I am a bit obsessed with Karl Ove Knausgaard, and am almost finished the fourth book in his My Struggle series. This volume covers him leaving home after school and going to teach in a small town in northern Norway. He hasn’t done any training but it doesn’t matter, apparently post-secondary school kids can teach. We learn about his increasing fondness for getting drunk and also about his inability to successfully penetrate a girl without ejaculating almost immediately. We also learn more about his love for music and how he buys records whenever he has spare cash, and often when he himself doesn’t (one time he spends money his grandmother gave him for his brother, as well as the amount she gave him to spend on himself.) There is a significant flashback section where we are back with him as a fifteen or sixteen year old, as his parents separate and he tries to sneakily drink in front of his father, previously a tyrannical man who was violent and mean. Knausgaard’s father still has the propensity to tyranny and meanness but he has become an overt drunk, and this seems to periodically mellow him or render him unable to either see what his son is doing, or care.
A young Karl Ove, fending for himself at eighteen, in his school-provided apartment, cooks fry ups – sausages, potato and onion. In our fridge today we had left over sausages so I wanted to do a Knausgaard cook up. It was camping food at its best, and my daughter and I scarfed it down. It was yummy.
For much of these books, there is a pedestrian language, prose that is functional and never elaborate. I’m not saying it’s never considered, it always is, but then out of the ordinary come moments of such poignancy. The contrast is enough to be startling and I wonder whether that is deliberate. He can so insightfully about the developing awareness a young person can have for aesthetic beauty and for the place in life for some of the big things: music, art and landscape. He also writes so well about the often painful awarenesses we come to have, about ourselves and others.
The music evoked at once the atmosphere of my ninth class and the first class at gymnas. The enormous bare beautiful but also lonely space for music that I had loved, and now discovered that I still loved, as well as everything else around it, everything that had been going on in my life then, condensed into this unbelievably vibrant concentrated moment which only feelings can produce. A year relived in a second… Turned up the music. With the darkness so dense outside and the lights so bright inside, it was as if you were being transported… Way out into space… And it was true too. We were hovering out in space. I had always known that, but it was only when I came here that I understood. Darkness did something to your perception of the world. The Northern Lights, this cold burning in the sky, as well. And the isolation.
I had always liked darkness. When I was small I was afraid of it if I was alone, but when I was with others I loved it and the change to the world it brought. Running around in the forest or between houses was different in the darkness, the world was enchanted, we were breathless adventurers with blinking eyes and pounding hearts.
When I was older there was little I liked better than to stay up at night, the silence and the darkness had an allure, they carried a promise of something grand. And autumn was my favourite season, wandering along the road by the river in the dark and the rain, not much could beat that.
But this darkness was different. This darkness rendered everything lifeless. It was static, it was whether you were awake or asleep, and it became harder and harder to motivate yourself to get up in the morning.
There is a moment where Karl Ove gives his brothr Yngve a short story to read. Yngve says it’s good, or fine, and then when Karl Ove says he wants to get a collection published, Yngve says ‘You don’t think anyone’s going to publish it, do you? In all seriousness? Do you think they will?’
Karl Ove’s reaction is stunning in its ferocity, and while the sentiments almost tip over into cliche, because the prose style of the rest of the books has been so everyday, the following stands out as a seminal moment for the young man as artist in the making:
Chilled to the depths of my soul, I met his gaze. All the blood had drained from my head.
He smiled. ‘You did, didn’t you?’ he said.
My eyes glazed over and I had to avert my head.
‘You can send them anyway,’ he said. ‘And see what they say. They might go for them, you never know.’
‘But you said you liked them,’ I protested, getting up. ‘Didn’t you mean what you said?’
‘Yes, I did. But everything is relative. I read it as a story written by my nineteen-year-old brother. And it is good. But I don’t think it’s good enough to be published.’
‘OK,’ I said, going back out onto the verandah. I watched him carry on reading the Flogstad book mum had given him. The brandy glass resting in his hand. As though what he had said had no special significance.
What did he know, really? Why should I listen to him? Kjartan liked it, he was a writer. Or did he also say that based on who I was, his nineteen-year-old nephew, I wrote well considering who I was? … I’ll bloody sow him. I’ll bloody show the whole sodding fucking world who I am and what I am made of. I’ll crush every single one of them. I’ll render every single one of them speechless. I will. I will. I bloody well will. I’ll be so big no one is even close. No one. No. One. Never. No bloody chance. I will be the bloody greatest ever. The fucking idiots. I’ll bloody crush every single one of thm.
I had to be big. I had to be.
If not, I might as well top myself.
A young Karl Ove at fifteen-sixteen gets a job with a music magazine, reviewing records, and when he is at the school a couple of years later teaching, decides to start writing short stories. It’s a fascinating insight into how a person goes from being non-writer to writer, and while it does seem he can’t resist getting drunk, he can resist going out, snipping the distraction even earlier, and staying home to write. He develops a new routine; writes all night, goes to work in the morning, ‘teaches’ then goes home to sleep. Gets up at eleven pm and does it all over again.
I’m only fifty pages from the end but I do hope he resolves his sexual problem. It is really getting him down. And I can’t wait for the final two volumes. Will there be more about writing? I expect so. I think the passages above indicate the next two books will be detailed accounts of how he came to be the bloody best, the bloody biggest. To crush.