April 2014

Arts & Letters

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘Boyhood Island’

By Anna Goldsworthy
The third volume of the epic autobiographical novel ‘My Struggle’

My Struggle, the six-volume epic by Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard, has been described as both novel and memoir. His American publisher prefers “the project”. In an interview with the Paris Review, Knausgaard explains that

I wanted to see how far it was possible to take realism before it would be impossible to read. My first book had a strong story, strong narration. Then I would see how far I could take a digression out before I needed to go back to the narration, and I discovered I could go for 30 or 40 pages, and then the digressions took over. So in Min Kamp I’m doing nothing but digressions, no story lines.

Much has been made of Knausgaard’s “Faustian pact”. In the first volume, A Death in the Family, he tracks his father’s alcoholic decline and death. The second volume, A Man in Love, details his own shortcomings as husband and father. “When I look at a beautiful painting I have tears in my eyes, but not when I look at my children. That does not mean I do not love them, because I do, with all my heart, it simply means that the meaning they produce is not sufficient to fulfil a whole life. Not mine at any rate.”

Boyhood Island, the newly translated third volume, begins with a young family arriving on the Norwegian island of Tromøya in 1969. The infant Karl Ove lies in a pram, “oblivious to where they were or where they were going”. Soon we find ourselves in a setting familiar from the first two volumes: the adult Knausgaard’s writing desk. He ponders whether the baby arriving at the island is indeed “the same person as the one sitting here in Malmö writing”. Would it not “be more natural to operate with several names since their identities and self-perceptions are so very different?” he wonders.

Such that the foetus might be called Jens Ove, for example, and the infant Nils Ove, and the five to ten-year-old Per Ove, the ten to twelve-year-old Geir Ove, the thirteen to seventeen-year-old Kurt Ove, the seventeen to twenty-three-year-old John Ove, the twenty-three to thirty-two-year-old Tor Ove, the thirty-two to forty-six-year-old Karl Ove – and so on and so forth? Then the first name would represent the distinctiveness of the age range, the middle name would represent continuity and the last family affiliation.

This passage gives some indication of the relentlessness with which Knausgaard pursues his thoughts. It also speaks to the achievement of this book. The adult Karl Ove may be a different person to Per Ove and Geir Ove, but over the course of this volume he vanishes entirely into his former selves. Even when the child Karl Ove is at his most absurd – timing a 15-minute first kiss with a stopwatch – there is no authorial wink to the reader. Knausgaard gives himself over entirely to the earnestness of childhood. Irony, after all, breeds distance, and Knausgaard’s objective is proximity.

Like Proust, whose works he claims to have “imbibed”, Knausgaard tests the reader’s capacity for boredom, without offering the consolation of Proust’s sentences. It is not that he cannot write well (as it is conventionally understood). A Death in the Family begins with the good stuff: “For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops.” Knausgaard analyses the process of death from a bacterial perspective, before zooming spectacularly outward: “No less conspicuous than our hiding corpses is the fact that we always lower them to ground level as fast as possible … As though we possessed some kind of chthonic instinct, something deep within us that urges us to move death down to the earth whence we came.”

You wonder how Knausgaard will sustain this pitch for six volumes. He doesn’t. The taut opening turns out to be a lure. Once he has drawn in the reader, Knausgaard slackens his prose. Dialogue is stilted; characters laugh with a “ha ha ha”; commas are deployed wantonly; cliché is embraced. At first you make allowances for poor translation, but it becomes clear that there is nothing haphazard about this. Knausgaard’s renunciation of elegance is a philosophical position. In a seven-page conversation in A Man in Love, his friend Geir dissects his character: “For me, you live in an almost frightening asceticism. Or rather, you wallow in asceticism. As I see it, it’s extremely unusual. Extremely deviant.” Elsewhere in the same volume, Knausgaard states his artistic position: “I wanted to be closer to reality, by which I meant physical, concrete reality, and for me the visual always came first, also when I was writing and reading, it was what was behind letters that interested me.”

Getting closer to reality, for Knausgaard, demands an eschewal of writerly vanity. The result is something more than a bogus “authenticity”. Knausgaard’s prose amounts to a rehabilitation of cliché: you begin to wonder whether cliché offers a more accurate realism. In the moment, after all, things frequently are fantastic, or nice and warm. It is only afterwards that we mediate the experience, and dress it in fine clothes. According to Martin Amis, “Cliché spreads inwards from the language of the book to its heart. Cliché always does.” Knausgaard offers a refutation of this: cliché undermines neither the quality of his thoughts nor their newness. He simply refuses to confer distinction upon them through their expression. It is Amis, by comparison, who seems strangely lifeless, saying nothing very beautifully.

Knausgaard’s experiment with banality extends beyond style to content. Throughout Boyhood Island, backdrops are described at length, mined neither for poetry nor symbol:

Outside, the sky was overcast, but the clouds were of the fluffy, whitish-grey variety which, while they may have shut out the sky, did not carry rain. The tarmac was dry and grey, the shingle dry and blue-grey and the trunks of the pines standing tall at the top of the estate, dry and reddish.

There is a mesmeric quality to this, and an immersion through detail that resembles virtual reality. In his Paris Review interview, Knausgaard explains that he was inspired by the diary of the Swedish playwright Lars Norén: “Fifty pages about gardening, and it should be really awful, really boring. But there’s something magic in it, something hypnotic … And I think that has to do with you feeling that you are very close to a self.” Sometimes, the relentless detail seems like an error of perspective: a conflation of background and foreground. But this is in keeping with the world of a child (as well as the Groundhog Day of new parenthood, documented in A Man in Love). As Knausgaard observes in A Death in the Family, “As your perspective of the world increases not only is the pain it inflicts on you less but also its meaning.”

There is a dance in these books between familiarity and strangeness. It is through familiarity, perhaps, that we lose the ability to see, and in this sense these books are exercises in renewal. Knausgaard frequently returns to first principles, as if he cannot trust the reader to fill in any gaps. Even “I brushed my teeth” would be unacceptable shorthand. Instead, from Boyhood Island: “Into the bathroom, out with the brush from the tooth glass, a drop of water and on with the white toothpaste. I brushed energetically for several minutes while studying myself in the mirror.” But then, that masterful sleight of hand: “The sound of the brush against my teeth seemed to fill the whole of my head from the inside, so I didn’t notice that dad was up until he opened the door. He was wearing only underpants.” With that loud resonance of toothbrush on teeth – of course, that! – you are invited in to join him. It is a version of Seinfeld’s have you ever noticed routine, or the micro-observational humour of Nicholson Baker. But Knausgaard’s purpose is less comedy than proximity: “being closer to reality”. And now that you are immersed in the scene, dad is also present, clad in his underpants.

Where, after all, is childhood? It is here, in your body. It is in the terror of learning to swim, before an impatient parent: “The depth of the water was in my head and in my chest. The depth was in my arms and legs, in my fingers and toes. The depth filled all of me. Was I supposed to be able to think that away?” It is the claustrophobic horror of being trapped in a culvert, the humiliation of wearing the wrong bathing cap. But it is also in childhood’s glorious freedom: in capering around the island, setting fire to things, or in shitting out of a tree, “dropping it like a bomb from a plane over a town. It was a wonderful feeling as it came further and further out, the moment when it was suspended in mid-air until it finally let go and plunged to the ground.”

For Knausgaard, above everything, it is in the fear of the unpredictable parent. There is so much of Knausgaard’s father in the first two volumes of My Struggle that I wondered if we might see more of his mother in Boyhood Island, but she remains a benign, largely invisible presence, something that perplexes even the author: “as if she were one of the false memories you have, one you have been told, not one you have experienced”. He acknowledges that his mother saved him from his father’s “darkness”. Only once does he question whether this was enough: “whether she was not responsible for exposing us to him for so many years, a man we were afraid of, always, at all times”.

The father is omnipresent. Karl Ove is always acutely aware of his location in the house – the door closing in the basement, his footsteps on the stairs – and his emotional condition. So strong is his presence that it thwarts even Knausgaard’s powers of re-creation: “I was so frightened of him that even with the greatest effort of will I am unable to re-create the fear; the feelings I had for him I have never felt since, nor indeed anything close.”

It is tempting to interpret this book – which bears witness to an abused childhood – as an act of vengeance. The young Karl Ove frequently plots revenge, which is impossible “except in the much-acclaimed mind and imagination, there I was able to crush him”. But the stakes of this project are even higher. While his father may be his true subject, Knausgaard’s struggle is nothing less than a struggle for meaning. By bringing the world closer, he hopes to see it. Does he achieve this? The final book in the series, yet to be translated into English, reportedly concludes with an authorial self-immolation. His work complete, Knausgaard declares that “I’m no longer an author.”

Where does this leave the rest of us? Realism, as it transpires, can absorb a great deal of digression, of disclosure, of banality, of boredom. Realism can in fact absorb a great deal of reality. It can blaspheme against style; it can cast aside narrative, fiction, characterisation. But are we in danger, as Knausgaard might say, of throwing the baby out with the bathwater? What are we left with?

“The only genres I saw value in,” writes Knausgaard in A Man in Love, “which still conferred meaning, were diaries and essays, the types of literature that did not deal with narrative, that were not about anything, but just consisted of a voice, the voice of your own personality, a life, a face, a gaze you could meet.”

Is this realism’s new beginning, as many have suggested, or its endpoint?

Anna Goldsworthy

Anna Goldsworthy is a pianist and writer. Her most recent books are Welcome to Your New Life and The Best Australian Essays 2017 (as editor). Her most recent album is Beethoven Piano Trios.

Karl Ove Knausgaard. © Anders Hansson

April 2014

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