I remember being so exasperated with My Struggle exactly one year ago that I gave up. But I tried again, persevered, and found myself hooked.
Now I’ve just finished volume four. It begins and ends with an 18-year-old Karl Ove teaching elementary school in a tiny, remote village in northern Norway. We get introduced to his colleagues, students and neighbors in Håfjord, and he dutifully begins his first serious attempts to write. But then he gets dragged into village social life.
The occasion of his first alcoholic blackout in Håfjord prompts a review of his complete history of blackouts, which by artful steps disguised as artless rambling turns into a 200-page digression about Karl Ove’s last two years at home.
In contrast to the preceding volumes, the prize creep here is not always Karl Ove. We’ve been warned about his father, but here we see his catastrophic effect on everyone around him. Even his mother becomes cold and distant.
It’s impossible not to identify with 16-to-18-year-old Karl Ove’s depths of humiliation and peaks of exhilaration. He’s tired of waiting for his life to begin. He doesn’t have a clue what he should do with himself, but he’s near-bursting with volatile passions and aversions. His longing to get laid leads to endless absurd situations. His mania for music proves more productive: he starts reviewing albums for a local newspaper. The writing, and publishing leads to thinking writing as what he wants to do. Writing could be, above all, a way out … of his Mom’s house, his Dad’s house, of Kristiansand.
As in the other volumes of My Struggle, the information about all these matters is conveyed in brief, factual-sounding descriptive episodes. Matters are taken up and then dropped—then picked up 70 pages later. Scenes are deliberately not well-composed to make a point.
This makes the style sound flat and casual; it’s anything but. Knausgaard fabricates an impression of casualness. His pointless anecdotes and tirades that go nowhere are sequenced to contrast and resonate ironically.
And there are echoes that reverberate from other volumes—bathing caps, favorite bands, comically interrupted writing sessions, arguments about not knowing how to drive, and endless amounts of drinking, drinking, drinking, ….
The device of a digression framed by a nearer-in-time beginning and end is also how volume two is structured. It lets readers know what’s significant in all that miscellaneous information. You not only get the background but are propelled forward.
Then there’s also Knausgaard’s humor, which ranges from slapstick to grim. Karl Ove’s penis is already familiar to readers of My Struggle, but in this volume it pops up whenever there’s a need for comic relief.
Which there often is. Karl Ove’s dad isn’t on stage a lot in this volume, but his presence permeates it. The ghastly party when he remarries the day his divorce is finalized, ending which him phoning and cursing out his own father and mother, is terrifying/hilarious Knausgaard at his best/worst. Then there are “recollections” prompted by the discovery—after he died—of journals he kept. The grown-up Karl Ove marvels, “he wasn’t only much more than my feelings for him but infinitely more, a complete and living person in the midst of life.”
We also get a glimpse that his father’s influence goes even deeper, when young Karl Ove’s account of some event is dismissed by his grandparents, and “… I gained a reputation for being unreliable, I was someone who made things up; in other words, I was like Dad. This was ironic because it there was one resolution I had made it was never to lie, precisely on account of him.”
[Image: Le Désespoir (Jean-Joseph Perraud, 1869)]