Karl Ove Knausgård, 2009
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett, 2014
“Time never goes as fast as in your childhood; an hour is never as short as it was then. Everything is open, you run here, you run there, do one thing, then another, and suddenly the sun has gone down and you find yourself standing in the twilight with time like a barrier that has suddenly gone done down in front of you.” (136)
Of the three Knausgård memoir-novels I’ve read thus far in this six part opus, book three is easily my favorite.
Both books one and two were fantastic in establishing the voice of this ongoing story. Each of those two volumes relied upon a non-linear collage of personal memories from the author’s life in order to articulate Knausgård’s intoxicating vision of an entire life of personal reflection expressed in novel form. Book one wove back and forth from childhood and adulthood, focusing on Knausgård’s tenuous lifelong relationship with his father and book two danced between stories of Knausgård as a single and then twice-married man as that book explored his trust in his ability to love and settle into his identity as both an author and father. Book three approached the memoir-novel narrative in a more conventional linear fashion as is expected of the coming-of-age genre.
I don’t know if it is the fact that this is the first book that I’ve had a chance to finish in the past four months or if the fact that my past four months have been focused on my own new identity as a father but this book’s focus on childhood really spoke to me and added to my enjoyment of the simple linearity of the storytelling. Both books one and two established a kinship between reader and author and that kinship is magnified through Knausgård’s exploration of his early childhood as the subject of this book. There is a simplicity and honesty of the retelling of childhood memories.
The narrative voice is still the voice of today reflecting upon the past but the bulk of the narrative moves linearly through Knausgård’s childhood from early school days through his early pubescent struggles of personal identity and relationships. Of course, book three takes a closer look at Knausgård’s relationship to his father, since his presence is looming over the author’s childhood, but the relationship is always told from the perspective of child to father and not adult to adult as was reflected in volume one.
There are many moments of the father-son conflict, but the one that impacted me the most in my reading was a story about a time when young Knausgård did a good deed for an old woman and was rewarded with enough money to buy some candy. He took the candy home and his father immediately assumed that Knausgård stole the money and lied about the the theft that did not actually occur. The imposing and suspicious nature of his father forced young Knausgård to throw the candy away in the garbage and the good deed goes punished, conflicting the young boy’s identity in public versus familial life. The story was sad and deflating and is an example of many in an unending string of examples of unjust punishments inflicted by a father that had valued order and appearance more than the development of a relationship with his son.
Although young Karl Ove Knausgård’s boyhood existed in the time and place of Norway of the 1970’s, his storytelling achieves a universality that spoke to my own boyhood of the geographically and culturally very distant Southern California of the 1980’s. The precise experiences cataloged in this book are unique to Karl Ove Knausgård, but the way in which those experiences are expressed ignited a firestorm of memories about my own boyhood. This is what makes all of the My Struggle volumes engaging reads. Knausgård focuses on the mundane and in so doing he reveals universal themes that speak to existence and life in our modern times. Although the title My Struggle implies a melodramatic narrative, in no way is this story a tragic story told with the cynical voice of Holden Caufield; there is no single metaphorical or life affirming event that drives the struggle in these pages. The struggle is one of identity and loneliness. In boyhood the struggle is a common story of many themes. Those themes are varied, but common to the boyhood experience and include the difficulty of living with an authoritarian and mistrusting father, the liberating freedom of riding a bike with friends, the camaraderie of playing sports on teams, the self-defeat of being suppressed by constant teasing of one’s peers, self doubt and questions of sexuality simply because one doesn’t fit in with the tastes and interest of peers, the liberation of discovering woman through the teen-boy trade of porn mags found in the forest, awkward discomfort with girls and first kisses and the deflating ego-crush of repeatedly being dumped in short-lived romances.
The struggle to find oneself and make an effort to legitimize one’s identity and behavior becomes a central part of Knausgård’s youth. His interest in arts and literature grows as he grows and his reading interests transition from comic books to literature as he becomes increasingly interested in eclectic music and artistic expression. His interests set him apart from his peers who are more interested in popular tastes and as he observes his peers engage in the all to common popularity contest of youth and he is beside himself in an effort to pursue a life that is good and just and not simply driven by popularity. He discovers himself aligning with christian ideals, but not through any church-going or social influences but through his interests in reading books and the messages within the stories he reads.
“My dad brought me some books…they were from his childhood in the fifties…not only did they hound and beat up this boy that was so different from them…in light of the constant setbacks suffered by the honest, loving, and upright protagonist, was almost impossible to bear. I cried at the evil of it, and the dynamics of a situation whereby good was suppressed and the pressures of injustice were approaching bursting point shook me to the core of my soul and made me decide to be a good person.” (270)
The struggle to be a good person and not simply follow the crowd or succumb to the pressures of familial (or fatherly) expectation are central to Knausgård’s boyhood story. The pressures of youth and peer expectations seem monumental when living through them, but in retrospect are only a blip in the human experience. This does’t discredit the importance or weight of that experience bears while living through the burdensome trials of existence, but there is a freedom one achieves when looking upon the past with a reflective perspective, knowing that those times are gone and done and though important in the makeup of one’s life, are but a piece of the puzzle that makes one whole.
“Who I am to them I have no idea, probably a vague memory of someone they once knew in their childhood years, for they have done so much to one another in their lives since then, so much has happened and with such impact that the small incidents that took place in their childhoods have no more gravity that the dust stirred up from a passing car, or the seeds of a withering dandelion dispersed by the breath of a small mouth.” (427)