Karl Ove Knausgård, 2009
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett, 2013
“We might believe that our world embraced everything, we might do our thing down here on the beach, drive around in our cars, phone each other and chat, visit one another, eat and drive and sit indoors imbibing the faces and opinions and fates of those appearing on the TV screen in this strange, semi-artificial symbiosis we inhabited and lull ourselves for longer and longer, year upon year, into thinking that it was all there was, but if on the odd occasion we were to raise our gaze to this, the only possible thought was one of incomprehension and impotence, for in fact how small and trivial was the world we allowed ourselves to be lured by? Yes, of course, the dramas we saw were magnificent, the images we internalized sublime and sometimes also apocalyptic, but be honest, slaves, what part did we play in them? None.” (435)
Knausgård’s prosaic musings tap into an elemental conflict of 21st century life. The post-religious concerns of identity and relationship to community plague the introspective thoughts of this profoundly sensitive narrator. The words, ideas, hopes, and complaints are universal although the voice that shares these universal concerns is purely characteristic and individual.
The prose in these pages is both mundane and profound. As a deeply detailed depiction of everyday life, it has a unique ability to both captivate and bore the reader at the same time. Minor details of wind blowing, the turn of light in a mirror, the temperature of a cup of coffee are catalogued alongside personal inner thoughts and conversational musings. Is that not life presented in prosaic form?
This, the second book in Knausgård’s six volume autobiographical novel, My Struggle, is truly something special. I was completely absorbed in my reading of the first volume over a year ago, and this second volume drew me in with the same captivating allure. This second volume subtitled, A Man in Love, focuses on his life as a young father and spoke to me as though written from a friend speaking words of wisdom toward my own future of fatherhood. Knausgård shares deeply personal musings about the love and frustration he carries for his children and his wife. His ability to to focus on the unique personalities of his children and recognize how their personalities both mirror and refract his own personality is beautifully told with a sorrowful wisdom:
“Her smile was shy but happy, and that made me glad, too, yet a shadow hung over my happiness, for was it not alarmingly early for others’ thoughts and opinions to mean so much to her? Wasn’t it best for everything to come from her, to be rooted in herself?…This way of thinking, putting others’ reactions before your own, I recognized from myself, and as we walked towards Folkets Park in the rain I wondered about how she had picked that up. Was it just there, around her, invisible, but present like the air she breathed? Or was it genetic?” (53)
Knausgård’s personal reflections are coupled with universal thoughts about the evolution of one’s life from childhood to adulthood and the loss of innocence that comes with experience and forgetting:
“From my own childhood I remember only a handful of incidents, all of which I regarded as momentous, but which I now understand were a few events among many, which completely expunges their meaning, for how can I know that those particular episodes that lodged themselves in my mind were decisive and not all the others of which I remember nothing?” (21)
However, this book isn’t simply the story of Knausgård’s relationship to his children. The struggle presented here is Knausgård’s struggle to connect with those around him. As is presented in these pages, he is a deeply sensitive and introspective person, and in reading his cataloged thoughts the reader is engaged in the conflict of a man who lives disconnected amongst his peers, even those he is most devoted to. He is an internal man, one who lives most fully through creative writing, not verbal, a perspective I can connect and identify with.
“When I was with other people I was bound to them, the nearness I felt was immense, the empathy great. Indeed, so great that their well-being was always more important than my own…But the moment I was alone others meant nothing to me. It wasn’t that I disliked them, or nurtured feelings of loathing for them, on the contrary, I liked most of them, and the ones I didn’t actually like I could always see some worth in, some attribute I could identify with, or at least find interesting, something that could occupy my mind for the moment. But liking them was not the same as caring about them. It was the social situation that bound me, the people within it did not.” (68-9)
In reading this book I found myself empathizing with Knausgård’s introverted perspective. At times I found him to be overly negative, overly whining, and at times I found him to be deeply personal and profound, and at all times I was touched by his deep honesty. Profoundly, as I was reading this book, reading of Knausgård’s struggles with the wife he loves and her tantrums with his disconnected aloofness, especially during her highly sensitive pregnancy, my wife and I have been faced with our own conflict during her own pregnancy. My quiet nature, the anti-loquacious quality that defines me has become a matter of contention and I found in Knausgård a brotherhood of understanding, an appreciation for the need to explore the potential of the inner self, yet at the same time I found a disgust for this human need. We are social creatures, yet we are so alone. Is this not the 21st century conflict?
“Everything that can be said with words can be contradicted with words, so what’s the point of dissertations, novels, literature? Or put another way: whatever we say is true we can also say is untrue. It is a zero point and the place from which the zero value begins to spread. However, it is not a dead point, not for literature either, for literature is not just words, literature is what words can evoke in the reader…it is about opening up what language normally does not have access to but that we still, somewhere deep inside us, know or recognize, or if we don’t, allows us to discover.” (128-9)
Knausgård’s book has the ability to open up in the reader a reflection toward the self and ask what is the point of all this reading? Perhaps the point is that we are more than ourselves. The written word offers a reflection to this potential truth. Simply living without expressing oneself through the written word invites an internal conflict of identity. The world has become one of increasing demand, demand for attention and importance, demand for efficiency and purpose, demand for fulfillment of an idealization that is beyond comprehension. In reading the written word, the reader takes a step away from the expectations of the realities that surround and offers an opportunity to reflect upon the struggles required to live in a post-religious world that functions beyond the ideals offered by the simplistic visions of salvation within religion. It is from this perspective, that Knausgård draws upon his inspiration for his second novel, A Time for Everything, an exploration of the lives of angels. In conversation with one his authorial friends, Geir, detailed in Book Two of My Struggle, Knausgård is presented with the conflict of religion in a modern life:
“The saint image. No modern person wants to be a saint. What is a saintly life? Suffering, sacrifice, and death. Who the hell would want a great inner life if they don’t have an outer life? People only think of what introversion can give them in terms of external life and success. What is the modern view of a prayer? There is only one kind of prayer for modern people and that is an expression of desire. You don’t pray unless there is something you want.” (464)
Knausgård has the ability to explore the complexities of modern life while acknowledging the mundane. Alongside convictions of concern towards the meaning of philosophy, writing, and religion, he catalogues the annoyances of neighbors that play music too loud, the awkwardness of making small talk with parents at a child’s birthday party, and the anxiety of discovering that his mother-in-law is secretly sneaking sips of alcohol while watching the grandchildren. He paints a dystopian reality that is frighteningly real and spoken with an engaging and captivating voice that has been educated on the importance of the simple necessities of modern living.
“The flat landscape, the sun rising, the stillness outside, the sleeping passengers, reinforced by a happiness that was so strong I remembered it twenty five years later. But this happiness hadn’t had a shadow, it had been pure, undiluted, unadulterated. The life lay at my feet. Anything could happen. Anything was possible. It wasn’t like that any longer. A lot had happened, and what had happened laid the groundwork for what could happen. Not only where the opportunities fewer, the emotions I experienced were weaker. Life was less intense. And I knew I was halfway, perhaps more than halfway.” (528)
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