Back in December 2013 I reviewed Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle – Book One, A Death In The Family” and spoke highly of his attention to the most trivial of details, the minutiae which makes up our daily existence. How often does a novel go into such triviality? Of course taking three pages to describe the ordering of a takeaway cup of coffee could be considered frustrating, but when you’re struggling with the reasons for existence it could well be the minor details which shape the person we are. A “novel” which constantly reads like an open sore of a biography, how on earth is it so gripping?
Book two of Karl Ove’s six book series, moves from his struggle with his father’s death from alcoholism to his move from Norway to Sweden and his falling in love and having children. My edition is 573 pages and basically starts and ends with our writer taking his children to a broken down fair ground, but it is the flashbacks to how his children came into being and his reactions to becoming a family man that is the real story here. Or the story of Karl Ove’s struggle to just be a good person is probably more to the point.
His relationship and discussions with his friend Geir give us detail as to how Karl Ove verbalises his struggles. His friend’s jealousy of Karl Ove’s writing ability, for example:
“Technical? Technical” Easy for you to say, that is. You can spend twenty pages describing a trip to the bathroom and hold your readers spellbound. How many people do you think can do that? How many writers would not have done that if only they could? Why do you think people spend their time touching up their modernist poems, with three words on each page? It’s because they have no other option. After all these years surely you must understand that, for Christ’s sake. If they could have, they would have. You can, and you don’t appreciate it. It means nothing to you, and you would rather be clever and write in an essayistic style. But everyone can write essays! It’s the easiest thing in the world.”
How does an ordinary man, who thinks he has limited writing ability, who believes he is a poor father, son, brother and partner, fall in love and then come to terms with the imposition this places on his writing career?
Then I met Linda and the sun rose.
I can’t find a better way to express it. The sun rose in my life. At first, as dawn breaking on the horizon, almost as if to say, this is where you have to look. Then came the first rays of sunshine, everything became clearer, lighter, more alive, and I became happier and happier, and then it hung in the sky of my life and shone and shone and shone.
Such a struggle,, as we turn each page we are drawn into Karl Ove’s need for acceptance, need to define himself, need to write a truly memorable book.
That was where I had to go, to the essence, to the inner core of human existence. If it took forty years, so be it, it took forty years. But I should never lose sight of it, never forget it, that was where I was going.
There, there, there.
Amazingly as a reader you are reading about his struggle to write a novel (which in fact you have already read – if you’ve read Book One of course) and you are actually further down the path of his struggles as you’re now reading book two, but of course this is written as part of his development. All those peripheral details, the details that make up this man’s life and his love.
If only I could bridge this distance, I wrote. I would give everything in the world for that. But I can’t. I love you, and perhaps you think you love me, but you don’t. I believe you like me, I’m fairly sure of that, but I’m not enough for you, and you know that deepest down. Perhaps you need someone now, and then along I came, and you thought, well he might do. But I don’t want to be someone who might do, that’s not good enough for me, it has to be all or nothing, you have to be ablaze, the way I am ablaze. To want the way I want. Do you understand? Oh, I know you do. I have seen how strong you can be, I have seen how weak you can be and I have seen you open up to the world. I love you, but that isn’t enough. Being friends is meaningless. I can’t even talk to you! What kind of friendship would that be? I hope you don’t take this amiss. I’m just trying to say it as it is. I love you. That is how it is. And somewhere I always will, regardless of what happens to us.
These outpourings of the soul, to his partner, friends, and family are all on the pages to see, raw and exposed. To think these people would be reading this (once published) is at times cringe worthy, in some circumstances you’d not blame people for never talking to Karl Ove again.
As per Book One the way Karl Ove addresses the generally non public thoughts of a middle aged man is startling. To say a large chunk of this book expressed my own fears and doubts would be an understatement. Having said that I can understand that female readers may find this trite, self-absorbed and lacking in compassion. This is not a series for people not wanting to confront their daily fears.
Over recent years I had increasingly lost faith in literature. I read and thought this is something someone had made up. Perhaps it was because we were totally inundated with fiction and stories. It had got out of hand. Wherever you turned you saw fiction. All these millions of paperbacks, hardbacks, DVD’s and TV series, they were all about made-up people in a made-up, though realistic, world. And news in the press, TV news and radio news had exactly the same format, documentaries had the same format, they were also stories, and it made no difference whether what they told had actually happened or not. It was a crisis, I felt it in every fibre of my body, something saturating was spreading through my consciousness like lard, not the least because the nucleus of all this fiction, whether true or not, was verisimilitude and the distance it held to reality was constant. In other words, it saw the same. This sameness, which was our world, was being mass-produced. The uniqueness, which they all talked about, was thereby invalidated, it didn’t exist, it was a lie. Living like this, with the certainty that everything could equally well have been different, drove you to despair. I couldn’t write like this, it wouldn’t work, every single sentence was met with the thought: but you’re just making this up. It has no value. Fictional writing has no value, documentary narrative has no value. The only genres I saw value in, which still conferred meaning, were diaries and essays, the types of literature that did not deal with narrative, that were not about anything, but just consisted of a voice, the voice of your own personality, a life, a face, a gaze you could meet. What is a work of art if not the gaze of another person? Not directed above us, nor beneath us, but at the same height as our own gaze. Art cannot be experienced collectively, nothing can, art is something you are alone with. You meet its gaze alone.
What more can I say?