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.

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…

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