Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Second Inaugural Meeting of the Karl Ove Knausgaard Society

A Review of My Struggle: Book Three: Boyhood by Karl Ove Knausgaard

When searching for an explanation for the popularity of Knausgaard’s My Struggle, the real answer lies in the writing. The usual questions arise about the veracity of a translation, but lacking anything else to judge by, all we have is the prose. The popularity and hype has now been doled out in spades. And if there is anything that can make skeptics, it’s this. Now critics start writing merely about the hype tsunami that inevitably occurs with a work like this, and it can become distracting, as in this piece. Beyond the writing about the hype itself, which is secondary, there is the reality of the reading.

In volume three, initially, I sensed a minor note of faltering, and wondered if this volume would not hold up. At times, I puzzled over an occasional strange observation that was either incredibly poetic, or that somehow lost its meaning in translation. These oddities are forgiven, because for the most part, the reading glides along like well sharpened skates across very cold ice.
The volume starts off with the earnest quest of young Karl Ove and his friends looking for a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Soon enough, we escape this and are into the life. You will keep yourself in check to remember, this is a writer documenting nearly every crude reality of teenage years. There’s a good deal of Knausgaard’s appealing to the reader about his holier than thou childish goodness. We make of this that it is the naive sincerity of youth, though this comes across as hollow, even a bit played out when you witness the young Karl Ove throwing a rock at a car not fifty pages prior to his self-exculpation at the hands of his mischievous classmates. Granted, this is the young protagonist, not the eminent adult and estimable father of the second volume. This is the flawed would be precocious teenage former class president Karl Ove. He doesn’t need to make arguments for the behavior of the young Karl Ove; we are perhaps meant to see it as a manifestation of the young Karl Ove’s point of view, but this is not always explicit in the writing.

At times, young Karl Ove can seem like a pitiful little Lord Fauntleroy. He cries at the slightest hint of unease. That the adult Knausgaard can so readily reveal these embarrassing qualities is perhaps a testament to the author’s insight into himself.

Much of what runs through this narrative explicates what was fully promised in volume one, but which sat like a viper sunning itself for 600 pages, was hardly given name or cause, and was largely absent in volume two. This absence was clever. By portraying his own difficulty with raising his children, we never see Knausgaard falter, never see him lay his troubles at the feet of his children--though he certainly voices some frustration--his love for them comes early, and is unconditional.

Knausgaard could be the first writer to give voice to fatherhood in the way he does. This is a kind of literature of fatherhood. It is somewhat a universal experience, universal enough, let’s say, that it’s interesting to note that it’s not really been done before.
What we learn, after two and a half volumes, after all of this, is that his own father is the source of the struggle. This is encapsulated efficiently in a page or two of volume three with the blunt: “My father terrified me.”

We are always grappling with our own parents. You dread the days when things will change unaccountably, and that’s the source of all the frictions, when things change. Then you become a parent and your own children become the source of the change. Knausgaard has tapped that. I’m not sure why more writers don’t other than because it is too personal of a subject, too fraught to feel comfortable writing about it.

So, at the mid-point of the series, there’s still the narrative drive, maybe lessened by a few degrees of torque; what is that drive, and how has he done it so we, as writers, are able to bottle it up and use it for ourselves?

Part of what I enjoy in Knausgaard is his meandering quality, as much as it can feel maddening, unfocused. It's what happens when (probably) you write six volumes of memoir. So you cannot bottle it up, you just write it. Maybe he really did write this material as if he believed no one was ever going to read it.  

I return to something I said in my last post: what is compelling in memoir is the sense that the writer is being brutally honest, writing from life; yet would we all, being brazenly honest, be able to achieve this level of readerly compulsion? There is a thoughtful narrative design at work. There’s something to be said for how the first two volumes essentially evade the subject or subtly reinforce it through the protagonist's experimentation with alcohol. I didn’t think it required that much acuity to discern what was up though I suspected I might be speculating when I wrote my review in Trop Magazine. (Though I realized, after the fact, the subtitle of volume one was “A Death in the Family”.)

An irony that this work points out is how those remembered are often the ones we would have least wanted to remember. Yet this is what makes for an interesting memoir.

Knausgaard gives us a window onto a life that we might idealize for its whiff of--if not exotic, maybe idyllic--childhood in clean, pine scented prose, laid across snowy vales, alongside those quiet boulders and crags the color of Wheat Thins, balanced seemingly precariously over blue waters, teeming with the glottal stops and the sea scents that remove it just enough from familiarity and highlight childhood’s joys possibly exempt from the American experience. It harkens to a kind of Currier and Ives nostalgia for a turn of the century small town. I felt that I had this similar childhood to Knausgaard in so many ways, but I would not see mine as so idyllic. Maybe this appeal to American sensibilities is a projection; the idealization of a Nordic world we have never known. Beyond the terror of the father, Karl Ove’s Norwegian childhood, notwithstanding the occasional fear of the unknown, is what anyone might have wished of their own childhood. The grim shades seem manageable; even Knausgaard admits how happy he was.

So what are we to make of this narrative? You take him on his word, and read for pure pleasure. I don’t fully know where he’s going, but I trust he’ll get us there.