Knausgaard’s Dancing in the Dark: more is less


It’s all over between me and Karl Ove.

As he says to various girls, “it’s no good. It doesn’t feel right”. 597 pages of eighteen-year-old Karl Ove drinking, vomiting, lusting, prematurely ejaculating and raving about his teen music favourites throw into cruel relief the longueurs of his style and the trademark banality of the detailing of everyday life:

She lifted the pot, held it by one handle,  dipped the ladle inside and  served three meatballs, two potatoes and some onions onto my plate.

There was something weirdly mesmeric about this writing in the earlier books, carried along as they were by the profound currents of feeling that eddy and jag beneath the exaggeratedly flat surface. There was a tension created between the even tone and the disturbance beneath. But this time the tone seems almost robotic, and the insights into other characters are flattened by it. Certainly, there’s a savage comedy in the grandiose ineptitude of the young Karl Ove, but having him in your face  for such a long time is hard to take. The lack of curiosity of the young about other people’s lives makes for a foreshortening of the other characters, a flatness and shallowness of observation.  There’s  not even much of the evocative writing about nature that we’ve talked about in the earlier books.

The story fills in the background of  Karl Ove’s father’s drunkenness that is dealt with so powerfully in the first book, A Death in the Family, but it only provides facts in a narrative chain.  There’s no additional insight into the man, and Karl Ove’s discussions with his mother about why his father is as he is seem stilted,as if imposed on the narrative by the writer trying to shape his story. As in the earlier books, the mother is strangely colourless, as if outlined in pencil, while the father is drawn in sharp, strong colours.

To go beyond the limits of ourselves, to perceive everyone and everything as a great whole, to identify with as many people as possible, to see as much as possible: in this way, the novelist comes to resemble those ancient Chinese painters who climbed mountain peaks in order to capture the poetry of vast landscapes, says Orhan Pamuk. This isn’t Knausgaard. Solipsism has always been the danger of his project.  In this one, he really is dancing in the dark.

Readers of our posts will know that we’ve been interested in Knausgaard from the beginning and admiring of many aspects of his work.  Reading Per Petterson and Gaute Heivoll, though, made us reconsider his status as a writer.  Yes, he has ability, but it isn’t the sustained, hard-won writerly ability we see in Petterson and Heivoll.  Perhaps he’s more like a performance artist, attracting attention because of the unusual nature of his project, providing us with some rewards along the way, and keeping us coming back just to see if he can keep it up.   More and more, the writer becomes the story. And we feel as if we’ve heard it all before.

Orhan Pamuk, The naive and the sentimental novelist,  Hamish Hamilton,  2010, p. 72.

6 thoughts on “Knausgaard’s Dancing in the Dark: more is less

  1. Oh dear…you’ve confirmed my worst fears about this volume of Knausgaard’s epic. As you may remember, I struggled to engage with the teenage Karl Ove in A Death in the Family, so I can’t say I’m thrilled by the prospect of this one. I might cut and run after Boyhood Island…

    1. I did think of your comments about finding it hard to get interested in this part of ADITF. You might find the second half of Boyhood Island a bit tedious too. If so, you’d definitely be well advised to spend your time reading something else (like wonderful Raymond Chandler, as in your current post).

      1. You might be right there although I’m interested in finding out a little more about the father. The mother’s lack of presence is odd, isn’t it? I agree, she was strangely absent from A Death in the Family…

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