something to him, and his normally sympathetic mother finally kicks him out of the house when she finds him drinking beer for breakfast, but Karl Ove takes it all lightly. His teenage drinking career culminates in several months of back-to-back graduation parties at the end of his last year of high school:

I was drunk almost all the time. The first thing I did when I woke up…on a sofa at a friend’s or on a bench in the park was to get my hands on something to drink and continue where I had left off. And there was little that beat starting the day with a beer and walking around drunk in the morning…. It was fantastic. I loved being drunk. I came closer to the person I really was and dared to do what I really wanted to do.

Over the same years that he discovers the pleasures of drinking, it becomes clear to him that his father, who is recently divorced from his mother and living with a new girlfriend, has also begun drinking heavily. We learned in Book One that Karl Ove’s father drank himself to death in late middle age, when Karl Ove was thirty. Karl Ove and his older brother returned to their hometown to arrange for their father’s burial and discovered that he had spent his last months—or possibly years—in a continuous drunken stupor; he stopped caring for his house, his body, or his senile, elderly mother who lived with him. It fell to Karl Ove and his brother to clean their father’s house of excrement, filthy clothes, strewn trash, and hundreds of empty bottles.

During Karl Ove’s childhood his father had been sober but extremely controlling; Karl Ove and his brother were not allowed to lounge on the sofa, turn on the television by themselves, have a friend visit, or leave a toy lying around. The father studied the boys’ every movement and facial expression for evidence of covert activity. He raged over small infractions, pushing Karl Ove into walls and outright beating his older brother.

There’s something unnerving about the sudden, uncharacteristic relaxation of rules and attention that comes with the onset of his father’s drinking. Karl Ove is surprised to visit him and his new girlfriend one afternoon and find his father in swim trunks and “sloppy sneakers without laces.” He’d been “relaxing with a drop of wine,” his father explains. Karl Ove accidentally spills some beer in the garden. Spillage was normally a serious offense. He reflexively braces for his father’s reaction, but “He didn’t even notice!” Karl Ove doesn’t draw a connection between his father’s drinking and his own. Knausgaard allows these developments to lie side by side without comment. Karl Ove, in any case, leaves home and, during his teaching year in the village, begins writing fiction. His first story, drawn from his barely finished childhood, doesn’t get published but does earn him a place in a creative writing program in Bergen. His life begins to take its familiar shape.

The description of ordinary life is the task of realist fiction, and the movement toward depicting ever more unliterary parts of living has been one of its main currents. But when a narrator himself goes on about his ablutions or his shoelaces or his sandwich, we suspect a crisis. The anatomizers of everyday life may be obsessive lovers (Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story), or self-medicating young people (Tao Lin’s Taipei), or just inexplicably, obscurely broken (John Haskell’s Out of My Skin). Whoever they are, their urge to break down familiar acts into more component parts than we knew they had seems a sign of disturbance—an emotional numbness or a frantic attempt to keep pain at bay.

In his earlier career, Knausgaard too had a narrator like this. Before My Struggle, he wrote a novel called A Time for Everything. Most of it takes place in the sixteenth century and biblical times, but the last fifty pages are about a modern-day man in his thirties who has gone to live alone on a remote Norwegian island (something that Knausgaard did during his first marriage). Henrik Vankel, as he’s called, rarely speaks to his four neighbors and keeps his phone number unlisted. Henrik, like Karl Ove, describes the uneventful passage of his days (though in a much more compressed form): preparing and eating meals, grooming, fishing, talking to his mother on the telephone, reading, staring out at the sea, preparing for bed, sleeping fitfully. But unlike the scenes of ordinary life in My Struggle, these descriptions create an almost unbearable tension, like a close-up held too long. Henrik’s isolation seems ominous; we are not surprised to learn that he thinks about suicide, nor are we entirely surprised—though the action itself is shocking—when he smashes a drinking glass, picks up a shard, and uses it to make cuts all over his chest and face.

As it happens, Karl Ove also does something like this in My Struggle. When he first meets Linda at a writer’s retreat his attraction to her is overwhelming. On the last night of the retreat he tells her how much he admires her, but she rejects him. He walks back to his room (“as though in a tunnel where nothing existed except myself”) and throws a glass against the wall:

I took the biggest shard I could find and started cutting my face. I did it methodically, making the cuts as deep as I could, and covered my whole face. The chin, cheeks, forehead, nose, underneath the chin. At regular intervals I wiped away the blood with a towel. Kept cutting. Wiped the blood away. By the time I was satisfied with my handiwork there was hardly room for one more cut, and I went to bed.

Calm, precise, determined: Knausgaard’s description of cutting his face seems like it should be chilling. But in fact he never does seem creepily dissociated—at least not beyond the span of the act itself. Karl Ove may have felt in that moment as if he were in a tunnel where nothing existed except himself, but My Struggle, though it follows the life of one man over thousands of pages, though it has no real characters other than Karl Ove himself, never seems to be written from within that tunnel. When Karl Ove describes the small-bore details of his life, it’s not a sign of dissociation but the opposite: a recuperative attempt to grasp and hold all the parts of his life together in a loose, provisional, shifting whole.

After cutting his face, Karl Ove goes to sleep but, unlike Henrik, he wakes up the next morning in a world of social and familial obligation:

Long before I woke I knew something terrible had taken place. My face stung and ached. The second I awoke I remembered what had happened.

I won’t survive this, I thought.

In his homely way, he looks ahead at the day’s agenda, now to be fulfilled with fresh red gouges all over his face:

I had to go home, meet Tonje at the Quartfestival, we had booked a room six months before, with Yngve and Kari Anne. This was our holiday. She loved me. And now I had done this.

I smacked my fist against the mattress.

And then there were all the people here.

They would see the ignominy.

I couldn’t hide it. Everyone would see. I was marked, I had marked myself.

I looked at the pillow. It was covered in blood. I felt my face. It was ridged all over.

And I was still drunk, I could barely stand up.

I pulled the heavy curtain aside. Light flooded into the room. There was a group of people sitting outside, surrounded by knapsacks and suitcases, it would soon be time for farewells.

I smashed my fist against the headboard.

I had to face the music. There was no way out. I had to face the music.

His colleagues are shocked. On the city streets “everyone stared at me, and they gave me a wide berth.” His wife cries. It’s all as bad as he feared, but then, eventually, it’s over, another thing that has flowed through his life.

Knausgaard seems to offer us a kind of working model of adult sanity—a sanity capacious enough to accommodate even an episode of temporary insanity, as well as emotional volatility, occasional excessive drinking, unsociable feelings, impulsive emigrations, the attenuation of romantic excitement, periodic resentment of family responsibilities, the frustration of writing badly, and the manic joy of writing well.

It’s a sanity that doesn’t require perfect understanding of one’s life. My Struggle rarely offers psychological explanation or analysis. Like many people, Karl Ove walks around with a store of pop psychology rattling around his head. “If I had forgotten something that happened in my childhood it was probably due to repression; if I became really furious about something it was probably due to projection, and the fact that I always tried to please people I met had something to do with my father and my relationship with him.” But he’s dismissive of it—it’s the kind of superficial knowledge that he tries to unknow as he writes his novel. “How did I end up here? Why did things turn out like this?” he asks in Book One. If there are answers to such questions, Knausgaard suggests, they can’t be reached by shortcuts.