After reading the fourth book of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-book autobiographical novel, I said that I had come to grasp his design; now, five books in, I feel as if I know the man himself. That’s not so surprising, given the ground he has covered: his early childhood, his teenage years, his life as a parent with his second wife, and now, in the penultimate book, the ten-year span between his returning from a job as an English teacher in northern Norway, when he was just 18, to the signing of his first book deal, when he is 28 – a period of time that encompasses his first, doomed marriage. That so intensely private a person, whose life’s drama has been so deeply internalized, has managed to externalize every last bit of himself – his pain, his shame, his insecurity and his ambition – is precisely what makes this project so ceaselessly compelling.
The period of his life covered in Book 5 takes place in Bergen, on Norway’s west coast, where he has come to take a year-long writing course at a prestigious academy. His hopes for himself as a writer are dashed by the low appraisals of his peers; it is from them that he learns that everything he writes is derivative and hackneyed. He does not take the criticism well. At one point, he contemplates handing in a page-long poem consisting only of the word “cunt,” before ultimately thinking better of it. Instead, he stops attending almost entirely, and begins once more to binge drink. When the year ends, he misses the ceremonial closing meal, too hungover to attend. “I didn’t write either, everything felt meaningless apart from going out, which had continued, I did everything I wanted to, the decadent bohemian city lifestyle, the writer going to rack and ruin with his eyes open wide and a bottle on the table.” He goes on drunken rampages, running through backyards, stealing bicycles, and alienating the few friends he has in Bergen. The worst moment comes when he is out with his brother, Yngve, and some of his friends, and he returns a harmless insult by whipping a shot glass at his brother’s face, nearly putting his eye out.
Karl Ove’s father, who looms so large in the first few books, haunts these pages with his absence. He has taken up a new life, with a new wife, and has fathered a new child, and seemingly makes no effort to stay in touch with his sons; we only ever hear from him when Karl Ove reaches out, and the overwhelming impression he gives off is annoyance at having been disturbed: “[…] he was the same person, he didn’t lift a finger for us, he wasn’t in the slightest bit interested in us, if he showed a different face it was because he had convinced himself that was how it should be, not that it actually was.” Still, there are respites from the downpour. He makes new friends, including two aspiring writers with whom he can have long and profound conversations on the state of literature, and he will find a girlfriend, Gunvor, who helps him overcome – or at least withstand – his crippling self-esteem issues; some of his best writing in this book describes the pain and pleasure of being in love:
When I was with her it was as though something was being drawn out of me. The darkness became lighter, the crippled straighter; and the strange thing was that it didn’t come from outside, it wasn’t that she lit the darkness, no, it was something that happened inside me because I saw myself with her eyes, and not just my own, and in her eyes there was nothing wrong with me, quite the contrary. In this way the balance shifted.
This is simultaneously beautiful and painful – beautiful, for what it says about their relationship and what she can do for him, and painful that it needs to be done at all.
But the darkness returns: his drinking never fully stops, and in his drunkenness he is repeatedly unfaithful to his girlfriend. His writing comes to a near standstill – at one point he tells us he has written ten pages in two years – and he resigns himself to writing book reviews, thinking that literary criticism might be the best he can aspire to write. All thoughts of the future are shunted to the side, and he lives only for the moment, wallowing in his self-destructiveness:
I had no future either, not because it existed somewhere else but because I couldn’t imagine it. That I might control my future and try to make it turn out the way I wanted was completely beyond my horizon. Everything was of the moment, I took everything as it came and acted on the basis of premises I didn’t even know myself, without realising this is what I did.
He finds refuge in literature, in reading, and this comes to consume more and more of his time, until he has retreated almost entirely within himself, withdrawn from the world, and even in the company of others finds for himself a perfect solitude. The result is a terrible alienation, an inability to relate to others on terms that feel authentic to him:
[…] I had felt that I was being false, someone who carried thoughts no one else had and which no one must ever know. What emerged from this was myself. This was what was me. In other words, that which in me that knew something the others didn’t, that which in me I could never share with anyone else. And the loneliness, which I still felt, was something I had clung to ever since, as it was all I had. As long as I had that no one could harm me, for what they harmed then was something else. No one could take loneliness away from me. The world was a space I moved in, where anything could happen, but in the space I had inside me, which was me, everything was always the same. All my strength lay there.
This is the inner self, isolated and lonely but authentic and beautiful all the same; everyone has one, to a greater or lesser extent, but few people can communicate that part of themselves effectively. By Karl Ove’s own admission, he has never been able to share this part of himself in real life. But in his writing, in these works, he lays himself bare, offers himself up to us and makes himself vulnerable to our judgment. And it is precisely for his vulnerability that we love him.
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