Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Another Big Autobiographical Novel Series

I'm a bit disheartened at the moment because I cannot, despite having unpacked all the boxes of books (unless he still has some I don't know about stashed in our storage locker), despite having checked the shelves several times, I cannot put my hands on the copy of Karl Ove Knausgaard's Dancing in the Dark (the fourth volume in his series, My Struggle), the book I finished around the time of our first of two moves last year.  Disheartened because my memory is not as effective as I wish, and I tend to supplement it, in my reading, by pencilled notations in the margins and page numbers in the blank pages at the front.

I suppose I'd continued to hope I might find time to say a bit more about Volume 4 (and Volume 3, Boyhood Island, before it). In fact, I trawled through my earlier posts mentioning Knausgaard and really, none of them do much more than defer, always hoping I might eventually wax slightly more comprehensive. Having just last night turned the last page of Book 5, Some Rain Must Fall, with Book 6 due to be released in its English translation in Fall 2018, I can only sigh in relief at the reprieve, because, of course, now I can suggest that I'll write more fully about My Struggle when I've finished the whole kit and caboodle.

And make no mistake, it really is a kit and a caboodle! Boyhood Island, the "slimmest" at "only" 490 pages is also, in many ways, the easiest to read, coming as something of a relief after the weightier first two volumes. By now, I've read some 3000 pages of My Struggle -- no wonder I both wish to write a few words of my own about it, but also no wonder that I'm daunted by the task.

As well, given how time-consuming the project of writing more completely about just one volume of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan series became. . . . it might be better simply to accept defeat at the outset.

Just very briefly, though:
--Fascinated by the overall structure as it appears so far: the narrative structure, that is, the chronology, the choice to begin, Proustian-like with a moment from which the entire first novel spirals outward and then back in again.
--The intricate and dynamic connections between the relationships of the author/narrator/protagonist (and these three are perhaps even more closely entangled than in Elena Ferrante's four-volume Neapolitan series) with his father, with his brother, with the women (generally, but not always, sequentially) he's romantically or sexually involved with, and with his mother. Tempting -- or just obvious --  to say the most important relationship is with his father, long after his father's death, but it might not be quite that simple.
-- Loved the respite of Boyhood Island after the first two novels (the first, particularly, was so much more philosophical, essayistic even), although this one also has its dark moments. I was especially fascinated by how many similarities there were between his boyhood awareness of changing landscapes and what was happening all over North America, the clearing of forests for planned subdivisions, an earlier levelling effect of globalisation than I'd really appreciated before.
--like Ferrante's series, again, in being not only a Bildungsroman, but also a kunstlerroman (roughly, "growth of an artist") -- both writers emphasise their early conviction that they were merely derivative in their voices, their doubt that they could be anything special joining fiercely to their determination to be just that. Hugely complicated in the Knausgaard books by Alcohol! There's definitely a level on which someone with an interest in Substance Abuse Literature/Fiction/Memoir would find copious material to rifle through here.

Since I began writing this post almost two weeks ago, we've spent a week in Victoria baby-sitting, and I've managed to buy a remaindered copy of Volume 4, Dancing in the Dark. Still, I'm not motivated to begin searching out passages that impressed me and will defer a rereading (of the whole series, perhaps) until some faroff date when I've finished the threatening-to-topple pile of books hidden between couch and wall. . .

I do have a few passages I snapped photos of of, way back last May. I'll copy those out here to give you a sense of the books and allow me to clear away some of the clutter in my iCloud. . .

Oh, this is the song about the young man who loves a young woman. Has he the right to use such a word as 'love'? He knows nothing about life, he knows nothing about her, he knows nothing about himself. All he knows is that he has never felt anything with such force and clarity before. Everything hurts, but nothing is as good. Oh, this is the song about being sixteen years old and sitting on a bus and thinking about her, the one, 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.

Only a forty-year-old man could have written that. I am forty now, as old as my father was then, I'm sitting in our flat in Malmö, my family is asleep in the rooms around me. Linda and Vanja in our bedroom, Heidi and John in the children's room, Ingrid, the children's grandmother, on a bed in the living room. It is 25 November 2009. The mid-1908s are as far away as the 1950s were then. But most of the people in this story are still out there.

and this, from Boyhood Island:

Dad knew what the situation was. Lack of self-knowledge was not one of his failings. One evening at the beginning of the 1980s he said to Prestbakmo that it was mum who had saved his children. The question is whether it was enough. The question is 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 question is whether it is enough to be a counterbalance to the darkness.
She made a decision: she stayed with him, she must have had her reasons.

and before that, same book:
Mum was wearing beige trousers and a rust-red sweater with the sleeves turned up over her forearms. Her hair hung a long way down her back. On her feet she wore a pair of light brown sandals. She had just turned thirty-two, while Martha, who was wearing a brown dress, was two years older.
They were young women, but we didn't know that.

and before that, thinking about his mother as foundational in his life and yet so obscured in his memory, he wonders who tied a blue bow tie around the neck of his kitten and answers himself that
It must have been mum. That was the sort of thing she would do, I know that, but during the months I have been writing this, in the spate of memories about events and people who have been roused to life, she is almost completely absent, it is as if she hadn't been there, indeed as if she were one of the false memories you have, one you have been told, not one you have experienced.
How can that be?
For if there was someone there, at the bottom of the well that is my childhood, it was her, my mother, mum. She was the one who [here follows a litany of all the things he knows his mother did for him]
She was always there, I know she was, but I just can't remember it.
I have no memories of her reading to me and I can't remember her putting a single plaster on my knees or being present at a single end-of-term event.
How can that be?


  1. It’s the blurring of the lines between, as you say, author/narrator/protagonist that agitate me, although I have an idea in the back of my mind that I’d like to try again. But the books seem alive! Like a horribly annoying, self-centred person who is nonetheless attractive. Some fortitude seems required to rekindle this relationship.
    I would venture to say his (the narrator’s...I hope!) most important relationship is with himself, and he recognizes others only when they cause him some positive or negative tension.
    I read the first 3 ½ volumes out of order, due to my impatience and availability at the public library. I did prefer Boyhood Island but think it had to do with the setting. The community was so vivid, I wanted to go back as soon as possible. That is how I first invited Karl Ove to ride the bus with me and have lunch in my office. I was fine through A Death in the Family, started to worry during Dancing in the Dark, and midway though A Man in Love I showed him the door. (All made funnier, really, by the idea that the author has a face we can assign to the narrator, so he is easy to envision in my living room, smoking, pushing his hair back, droning on about his life, his struggle…following me from room to room, sitting on the toilet talking while I shower…)
    I went to Wikipedia to make sure I had the names of the books correct, and found this: “James Wood of The New Yorker wrote that "There is something ceaselessly compelling about Knausgård’s book: even when I was bored, I was interested.”
    That’s it, in a sentence.

    1. Yes, the books are fascinating and annoying in mostly equal measure because of the elision of any distance between author/narrator/protagonist. And, of course, he's done pretty much the opposite of Ferrante in terms of publicity/personal interviews. I'm interested in your reading the books out of order, because part of the fascination for me is the structure, what and where he chooses to repeat, the way he chooses to start, but then backtrack, etc. I was caught by A Death in the Family both despite and because of the long philosophical/theorising detours, those essay-like diversions that had me putting the book down simply to think about what the narrator was saying, whether I agreed or was simply intrigued, or sometimes, as a woman, really annoyed. I was very surprised that my husband got hooked enough in Book 1 to continue (he's just finished Boyhood Island) . . . I think he's welcoming having a male perspective laid out so scrupulously, even if it's not always quite his perspective. The minuitiae, the domestic quotidian, accumulating and coalescing toward meaning.
      Yes, even when bored, interested -- quite a feat, really! (and yes, that face. . . all too easy to imagine him in our everyday, and we know far too much about him!)

  2. I haven't read anything by Knausgaard yet (although his books have been translated into German) and I am certainly not going to do so in the near future, given the enormous pile of books on my bedside table. But I wanted to ask: when are you going to open the box with comments on the Gernes poem? I am quite intrigued to see other readers’ observations.

    1. By now, you'll have seen I finally got to that, Eleonore -- I think the readers' comments are wonderful! Definitely going to try this again.

  3. I haven't read this series yet. I will I'm sure, but I'm not quite ready for this person to invade my life yet. That doesn't sound good, does it? But it means I am not ready.

    1. It's a huge commitment -- you're wise to wait until you're ready! And if you never are, well, there's no shortage of books we want to read, right?!

    2. Annoying, my reply to you just got discarded by Blogger!
      Just gave you even more permission to wait until you're ready, even if that should turn out to be never. So much for us to read, isn't there?!