Monday, June 1, 2015

Min Kamp #4 by Karl Ove Knausgaard translated by Don Bartlett

In this installment of his six-volume fiction, Knausgaard is eighteen years old. He relates his first year teaching lower secondary school in Håfjord, a small town by the sea in far north Norway. This is his first full-time paid employment outside of a month’s summertime stint at a nursing home. The excitement of being on his own to earn money, to write, to be all he can be is palpable in the beginning. Only a few short months into the teaching gig he calls his mother: he wants to quit. Ah, callow youth!

It turns out what he really wants to do, what absorbs his attention, is shag girls. "I would have given anything to sleep with a girl. Any girl actually…But it wasn’t something you were given, it was something you took. Exactly how, I didn’t know…" A great deal of the time and energy of his sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth years revolved around this quest. The wider world was there: the colleague he lived with continually asked him to go on tramps in the countryside but he refused: "not my thing." When at Christmas that year he returns to Lavik in southern Norway he notices trees: "I’d had no idea that I had missed trees until I was sitting there and saw them."

Outside of shagging girls what Karl Ove wanted to do is write. And not just write: “I will be the bloody greatest ever…I had to be big. I had to.” Actually, it is this certainty in his own talents that makes Karl Ove interesting to listen to for five hundred-odd pages in this installment. It has been said that a novel is just words on paper until it is read; that is, the reader brings imagination, understanding, and empathy to a novel to make it cohere or not. This installment of Knausgaard’s six-part novel, subtitled Dancing in the Dark, is a particularly good example of the need for reader insight. Karl Ove is a special kind of boy, but he can fail. That we don’t want him to fail is only partly his doing.

This section of the linked novels is also more claustrophobic than earlier installments of Knausgaard’s story. We have less of the older authorial voice, and any distance history might provide. All thought and action takes place entirely within Karl Ove’s own head, and outside of a section in which he moves back to his final year in high school and occasional comments by the then 40-year-old author, we have only the binocular vision of his two eyes and his underdeveloped prefrontal cortex to guide us through six months living in the perpetual dark of the an Arctic winter.

The dark plays a large role in developing this teenager into a man. He has to fight against the dark within and without, and doesn’t always manage it. We readers give him ample room for mistakes in this environment, seeing as how we can hardly imagine ourselves pulling it off. The endless cycles of weekend drinking are both horrible and understandable; we just wish our bright young narrator were not so susceptible to alcohol’s siren song.

Knausgaard finishes Min Kamp Volume #4 on a high note and with a flourish worthy of his hormonal anguish. He has us laughing that he finally scaled the hills and valleys of his testosterone-soaked internal landscape. While the story of his eighteenth year has insufficient perspective in itself to have much meaning, the rest of the volumes and readers themselves provide context and meaning. We learn fractionally more about the elusive Yngve, who has small speaking parts in this novel, and marginally more about his father’s decline. We feel Karl Ove’s desperation and confusion when he realizes the place his mother rented is only home when his mother and brother are there: "...home is no longer a place. It was mum and Yngve. They were my home."

This novel is the written equivalent of Karl Ove staring into the bathroom mirror while washing his hands, looking and being looked at, inside and outside at the same time, purely and unambiguously expressing his inner state. It is forgotten the instant the pen is put down or the book closed until someone else opens the book, picks up the soap, stares at their reflection, and examines their soul.

My Struggle Volume 1
My Struggle Volume 2
My Struggle Volume 3

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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