It is hard to imagine a better novel than Book 1 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, the first of a critically-acclaimed autobiographical sextet. I have spent the last few days alternating watching the Olympics with reading Knausgaard. Who is better: Gold Medal-winning gymnast, Aly Raisman, or the Norwegian novelist?
The narrator is the writer, Karl Ove, who describes in detail the real events of his life, or perhaps a fictional reflection of events. This is a bildungsroman so realistic and exhaustive that his father’s family threatened a lawsuit before the publication.
He has been compared to Proust, and even the smell of Ajax cleanser can serve as his madeleine. He describes thoughts and feelings so intensely that if we haven’t thought and felt them, we think and feel that we have.
In the first part of this unsentimental coming-of-age novel, Karl Ove explores his relationship with his alcoholic father, an English teacher obsessed with suicide who spends his last few years living in squalor at his mother’s house and drinking himself to death. Karl Ove’s older brother Yngve says their father destroyed his self-esteem, but Karl Ove was less hurt by him. As Karl Ove looks back at his boyhood, he remembers good and bad moments, and captures the pathos : he also evokes the hours of boredom that constitute the life of the typical adolescent.
Karl Ove is a dreamer: he loves rock music and he and his friends form a band. Only lack of talent stands in their way: they don’t realize that until their audience winces at a mall and the manager forbids them to play. He occasionally has girlfriends and is frequently in love. On a freezing New Year’s Eve, he and a friend take a seemingly never-ending trip to a party out of town, which involves lying to parents, hiding illicitly-obtained liquor in a ditch, hitchhiking, and drinking at a bus stop. They make it to the party, but Karl Ove doesn’t get the girl.
Karl Ove is sometimes depressed, but he is ultimately optimistic. As a student and young writer, he drinks too much, studies creative writing at the university in Bergen, spends much time at clubs and rock concerts with his brother, since he has trouble making friends, and interviews famous writers for the student newspaper.
In one of my favorite scenes, which is both painful and hilarious, Karl Ove interviews the poet Olav H. Hauge with two of his friends. Since Hauge is expecting only Karl Ove, he won’t let them in at first, and then he is grumpy. But they hang around forever, and watch a TV team interviews Hauge, and then he finally loosens up. He even reads them a few poems, but Karl Ove spaces out and experiences what inevitably happens to me at poetry readings.
Standing there on the drive and looking down at the ground while he read, I was thinking that this is a great and privileged moment, but not even this thought had time to settle, for the moment occupied by the poem, which its orginator read in its place of origin, was so much greater than us, it belonged to infinity, and how could we, so young and no brighter than three sparrows, receive it? We could not, and at any rate, I squirmed as he read. It was almost more than I could endure. A joke would have been apposite, at least to lend the everyday life in which we were trapped some kind of form. Oh, the beauty of it, how to deal with it? How to meet it?
And then, disastrously, not one of them has taken notes, and when Karl Ove tries to write it, he has nothing. Hauge wanted to see the article before publication–never, never agree to that, guys!–and Karl Ove sends it to him. Hauge hates it and tells him not to publish it. Karl Ove suffers: he had loved meeting Hauge, and now he is humiliated.
Knausgaard makes us want to look at boxes of cleaning products with a list and simple descriptions. After their father dies in 1998 , Karl Ove and his brother clean up two years of their father’s destruction of their grandmother’s house: piss and shit everywhere, moldy piles of stinking clothes, food-clotted plates. It takes them days. As he cleans, he thinks of the products.
The smell of Klorin and the sight of the blue bottle took me back to the 1970s, to be more precise, to the cupboard under the kitchen sink where the detergents were kept. Jif didn’t exist then. Ajax washing powder did though, in a cardboard container, red, white, and blue. It was a green soap. Klorin did too; the design of the blue plastic bottle with the fluted, childproof top had not changed since then. There was also a brand called OMO. And there was a packet of washing powder with a picture of a child holding the identical packet, and on that, of course, there was a picture of the same boy holding the same packet, and so on, and so on. Was it called Blenda?
And then they have to figure out the care of their now senile grandmother.
The second book is also great: I read them out of order, and wrote about Book 2 here.
I do look forward to reading the others!