In the second installment of Karl Ove Knausgaard's monumental six-volume masterpiece, the character Karl Ove Knausgaard moves to Stockholm, where, having left his wife, he leads a solitary existence. He strikes up a deep friendship with another exiled Norwegian, a Nietzschean intellectual and boxing fanatic named Geir. He also tracks down Linda, whom he met at a writers' workshop a few years earlier and who fascinated him deeply. My Struggle, book two, is at heart a love story - the story of Karl Ove falling in love with his second wife. But the novel also tells other stories: of becoming a father, of the turbulence of family life, of outrageously unsuccessful attempts at a family vacation, of the emotional strain of birthday parties for children, and of the daily frustrations, rhythms, and distractions of city life keeping him from (and filling) his novel. It is a brilliant work that emphatically delivers on the unlikely promise that hundreds of minutes later, listeners will be left breathlessly demanding more.
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"The fact that paintings and, to some extent, photographs were so important for me had something to do with this. They contained no words, no concepts, and when I looked at them what I experienced, what made them so important, was also non conceptual. There was something stupid in this, an area that was completely devoid of intelligence, which I had difficulty acknowledgng or accepting, yet which perhaps was the most important single element of what I wanted to do."
-- Karl Ove Knausgård, My Struggle Book 2
Sometimes writing a review of a book is just about marking the space, staking the ground, scratching the wall with hard chalk. I swim back and forth about how I feel about Knausgaard. Hell, I swim back and forth about whether I want to spell his last name Knausgaard or Knausgård. Right now I don't feel strongly either way. Completely ambivalent. Sometimes, I think Karl Ove's art is his huge capacity for being pretentious and narcissistic, but (just to be fair) I also think the same thing about most artists. There is something about the personality of an artist that IS by their nature selfish, demanding, exhibitionist: crying for notice, for acclaim, for some distant other to meet their gaze, catch their pitch, experience their trip. I think of the story of Picasso's daughter showing him her beautiful new shoes, and he takes them and paints them and makes her cry.
And I mean all this ego art as a good thing. I guess what, for me, sets Karl Ove apart from other fiction artists/authors is he exposes (or at least wants us to THINK he exposes) a lot more about his life in his art. His self is stylized, but not hidden. He isn't hiding his ego behind another character. He makes his ego a character. He isn't trying to hide his flaws (and boy sometimes there seems to be buckets of flaws) or those of his family (see Linda) or friends. He uses those weaknesses like a painter uses shadow or a carpenter uses sandpaper.
His prose seems to jump between three styles:
1: Hyper-detailed narrative about his life. This isn't a straight narrative. He will jump back and forth in time. He starts with three kids, backs up to before he meets Linda, progresses through courting, marriage, babies, and during this journey forward will occasionally run back in time as he recalls events or situations that add to his current narrative. Anyway, this style is the bulk of the book and allows for very descriptive accounts of fights with his wife, struggles with family members, trips, walks, meals, etc. It is like he took his journal/diary and just tossed it in and expanded it. 2. Excursions into philosophy. In the middle of an event in his life, Karl Ove will suddenly digress and spend 3-10 pages discoursing on literature, painting, angels, life, death, children. 3. Excursions into nature/city. Not only does he take walks, but any movement might lead Karl Ove into a journey into a sunset, swarm of birds, buildings, beach, clouds. He is painting with words, trying to capture in words what a Turner or one of his photographer friends might capture with a lens. 4. Discussions with friends (mainly his close friend Gier). These parts accomplish the same things as 2, but as a dialogue with counterpoints instead of a straight inner monologue.
So, here I sit 1/3 (or two books) into 'My Struggle' and not yet tired of it. My feelings for these books ebb (Franzen at his worst) and flow (Proust at his best) depending on the prose and my own mood. At times, when I'm feeling great and the book seems to be on fleek, it all ends up being a groove I was meant to slide down (++), but there are times when the prose seem to be working fine, but I'm just not feeling it (+-) or when the prose kinds stinks, but I seem not to mind very much (-+). Thankfully, there have been very few instances where me and the novel seem to be mired at the same time (--). I might have lost faith (at times) in Knausgård as a person, but not in what he has written (yet), and not yet in his role as an artist.
"Over recent years I had increasingly lost faith in literature. I read and thought this was something someone has made up. Perhaps it was because we were totally inundated with fiction and stories...The only genres I saw value in, which still conferred meaning, were diaries and essays, the types of literature that did not deal with narrative, that were not about anything, but just consisted of a voice, the voice of your own personality, a life, a face, a gaze you could meet. What is a work of art if not the gaze of another person? Not directed above us, nor beneath us, but at the same height as our own gaze. Art cannot be experienced collectively, nothing can, art is something you are alone with. You meet its gaze alone."
- Darwin8u "I write for myself, for my own pleasure. And I want to be left alone to do it. - Salinger ^(;,;)^"
Winkles the Extraordinary out of the Ordinary
I was skeptical before buying this novel. Did I really want to read a roman à clef based loosely on the author's life? Can he really succeed in making a seemingly ordinary life interesting enough to fill 4, 5 or 6 volumes? Is he the Scandinavian equivalent of the fat-head fiction writers mass produced here to dazzle the cognoscenti with a memoir of M.y F.abulous A.gony, or, worse, a supercilious philosophizing intellectual boor who will lose me by chapter 3 in his quest to bless the world with his intelligence and snooty wit?
I skimmed several reviews prior to deciding my worries were misguided and that Volume 2 (subtitled "A Man in Love") seemed the best place to start. Note: each novel is self-contained so you can start with any volume and need not fear you will be sucked into reading any of the other 5 volumes; though, if you're like me, you'll want to read at least one more.
Knausgard's writing style is so honest, hypnotic, habit-forming, enduring, cozing. It is not arrogant or hyper-intellectual or ranting; one reviewer even complemented his style as "unliterary." Reading this work is like having a bright, congenial, ordinary fellow (who happens to be a world-wise Norwegian artist) sit down with you and converse with you "on the level" at an anodyne dinner for hours, discussing ordinary things that happen in the course of life to us all, in varied forms, such as falling in (and out of) love, in-laws, parents, pets, neighbors, child-rearing, reading books, being forced to attend a party where you only know a few people or attended by those you despise, living quarters, career moves, traveling, restaurants, music, sports, work, old loves, old friends, returning to the place you grew up. There is no subject he will deign to discuss, but he's never boring. You'll want to keep buying him more drinks to beg him to stay.
He reifies Socrates' famous quote that the "unexamined life is not worth living." With attention to detail and genuine inquisitiveness of the significant and the mundane, Knausgaard helps one see that, to quote Henry Miller, "we have only to open up to discover what is already there." That is to say, Knausgaard winkles the extraordinary out of the ordinary as pearls from oysters in a way that, as Italy's La Republica observed, is "more real than reality."
I completely concur with the New Yorker's reviewer who assessed that Knausgaard's hit on "the epic side of truth, wisdom."