Karl Ove Knausgård: Min kamp. Andre book (Book Two: A Man In Love)
I have to admit to not being a great lover of what the French call autofiction, which has now spread to other countries. Autofinzione – the Italian equivalent – is becoming increasingly popular and, as we see here, it is also appearing in Norway. Of course, autobiographical fiction has been around since the novel has been around but this warts-and-all approach, which has more than once led to the fracturing of families and lawsuits, both in France and with Knausgård and his family, takes it to a new level. Frankly, I prefer an original story. However, there is no question that Knausgård writes well so I shall persevere.
In this, the second of six, Knausgård is married to Linda. They have three children – John, Vanja and Heidi. They are living in Sweden. As in the previous book, Knausgård tells his story in great detail, including the quarrels he has with Linda and, of course, the details of child-rearing. Any parents will recognise the problems of children, such as their tantrums, their ways of doing what they want and not what you, the parents, want and, of course, the lively and individual spirits. It is this that, for me, can at times seem boring though we will doubtless see how the children turn out in the later books. What is more interesting is when Knausgård makes comments on his life or on life in general. While talking about Dag Solstad, he states It is not the case that we are born equal and that the conditions of life make our lives unequal, it is the opposite, we are born unequal, and the conditions of life make our lives more equal. I and many others could give him a lot of arguments on that proposition but it certainly is an interesting one.
It is his criticisms of Sweden that are particularly interesting. What a stupid, bloody idiotic country this was. All the young women drank water in such vast quantities it was coming out of their ears, they thought it was ‘beneficial’ and ‘healthy’, but all it did was send the graph of incontinent young people soaring. Children ate wholemeal pasta and wholemeal bread and all sorts of weird coarse-grained rice which their stomachs could not digest properly, but that didn’t matter because it was ‘beneficial’, it was ‘healthy’, it was ‘wholesome’. Oh, they were confusing food with the mind, they thought they could eat their way to being better human beings without understanding that food is one thing and the notions food evokes another. This is not my experience of Sweden – they like their food. Then, later, in regards to Vanja: They told us the little she said in the nursery was unclear, her Swedish wasn’t correct, her vocabulary was not that large, so they were wondering if we had considered speech therapy. At this juncture in the conversation we were handed a brochure from one of the town’s speech therapists. They are crazy in this country, I thought. A speech therapist? Did everything have to be institutionalised? She’s only three! Later he says Unthinkable in Sweden. Here you identify with your work. You simply don’t step out of your role. There are no gaps in this role, there is nowhere you can stick your head out and say, This is the real me. Being true to himself is , of course, important for him but, again, I do not think Norwegians have a monopoly on this. Swedes are too normal. The way everything was in Sweden was normality; anything different was abnormal (And that was an insult, not a compliment.) Indeed, his bitterness goes even further. Sweden hasn’t had a war on its soil since the seventeenth century and how often did it cross my mind that someone ought to invade Sweden, bomb its buildings, starve the country, shoot down its men, rape its women, and then have some faraway country, Chile or Bolivia for example, embrace its refugees with kindness, tell them they love Scandinavia and dump them in a ghetto outside one of the cities there. Just to see what they would say. Even before these comments, I wondered why he moved to Sweden. These comments make me wonder why he stayed.
It is not just Sweden he does not like. Europe, which was merging more and more into one large, homogeneous country. The same, the same, everything was the same. He does not like everyday life: Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change nappies but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it, and always had done. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts. In short, he does not seem a happy man which, presumably, is why his book has sold well. It reminds us, of course, of Tolstoy’s famous quote: All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. People enjoy a bit of misery much more than a bit of happiness.
However, after starting with his current life – married with three children – he does tell us how he ended up married to a Swede, with three children, and living in Sweden. We learn that things had gone somewhat (but not too) wrong with his first marriage to Tonje. It is not entirely clear why that means he has to go to Sweden, but go to Sweden he does where he temporarily stays with his friend, the writer Geir (Geir Angell Øygarden). He meets Linda at a writers’ workshop and we learn a lot about their tempestuous relationship as well as his struggles to find accommodation in Stockholm. Apparently, the only way to find a flat to rent is to know somebody yet, despite knowing nobody, he does manage to find somewhere to live. However, as we know he ends up in a flat with Linda, where they row, break up several times but do stay together, particularly when they become parents.
One interesting point is that his reading seems to be mainly Norwegian. Other writers do get mentioned, such as the German poet Hölderlin and other Austrian and German writers, but most of his fiction reading or, at least, discussion, is about Norwegian writers, only a few of which have been translated into English. He is quite critical of his fellow Norwegians as writers. How many Norwegian novels had there been in the meantime [since 1980]? Thousands! Yes, thousands! Some of them good, a few more passable, most weak. That’s how it is, nothing to shout about, everyone knows this. However, his other cultural references, such as music and cinema are anything but Norwegian. He likes British and US rock music and cinema from various countries. Indeed, part of his concern with Norwegian writers is because he seems to be somewhat concerned about what a writer should be like. People like scandalous writers, you see. You should go to the Theatercafé with a harem of young women running round you. That’s what’s expected. Not standing here and languishing over your bloody buckets of water. But, at the same time, we should focus on the work, not on the writer. What does it matter whether Hauge believed powers from outer space shone lights on him or not? I mean, as far as the poems themselves are concerned.
He sums up his aim towards the end . The idea was to get as close as possible to my life. And this is why I do not enjoy him as much as other writers. Some of his stories may be quite amusing, such as the story of his friend Anders who seems to make his money almost entirely from illegal means but is never caught, or the loss and recovery of his mobile phone but other stories, such as his mother-in-law’s secret drinking, I find frankly mundane. His life is not particularly exciting. He is, by his own admission, not a rock-star writer and much of this book is about bringing up his kids. He does not really like it but accepts that he has to do it and he is certainly is not the first man to feel that way. Yes, he writes well, but I wonder whether much of the attraction of his books is a certain prurience or, at least, voyeurism, as he does give us the gory details of his life. I do not think that I shall continue to read the rest.
First published 2009 by Forlaget Oktober
First published in English in 2013 by Harvill Secker/Archipelago Books