Quotation of the Day: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Book 1

knausgaard hardback MyStruggle_cvrforwebIt 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.

Knausgaard my struggle book 1 51maejxEQlL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_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!

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Book 2

My Struggle Book 2 Knausgaard, Karl OveThe Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knaussgard’s My Struggle is my great pleasure this summer.

It is a six-volume so-called “Proustian” autobiographical novel, which Knausgaard refers to as “a nonfiction novel.”  (Only three of the books have been published so far in the U.S.) Reading My Struggle is to find yourself absorbed in a litearary soap opera about the daily life of Karl Ove, a lover/husband/writer/dad/friend.  He describes his relationship with the beautiful, complicated writer, Linda, an actress’s daughter who is deeply sensitive and who has bipolar disorder; his intense affection for their three children but also the mind-numbing boredom of child care; the difficulty of finding time for his work;  moments of depression; his visits to bookstores and coffeehouses; and long drinking sessions.

In other words, he is like us, only he says intellectual things about philosophy and poetry that we don’t say.

Does that tell you he’s not like us?  It does. But Karl Ove is also Everyman.   For instance, he admits he often has difficulty reading poetry.  He says, “I could read it, but poems never opened themselves to me, and that was because I had no ‘right’ to them: they were not for me…. You had to earn the right to read them.”

We become Karl Ove as we read My Stuggle.  Knausgaard doesn’t go for the big moments:  there’s cleaning the apartment, dealing with a psychotic neighbor, making love with Linda, taking the children to a kind of low-rent carnival they happen to pass in the car, giving readings, which he hates, and his fierce need to protect time for writing.

I started with Book Two, partly because the bookstore had it, but also because I didn’t want to be put off by a long introductory volume of a Proustian narrative. I needn’t have worried. Yes, there are layers and layers of stream-of-consciousness, but it is more compelling than Proust’s. And the book isn’t in chronological order–he doesn’t get to childhood till Book Three–so I’m not sure it matters where you start.  Book Two is subtitled A Man in Love and delineates his fierce passion for Linda after he leaves his first wife and moves from Norway to Stockholm.  Their relationship is essentially stable, though they have their disagreements and moments of boredom.   But actually this volume isn’t a chronological narrative either: it opens with a scene in which Karl Ove and Linda irritably attempt to control their children at a couple’s vacation house.  Only later do we learn the genesis of their relationship.

You can read long critical reviews of the book elsewhere, but I want to write about a few episodes that delighted me.

He goes to a cafe for an hour every day to read and smoke.

I never went to the same cafe more than four or five times at a stretch because then they started to treat me like a “stammis,” that is, they greeted me when I arrived and wanted to impress me with their knowledge of my predilections, often with a friendly comment about some topic on everyone’s lips.  But the whole point for me of living in a big city was that I could be completely alone in int while still surrounded by people on all sides.

I love this, because I have had a similar experience with coffeehouses.  When you walk in the door and they already have your drink ready for you, it’s both comical and perturbing, especially if you’ve decided you want something else.

Karl Ove is a bit cranky and socially awkward, as well as brilliant and passionate: he reminds me of Levin in Anna Karenina, particularly in a scene of his first daughter’s christening.  The priest was reluctant to christen Vanja because Karl Ove and Linda are not married. Suddenly at the christening, Karl Ove, not a Christian, ups and takes Communion.  His meditation on Christianity reminds me of Levin’s when he is required to confess to a priest before he marries Kitty.

Karl Ove also goes to bookstores and buys many books, knowing that he won’t read most of them.  Heavens, nobody has ever bought as many books as Karl Ove, and possibly I, and possibly you.

How can anyone be so fascinating on boring details of living?  But he wants to get past daily living so he can write.

Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, not something that was meaningful or that made me happy.  This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change diapers but rather with something more fundamental; the life around me was not meaningful.  I always longed to be awa from it.  So the life I led was not my own.  I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts.

I love, love, love reading this.  I’m continuing with it (going on to Book One) this weekend.  The great thing about reading Book Two is that I will now appreciate the artistic design of Book One.

Knausgaard said in a recent Amazon interview:

I just tried to write a novel. This was the only way I could do it at the time. So no, no active down-tearing of anything. But for me, these books definitely are novels. I didn´t try to represent my life, but wanted to use my life as a kind of raw material for a novelistic search for meaning or for meaningful patterns. I use all the novels tools, I can describe one day over three hundred pages, or a year in a sentence. It isn´t fiction, though, it´s non-fiction, but it isn’t a documentary or a memoir either: it’s a non fiction novel.

Really a fascinating writer.

Power Outage


Half of North America just lost their Facebook.”–George Clooney as Matt Kowalski, Gravity

I slept through a thunderstorm.  I woke up to a power outage.

Three trees down on our street.  Around the block, I saw a tree tangled in telephone wires.

As I foraged for coffee and batteries, I felt like a character in a postapocalyptic science fiction novel.  In one of my favorite books, Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor, the narrator describes the disintegration of society caused by power outages and food shortages.  This stunning novel is a “memoir” of a future of regression and barbarism, but also a reminder of techniques of off-the-grid survival. (Gangs, barter, and flea markets are important.)  The future may be most difficult for those of us who remember civilization, Lessing hints.

How will we cope?

No internet, no interrupted thoughts, no ads appearing in the corners of webpages.

What is off-the-grid survival anyway?

Being off-the-grid can be a good thing.

We are so used to looking up information online.

The phone book works just as well.

While I waited for power, I got a lot of reading done.  I am absolutely loving Karl Ove Knausgaard’s nonfiction novel, My Struggle, which I read with the same voracity I do Doris Lessing’s autobiographical Martha Quest novels.  Knausgaard doesn’t change his character’s name.  The narrator is Karl Ove.  The events in the book mirror the author’s life.

Later, when the power came back, I read an interview with him at Amazon.  He says definitions are the enemy of the novel.

I just tried to write a novel. This was the only way I could do it at the time. So no, no active down-tearing of anything. But for me, these books definitely are novels. I didn´t try to represent my life, but wanted to use my life as a kind of raw material for a novelistic search for meaning or for meaningful patterns. I use all the novels tools, I can describe one day over three hundred pages, or a year in a sentence. It isn´t fiction, though, it´s non-fiction, but it isn’t a documentary or a memoir either: it’s a non fiction novel.

I really recommend getting off the net to read this fascinating modern classic.

Less screen time is more reading time.

But thank God the power is back on.  How lucky we are to have electricity!