Thursday, April 9, 2015

My Struggle Volume 3 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

The third book in the Knausgaard saga explores Karl Ove’s boyhood. The family moves to the largest island in southern Norway, Trom√ły, where Karl Ove's father teaches Norwegian in high school and his mother works with families experiencing trauma. Finally we learn why Karl Ove was so terrified of his father. The older brother Yngve now becomes the shadowy enigma we only glimpse but cannot see. Yngve is the essence of the older brother—a little dismissive of his younger sibling, but generally supportive and friendly enough. I yearn to see more of him, but suspect Karl Ove’s penchant for self-revelation did not extend to his brother.

This is a remarkable piece of work. The more I read the more I want to read. Fiction or nonfiction? Of course it is both. In a series this long and detailed one could only have used elements of both. In order to ring true it must have recognizable motivations and actions, yet the detail feels new rather than remembered. I found myself mesmerized by the thirteen-year-old Karl Ove. The scene in which he takes “the prettiest girl” he’s met to the forest by bicycle to kiss is positively painful—and classic.

The difference between the personalities of Karl Ove’s parents is spelled out in a paragraph about driving styles:
”Speed and anger went hand in hand. Mom drove carefully, was considerate, never minded if the car in front was slow, she was patient and followed. That was how she was at home as well. She never got angry, always had time to help, didn’t mind if things got broken, accidents happened, she liked to chat with us, she was interested in what we said, she often served food that was not absolutely necessary, such as waffles, buns, cocoa, and bread fresh out of the oven, while Dad on the other hand tried to purge our lives of anything that had no direct relevance to the situation in which we found ourselves: we ate food because it was a necessity, and the time we spent eating had no value in itself; when we watched TV we watched TV and were not allowed to talk or do anything else; when we were in the garden we had to stay on the flagstones, they had been laid for precisely that purpose, while the lawn, big and inviting though it was, was not for walking, running, or lying on...Dad always drove too fast.”

This revealing paragraph shows us two critical portraitures and Knausgaard’s run-on style which impels the reader forward. We know immediately the difference in the two personalities, and Karl Ove’s as well. On the day Karl Ove was reprimanded for embarrassing another boy, Edmund, for not being able to read, Karl Ove tells us “I both understood and I didn’t” why his family was mean to him and kind to Edmund, whom they hardly knew. He was learning two sets of behaviors and being confused by which to adopt. By including this incident in his record we know that it became clearer to him at some later point.

There is no mention of Knausgaard’s overall direction with this third of the six books, though in the very last pages Karl Ove comes across a photograph in a history book of a naked woman starving to death. The next page of the history book contains images of a mass grave with many strewn, emaciated corpses. Immediately readers' minds go to the Holocaust with no further prompting. The juxtaposition of the sunny warmth of impending summer and the stark brutality of the images jerks us from our reverie and places Karl Ove's boyhood in a larger context. The years are passing but there are a few holes in the picture of a forty-year old life. We’ve now had the beginning and the end, but early adulthood and a first marriage are still missing.

Is it literature? I think so. We have already “gone somewhere” though each volume leads only to another at this point. A person with contradiction and depth is given life in these pages. The detail is lush and ample and oh-so-readable, the story instructs us, and the context haunts us. I look forward to seeing what Knausgaard wants us to understand with his linked volumes, but he has already given us something very special indeed.

My Struggle Volume 1
My Struggle Volume 2
My Struggle Volume 4

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