Tuesday, March 24, 2015

My Struggle Volume II by Karl Ove Knausgaard

We are almost finished with Volume Two of Knausgaard’s six-volume memoir before we learn what Knausgaard is about with this huge, unwieldy thing he calls a novel.
"Over recent year I had increasingly lost faith in literature…Fictional writing has no value, documentary narrative has no value. The only genres I saw value in, which still conferred meaning, were diaries and essays, the types of literature 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. What is a work of art if not the gaze of another person?"
Does that not mean that art is subjective, and in the eyes of the beholder only? Knausgaard is still asking questions rather than answering them in this staggeringly discursive but surprisingly readable set of books about his life: "I wanted to get as close to life as possible." We sit like Geir, his best friend and sounding board, hearing his explanations, and bringing our own understanding to his novel/memoir/quest. The writer Karl Ove places some observations about Karl Ove the narrator in the mouth of Geir:
"You’re an arch-protestant…If you have some success, generally something others would have died for, you just cross it off in the ledger. You’re not happy about anything. When you’re at one with yourself, which you are almost all of the time, you’re much more disciplined than me…Your ideal is the innocent, innocence…what you lust for is innocence and this is an impossible equation. Lust and innocence can never be compatible."

Since reading Min Kamp Volume One, I watched a number of interviews of Knausgaard. Knausgaard tells us in Volume Two he cannot stop himself from accepting invitations to speak about himself and his book, despite his terror and despite the oftentimes mediocre write-ups. His sense of worthlessness and feelings of intimidation (he says these feelings are rooted in Norwegian culture and his own upbringing) are clear from what he says, writes, and does because, he says, he has revealed the darkest, most shameful things about himself and his family and friends. One might understand, therefore, his reluctance to be in public answering questions about his motivations were it not for the vast number of critics coming down on the side of celebration and awe upon the publication of the linked books. This praise he “crosses off” the income side of the ledger, leaving him desperate and despondent, feeling "like a whore." Well, okay, if that’s how you want to play it. I can heap criticism on his head, too. A little bit of whip-play, eh?

We must ask ourselves why we care. How much of this is fiction and does it matter? Are we as close to life as possible—a little reality show for the bookish set, the novel-minded?

The author Karl Ove tells us this book is about love, and readers might agree. Love in its imperfections, in the imperfections of the lovers, in the circumstances, in the choices one makes, and in the choices one doesn’t. Love between parents and children and children and parents and between the parents and between friends; Love that is not blind, but alternately tender and vengeful, accepting and unyielding. There is a love of writing here, too, of the lost-in-the-dream flow of writing, of the can’t-wait-to-get-back-to-it addictiveness of creating something unique. Which is how we know it probably is fiction. Karl Ove is creating, not just recording. He "finally gets to tell the story" and it is his story. Not objective, but subjective. Fictive, at least in part. We learn the tiniest detail of his child’s outdoor clothing and how to cook a meal of potatoes, steak and broccoli, but we will never hear the voice of his father except through Karl Ove the narrator. What difference does it make? None. Memoirs and fiction often trade places.

Regarding the larger question of whether or not it is literature, I sidestep: that will answer itself over time. The books have their amusements and instruction, for we read so deeply about others’ decisions, successes and downfalls, hidden secrets and cracks in the fa├žade, as well as about Scandinavia, lest anyone think I forgot the cultural context. But were I pressed, I would guess I am reading something resembling an old-fashioned "confession" perhaps like St Augustine’s Confessions written when he was in his early 40s, considered by some to be the first autobiography in the western world, and in which Augustine regrets his sinful life. Confessions ran to thirteen volumes and was meant to be read aloud. In at least one interview, Karl Ove tells us he read his book aloud to an unnamed friend.

St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, whom Karl Ove references, had a long standing disagreement about how best to understand the divine. Confused, sinful, ascetic (rejecting the world) Karl Ove (Augustine?) talks repeatedly and deeply with organized, controlled, disciplined Geir (Aquinas?) who embraces the world, even to the point of travelling to witness the war in Iraq. We listen; we wonder.

All this is to say nothing of Hitler, who is mentioned twice I think in this book, and once in Volume One. Perhaps in Volume Three we will have three references? Of that, stay tuned.

Review of Volume 1
Review of Volume 3
Review of Volume 4

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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