Karl Ove Knausgård, 2009
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett, 2012
“The sounds here were new and unfamiliar to me, the same was true of the rhythm in which they surfaced, but I would get used to them, to such an extent that they would fade into the background again. You know too little and it doesn’t exist. You know too much and it doesn’t exist. Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows.” (190)
Knausgård’s autobiographical work of fiction, My Struggle, lingers in the shadows of the mind’s imaginings. This narrative illuminates an essence of realism often forgotten and unnoticed by a mind that is too distracted to notice the finite occurrences of the everyday. The awareness towards the finite motions of each moment are drawn forward by a voice that is acutely hyper-aware and astutely direct in its intentions. Though he is deeply connected to his friends and loved ones, Knausgård is a solitary man, a man that revels in the peace offered by reflection both internal and external. His narrative voice speaks with an intoxicating simplicity, capable of describing everyday actions – such as buttering toast, cleaning a bathroom with disinfectant, or carrying a grocery bag of beer down a snowy road – with exactitude lacking metaphorical intentions.
Living my life day to day, the significant details of everyday life lie buried beyond my subconsciousness, but through the written word Knausgård brings those details forward, drawing attention to the sound of the footstep on the sidewalk, the smell of 40 years worth of dust, or the movement of the clouds across the sky. To the mind that has lost focus to these details all that surrounds is meaningless because it is everyday, repetitive, and expected. Knausgård writes with a focus as though the everyday was meaningful and the expected is worthy of attention; this comes from an awareness that the unexpected can always destroy the expected. It is possible that many readers will find his narrative voice’s overt focus on the mundane as pednantic and boring – too focused on trivial details. To those readers I would direct them to the book’s opening line:
“For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can.” (7)
That opening, which leads into a six page reflection on the contradiction between the inevitability of death and culture’s squeamishness with the subject matter, is captivating and written with fervor, for it reminds us that the simplest of all things – the nearly perpetual beating of the heart – is eternally significant and worthy of attention.
As the narrative shifted from an existential description of the beating heart toward a direct voice that cataloged detailed accounts of everyday moments, I could not forget the simplicity of that opening line. The heart’s beating grounded this book’s intention with a message that focuses the mind’s perspective upon the importance of the simplicity of the actions that continue each day in the background beyond our attention. At its most basic elements life is simple. Too often that simplicity is shadowed by the distractions that cloud the mind’s focus. It takes life changing events such as the death of a loved one to shift our focus upon what was always there, continuing on, beyond our attention.
With that consideration, I can state that this is a narrative of extensive ambition. Book One is the first of six books totaling nearly 3,500 pages and not yet completely translated to English. This, the first book lingers upon Knausgård’s tenuous relationship with his father through dreamlike reflections on memories of times past all told with the exactitude of a mind living in the present.
Following that opening line about the heart, Knausgård brings us to his childhood as boy watching a news story about a fishing boat ship lost at sea. While watching the news story he is captivated by the presence of an image of a face in the waves and with youthful excitement he tells his father of his vision. His detached father sets aside young Karl Ove’s excitement, telling him, “Don’t give it another thought,” (13) shutting down the excitement that charged the eight year old boy. This moment is but one of many, but it has weight and impact on the boy’s relationship with his father and his relationship with others.
The significance of that moment continues to resonate and impact the thirty nine year old version of that same boy. Throughout book’s narrative Knausgård weaves back and forth through his present day reflections and childhood memories to illuminate his own perspective upon who he was and who he is in relation to the man who fathered him. As Karl Ove changed with the years, so did his father and the elder Knausgård did not fair well with time. The latter part of the book is extensively focused on Knausgård’s interaction with his brother as they clean up the atrocious mess left by their alcoholic father who died as a result of his alcoholism. This section of the book is chilling and captivating. Knausgård’s detailed description of the hundreds of empty bottles, moldy clothes, shit and urine stained furniture, are both revolting and revealing. These objects left behind, the graveyard of discarded life, are all that Knausgård has left of his father’s presence and all he can do with them is throw away the junk and scrub away the detritus left from a life that no longer is.
Through his descriptions of the actions required to clean up after his father’s mess, their is chilling resonance about the greater meaning of all this mess left behind. This is a narrative put in words after all, and the intentions of cataloging these difficult moments lies beyond Knausgård’s own need for release. The precise details of each description prompt this reader to reflect on his own relation to others, family, and the objects that tie relations together. My Struggle Book One had a resonating impact on me in ways I had not imagined. The root of that impact is best described in the following passage describing Knausgård’s relation to the act of writing:
“Our minds are flooded with images of places we have never been, yet still know, people we have never met, yet still know and in accordance with which we, to a considerable extent, live our lives. The feeling this gives that the world is small, tightly enclosed around itself, without openings to anywhere else, is almost incestuous, and although I know this to be deeply untrue, since we actually know nothing about anything, still I could not escape it. The longing I always felt, which some days was so great it could hardly be controlled, had its source here. It was partly to relieve this feeling that I wrote, I wanted to open the world by writing, for myself, at the same time this is also what made me fail. The feeling that the future does not exist, that is only more of the same, means that all utopias are meaningless. Literature has always been related to utopia, so when utopia loses meaning, so does literature. What was I trying to do, and perhaps what all writers try to do- what on earth do I know? – was to combat fiction with fiction.” (218)