My Struggle, Book Two

by Karl Ove Knausgaard
translated by Don Bartlett
reviewed by Ophelia John
March 3, 2015

Discussion of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series often breaks down into dichotomies: is it a new hybrid genre or self-centered blathering? Addictive or unbearable? While the territory between fact and fiction is an exotic one, it’s not entirely new or uncharted; Marcel Proust published the first in his own series of autobiographical novels in 1913.

What is Book Two about? It’s about having your soul nailed to the earth you grew up on; it’s about surface familiarity and social distance between two winter-dark Scandinavian countries; it’s about relationship and mental illness and life stress. It’s also about writing and the vulnerability of using a formal tool like written language to go “to the essence, to the inner core of human existence.” It’s about upholding the idea that words carry a certain meaning and that humans wish to be understood with their words, as well as the art of wordless communication, at which the protagonist Karl Ove excels. He considers the consequences of his wife’s not helping his mother with the dishes:

This is what we have social codes for, they help us to coexist . . . and with them greater personal divergence is tolerated, more idiosyncrasy, which unhappily idiosyncratic individuals never understand since it is in the nature of idiosyncrasy not to understand. Linda did not want to serve, she wanted to be served, and the consequence of that was she wasn’t served. Whereas Mikaela [a friend] served, and so she was served.

Both Karl Ove and his wife, Linda, devote considerable time and energy to plumbing their own discomfort at being in the world, and, while potentially narcissistic, this attention to the inner world also leads to stark insights: “We are only that which grows and dies, as blind as the waves in the sea are blind.”

In composing this series, Knausgaard has loudly broken the Scandinavian law of Jante, a version of the UK’s “tall poppy syndrome”: he who stands out from the crowd shall be cut down. His character Karl Ove opens the door of his family home wide and commits the ultimate sin of (sometimes) considering himself to be a unique, deserving individual. When Karl Ove brings up the concept of freedom, his angry mother “snorted and said that it was just an American notion without any content, vacuous and fallacious. We were here for others.” She’s right, in part, but so is Karl Ove in his quest for individual meaning. This divide between the individual and the collective recurs throughout Book Two.

As does the question of nature versus nurture. Nurture, says the generation that built the welfare state of contemporary Norway; society writes on the blank slate of the infant’s mind, defining the shape of a person’s life. Nature, asserts Karl Ove in scenes of angry house-husbandry that bring the modern role of the (Swedish) father to life. He shakes a rattle at a music class for tiny tots “led by a woman I would have liked to bed. But sitting there I was rendered completely harmless, without dignity, impotent.” Carrying a “furious nineteenth-century man inside,” he perceives the same dilemma in other fathers: “The restlessness in their bodies that made them prone to snatching a couple of pull-ups on the bars while the children played around them.”

Thus the everyday becomes fascinating. The approach is simple: a deeply anxious character falls in love, writes, and has children, all while reading books, other people, landscapes, and cityscapes. Here, he goes into the head of a stranger, “that woman in her fifties with the stiff hair dyed a golden tint”:

For had she not seen foxgloves growing in rocky scree once? Had she not seen a dog pissing against a lamppost in the park on one of those misty November nights that fill the town with such mystique and beauty? Ah, ah, for isn’t the air full of tiny rain particles then that not only lie like a film over skin and wool, metal and wood, but also reflect the light around such that everything glistens and glimmers in the grayness?

And here is Karl Ove’s friend Geir:

He laughed. Twisted his head and watched the crowd going past. Twisted it back and surveyed the café’s other customers. I tapped the tip of the cigarette against the ashtray. The smoke rising from it billowed gently in the draft from the doors that kept opening and closing. When I looked at him it was in brief, almost imperceptible glances. In a way the impression he gave was independent of his face. His eyes were dark and sorrowful, but there was nothing dark or sorrowful about his aura.

Accompanying these observations are the trails of Karl Ove’s intellectual process, depicted through his ruminations (on Hölderlin, Dostoevsky, Ibsen, and angels) and his conversations with Geir, who acts as spokesman for society vs. nature (and, in his own books, “the values that the welfare state had otherwise subverted, such as masculinity, honor, violence and pain”). Karl Ove’s search for meaning in his everyday life is paramount, and this is the dead center of Book Two: he’s thrice experienced life as limitless and full of meaning. First when falling in love, later as a new father, and then during the magical thinking stage of novel writing. But once found, meaning won’t stay:

It started slowly and darkened imperceptibly, it was as though the sky was attached to the earth, and the light airiness had less and less room to play. . . and the light eddying summer night was no longer imaginable, like a dream you try in vain to recap upon waking.

This Karl Ove wants to stay in that rich dream more than he wants to keep his connections to family and career and the everyday world of buildings and cafés and cloudscapes and subway stops and cell phones lost in stranger’s handbags. A full world that Knausgaard and his translator, Bartlett, have built by never shying away from the detail of the human.