Knausgaard’s Boyhood, is currently my favorite of the My Struggle series. This is a surprise: when I realized this installment was going to jump back chronologically to the years before the first two volumes, and cover Karl Ove’s world from the ages of 6 to 13, I sighed. How could it not be boring? Well, I underestimated Knausgaard's honesty and artistry. As an evocation of childhood, it compares with Wordsworth’s Prelude, Tolstoy’s Childhood and Boyhood and Kafka’s “Children on the Country Road”—intensely realized meditations on childhood themes, completely free of the sentimentality. Moreover—in contrast to the indelible presentations of childhood by Dickens, Doestoevsky, Proust, and Nabokov, Knausgaard’s Boyhood is about ordinary kids in ordinary circumstances.
Even the potential exoticism of provincial Norway in the 1970s is muted. Knausgaard isn’t collector of nostalgic bric-a-brac; he’s not concerned about period details (except for pop music). His focus is on Little Karl Ove’s emotional states, and the emotional weather of the Knausgaard household. Hence his subject isn’t particular but universal: wonder, joy, bewilderment, outrage, terror, …. He’s brilliant at evoking the intensity—the absoluteness—of these emotions in kids, and their volatility—the rapidity in which one mood replaces another.
It turns out that the simple gesture of jumping back in time generates interest that a strictly chronological presentation would have lacked. In the second volume we spend a lot of time with Geir as a trusted old friend; here we see little Karl Ove and Geir’s first adventures together. Knausgaard began the series with scenes of his teenage hassles with his Dad. Now we see the genesis of the antagonism—his Dad’s explosions of rage and Karl Ove’s terror.
In the second volume Knausgaard presented child/parent interactions from the adult point of view, and here we get it from the kids’ point of view. I only know about these things from my experiences with my own parents, but Knausgaard seems acute and astute about family politics: the pleasures, the pains, the exasperations, the humor, the disasters, the miracles, … he presents them all, giving each their due weight.
These scenes are not isolated meditations—they are part of a larger composition—but Knausgaard gives each of them more room to breathe than most novelists. Even more than Proust, who, even seeming to chat casually about little Marcel’s aunts and their Sunday dinners, proceeds with ulterior motives, dropping hints about characters, places, relationships, themes that will be expanded on later.
This volume ends with the Mom, Dad and Karl Ove leaving Tromøya for Kristiansand, leaving Ygnve behind to finish his last year of high school. The family has already started to unravel. Karl Ove is glad to leave, glad of a hope of a fresh start:
After the moving van had left and we got into the car, Mom, Dad, and I, and we drove down the hill and over the bridge, it struck me with a huge sense of relief that I would never be returning, that everything I saw I was seeing for the final time. That the houses and the places that disappeared behind me were also disappearing out of my life, for good. Little did I know then that every detail of this landscape, and every single person living in it, would forever be lodged in my memory with a ring as true as perfect pitch.
It’s impossible not to think of the end of the “Combray” section of Swann’s Way, when little Marcel says goodbye to his childhood haunts:
When, on a summer evening, the meolodious sky growls like a tawny lion, and everyone is complaining of the storm, it is the memory of the Méséglise way that makes me stand alone in ecstasy, inhaling, through the noise of the falling rain, the lingering scent of invisible lilacs.
Knausgaard recalls Proust, but adheres to his own distinctive voice, his own distinctive vision. His echo is respectful and affectionate, but also a correction, an ironic summing-up of 100 years of change.
[Image: Andy Goldsworthy, River Wharfe, 1980]