‘Dancing in the Dark’ by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Harvill Secker; $32.99
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Dancing in the Dark is the fourth volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s now infamous novel-memoir, My Struggle. It unfolds over the course of the Norwegian author’s 18th year, in which he taught at a school in the small northern village of Håfjord.
Like its predecessors, the book is an exercise in verisimilitude, as Knausgaard obsessively documents the minutiae of life: “I placed my hand on the door and pushed, took one of the red shopping baskets and began to move down the aisle between the various shelves.” Even vomiting sessions are meticulously transcribed: “OOOHH. OOOHH. OOOHH. Some phlegm came up. There. That’s the way. Finished now? Yes. Ah. Oh.” The prose is frequently leaden and cliché-ridden, the dialogue mercilessly literal. It is an anti-style that is almost aggressive, and yet is curiously hypnotic, even seductive.
The reader gets to eavesdrop on the soul of that least articulate of beings: the adolescent male. Such a protagonist is not unknown in literature, but rarely has it been presented with such sincerity. Unlike Holden Caulfield, the young Karl Ove does not strike a pose for the reader. (Knausgaard’s earnestness is one of his great strengths; My Struggle offers a sizable bulwark against the paralysis of irony.) Karl Ove wishes to be a writer; more pressingly, he wants to lose his virginity: “I would have given absolutely anything to sleep with a girl … Quite often I caught myself wishing we were still in the Stone Age, then all I needed to do was go out with a club, hit the nearest woman on the head and drag her home to do whatever I wanted.”
He spends much of the book inebriated and tumescent, and yet – as befits a portrait of the young artist – subject to surprising insights: “The mountains plunged into the water on the other side of the fjord. There was something brutal about them, I saw that in a flash, they didn’t care, anything could happen around them, it meant nothing, it was as though they were somewhere else at the same time as being here.”
It is writing that appears to offer unmediated experience, though by this fourth volume Knausgaard’s machinations have become clearer. The 40-year-old author makes only one appearance in the book, in the midst of a 240-page digression, to present a familiar Knausgaardian observation that encapsulates his project: “Oh, this is the song about being sixteen years old … not knowing that feelings will slowly, slowly, weaken and fade, that life, that which is now so vast and so all-embracing, will inexorably dwindle and shrink until it is a manageable entity which doesn’t hurt so much, but nor is it as good.”
Anna Goldsworthy is a pianist and writer. Her most recent book is Welcome to Your New Life. Her most recent album, Beethoven Piano Trios, was released in March.