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My Struggle: Book Two
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A- : continues to impress -- though definitely merely part of a larger whole
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
The second volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard's six-volume autobiographical epic, My Struggle -- A Man in Love in the UK edition (and the subtitle for the US one) -- begins dated 29 July 2008, just over (or, more specifically: already) a month after he has completed the first part of the first volume, Knausgaard explains.
There is an enforced break in the writing here, and it takes some five hundred pages of this volume until he has circled back and gets around to the second part of that book, dealing more closely with his father's death.
I would have left her because she was always moaning, she always wanted something else, never did anything to improve things, just moaned, moaned, moaned, could never face up to difficult situations, and if reality did not live up to her expectations, she blamed me, in matters large and small. Well, under normal circumstances we would have gone our separate ways, but as always the practicalities brought us together again, we had one car and two buggies, so you just had to act as if what had been said had not been said after allHe's talking about the logistics of juggling the three kids (and two adults) in this particular situation, but with all that moaning it's hard not hear the much larger complaint, or read the desire to go his own way as one he means. This is the guy, after all, who admits he left his first wife, Tonje, simply and abruptly "from one day to the next". As the novel progresses it turns out he has, in fact, long and repeatedly threatened abandoning Linda too.
In this opening section Knausgaard immerses himself and the reader in the minutiae of his present-day everyday life and experience. He's a family man, burdened, slowed, and crushed by how numbingly prosaic it is. He speaks of his passion for Linda, but notes how much has changed. The beginning of his love-affair with her, a few years earlier, was an incredible time for him (as he later expresses it so nicely: "Everything was light ! I could even read Hölderlin !") -- but also a fleeting one:
This state lasted for six months, for six months I was truly happy, truly at home in this world and in myself before slowly it began to lose its luster, and once more the world moved out of my reach.The focus of the novel shifts back in time, as Knausgaard describes how he and Linda came together, and then their life as a couple. Curiously, the narrative initially loses a bit of its grip in the transition back in time, as Knausgaard, master of the painstakingly detailed ("You can spend twenty pages describing a trip to the bathroom and hold your readers spellbound", a friend of his notes), is surprisingly vague about his early encounters with Linda (as he also is about his head over heels abandonment of his first wife). The power of his narratives rest largely in his willingness to unsparingly dredge through every last bit of his life, but there are a few bits here that are rather summarily treated.
Things do get back on track, as he again slows down and hones in. His romancing reveals a lot of passion, as well as some obvious problems ahead. When he professes his passion for Linda, he does so in a letter -- more direct communication is (and remains) too difficult:
I love you, but that isn't enough. Being friends is meaningless. I can't even talk to you ! What kind of friendship would that be ? I hope you don't take that amiss. I'm just trying to say it as it is. I love you. That's how it is. And somewhere I always will, regardless of what happens to us.His passion-driven impulsiveness is made even clearer by his approach to family-planning:
I had nothing but contempt for precise plans to pinpoint the most suitable time, both as far as our own lives were concerned and which ages went best together. After all this was not a business we were running. I wanted to let chance decide, let what happened, happen, and then deal with the consequences as they emerged. Wasn't that what life was about ?That seems to sum up his philosophy of life quite well -- indeed, when the family decides to move out of Stockholm they get a flat in Malmö, a city neither he nor Linda had ever even visited, "after being in the town for a total of five hours". For all that impulsiveness and leaving things up to 'chance', however, Knausgaard clearly often at least forces the issue: whether abandoning his (first) wife or impregnating Linda with their second child there's clearly some conscious thought behind the actions that will then lead to that 'come what may'.
Much of the time, Knausgaard is a dutiful if occasionally overstressed father, and he does take over primary parenting duties for significant periods of time. His enthusiasm is often somewhat limited (dryly, beautifully noting, when he finds himself stuck in a 'Rhythm Time class' at the city library: "I swayed from side to side with Vanja in my arms thinking that this must be what hell was like, gentle and nice and full of mothers you didn't know from Eve, with their babies "), but he accepts his responsibilities and goes through the motions. Mundane family life is, however, only the half of it -- and it's the pull of the other half that leaves him so torn. Even as he gushes over Linda and his first child he wonders:
I had never wanted anyone more than her, and now I had not only her but also her child. Why couldn't I be content with that ?Knausgaard's other obsession is his writing, and when he dedicates himself to it everything else become meaningless to him. So also shortly after the birth of his daughter, when he finds himself driven to complete his novel A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven (published in the US as A Time for Everything) -- to the extent that:
She said she would leave me. Go, I said. I don't care, I have to write. And it was true. She would have to go if that was what she wanted. She said, I will. You will never see us again. Fine, I said. I wrote twenty or thirty pages a day. I didn't see any letters or words, any sentences or shapes, just countryside and people, and Linda phoned and screamed, said I was a fairweather father, said I was a bastard, said I was an unfeeling monster, said I was the worst person in the world and that she cursed the day she had met me. Fine, I said, leave me then, I don't care, and I meant it, I didn't care, no one was going to stand in the way of thisFor Knausgaard, this is: "the maniacal, the lonely, the happy place". Solitude and isolation are part of it -- Knausgaard frequently mentions his desire to be alone -- but it's also about writing itself for him, a physical and transcendent act:
if there was one thing I had learned over the last six months it was that all writing was about writing. Therein lay all its value.He describes going to see a Bergman production of Ibsen with Linda and, after a terribly disappointing (or so it seems to him, at the interval) first act, finds himself carried away by the later parts. Strikingly, the Knausgaard who has always seemed so observant admits:
I'm not sure anymore what I saw, the details disappeared into the state they evoked, which was one of total presence, burning hot and ice cold at once. However, if you hadn't allowed yourself to be transported everything that happened would have appeared exaggerated, perhaps even banal or kitschy.It's this he aspires to:
Nothing else was good enough, nothing else did it. That was where I had to go, to the essence, to the inner core of human existence. If it took forty years, so be it, it took forty years. But I should never lose sight of it, never forget it, that was where I was going.My Struggle -- the work in its entirety, one can safely infer even at this relatively early stage -- is the account of his inward gaze, into self and 'human existence', the attempt to get 'to the essence'. This volume, focused on balancing domestic life and his calling, adds another carefully demarcated slice (as for all his supposed openness Knausgaard withholds as much as he reveals -- or rather only reveals on his terms, when he is good and ready, a means of asserting and maintaining control over his life(-story)).
The novel circles back to the present of 2008, as Knausgaard eventually comes to work on the rest of the first volume of My Struggle. It also circles back to the place where he grew up (and happily escaped from decades earlier), as he returns there for some talks and readings, and this gives the novel (or this installment of the novel) a frame and shape.
Yet there are many parts he speeds through in getting back to these beginnings: whereas he described the birth of his first child in truly painstaking detail, the arrivals of the second and third child are almost incidental. Some things that would seem to be fairly significant, such as the fact that Linda's mother, charged with watching the baby when there's still only one child in the household, turns out to be fortifying herself with hard liquor while on babysitting duty, are treated quickly and not really followed up on -- a striking contrast to the fully-developed scenes.
For all his openness and willingness to bore to the core, Knausgaard curiously avoids some matters -- most notably Linda's instability. She admits to some problems -- and a suicide attempt -- and is in therapy, but the extent (and nature) of her instability remain fuzzy. Knausgaard describes her actions and reactions, which give some sense of it, but it all feels rather carefully managed. Still, the basic problems in the household are clear enough:
Linda said she wanted only one thing, for us all to be a happy family. That was what she wanted, that was what she dreamt about, for us to be one happy, contented family. All I ever dreamt about was for her to do her half of the housework. She said she did, so there we were, with our accusations, our anger and our longings, in the middle of life, of our lives, of no one else's.But, of course, it's a bit more complicated than that, as for all his familial devotion Knausgaard also admits:
I wanted the maximum amount of time for myself, with the fewest disturbances possible.In many respects this second volume of My Struggle is a domestic/relationship novel, filled with the very much everyday. But Knausgaard can't go all the way with that -- he backs away and elides, in particular in how he treats the character(/person) of Linda. The gaze is outward-looking, and hence the novel isn't entirely introspective, but it is all about Knausagaard -- and there are points when others need to be fleshed out more.
(Among the unusual pats-on-the-back Knausgaard gives himself is for recognizing when Linda's blood sugar is low and heading off the consequences that follow (notably: increasing irritability) by putting some food in front of her: "I picked up the signals long before she herself was even aware of them, the secret lay in the details" the hyper-observant Knausgaard modestly relates. He knows her better than she knows herself, is what he's saying -- but he doesn't reveal that much else about her to the reader, not this directly and openly.)
Amusingly, in conversations that Knausgaard presents others offer their opinions and diagnoses of him; so, for example:
"Karl Ove's hanging in there," Linda said. "That's his method in life."Or there's his friend Geir, who offers a much fuller analysis, suggesting among much else:
your life is so joyless. You have such unbelievable reserves and so much talent, which stops there. It becomes art, but never more than that. You're like Midas. Everything he touches turns to gold, but he gains no pleasure from it.Early on Knausgaard admits (or claims):
All my adult life I have kept a distance from other people, it has been my way of coping, because I become so incredibly close to others in my thoughts and feelings of course, they only have to look away dismissively for a storm to break inside me.Clearly this suggests it's not just empathy but a sort of validation in the eyes of others that Knausgaard seeks. By telling his story he can shape that validation: conversations here appear verbatim, but could just as easily be his invention (or what he wanted to hear), for example. (Tantalizingly, too, Knausgaard admits several times in the novel to blanks of memory: events or accounts that he has no recollection of whatsoever -- a striking contrast to the often word-for-word narrative he presents (and suggesting (or excusing) holes and omissions).)
Near the end, Knausgaard diagnoses himself, and suggests:
A life is simple to understand, the elements that determine it are few. In mine there were two. My father and the fact that I had never belonged anywhere.'Simple' seems rather an understatement here -- and 'my father' (who barely figures, in any form, in the pages of this volume) hardly enough to explain how he determined Karl Ove's life. But then that's what the entire six-volume My Struggle is (presumably) largely about, and the lengths to which Knausgaard goes show there's a lot to chip away at to get at that simple essence. This second volume in the series makes some inroads but is clearly only part of the larger whole.
This volume is a strong second piece in the ongoing series, the domestic struggle(s) a fairly effective (if not fully followed-through) complement -- both overlapping and distinct -- to Knausgaard's purely personal struggle(s). One looks forward to see where this will go next.
- M.A.Orthofer, 26 April 2013
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Norwegian writer Karl O. Knausgaard (Karl Ove Knausgård) was born in 1968.
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