Half of Gert has given up on Karl Ove, but the other half is plodding on. Here are her thoughts on book 5 of My Struggle
In this latest volume of Knausgaard’s six-part series we read of his immense struggles, from unpromising beginnings, to become a writer. This book is mostly located in Bergen where he lived for fourteen years, trying to become a writer, playing the drums in his brother’s band, and working in a facility for the mentally and physically disabled and in a psychiatric hospital. Bergen, famous for its 350 days of rain every year, forms a bleak background to his chaotic life.
We meet him at the age of nineteen and starting out at the Writing Academy with a hand- picked group of young writers. The book opens thus
The fourteen years I lived in Bergen, from 1988-2002, are long gone, no traces of them are left other than as incidents a few people might remember, a flash of recollection here, a flash of recollection there, and of course whatever exists in my own memory of that time. But there is surprisingly little…a few events and lots of sentiments–
He has, it seems constructed this story of his life from shreds of memory and a few letters and photos. To what extent this book, or the whole series, is a work of the imagination is difficult to say. He does refer to journals he has burned, and the book does read as though inspired by journal writings, but we see here he never got going as a writer until he found his true subject…himself.
His time at the Writing Academy is hellish. He so much wants to excel, but cannot find his creative spark. His work is probably the most pedestrian in the class, and is harshly critiqued by his teachers and his fellow students. It is described as so full of clichés and stereotypes it borders on unreadable. He lives in terror of these ruthless expressions of opinions and it all adds to his deep sense of being inferior to others, to his brother Yngve, to the world.
In an effort to lose his self-consciousness he is given to getting so drunk he completely loses all restraint. During these episodes he becomes violent, attacking his brother in a jealous rage, gashing his own face with broken glass (over a woman as we have seen on another occasion in Man in Love). His brother tells him he should give up drinking and in the next breath invites him out on a drinking binge. The Karl Ove in this book is a tortured soul, afraid to show his loneliness and neediness, and with an infallible instinct for working against his own best interests.
The writing works in several registers. The raving of self-castigation after episodes of drunken violence, of falling asleep on the rainy streets, and getting picked up by the police, of having a random sexual encounters with women he never wants to see again. Shame burns within him, countered by resolutions to be good, to practise restraint (until the next time).
Then there are descriptions and rather dull excerpts from the short pieces he is writing, and his unsuccessful attempts to get them published and of the chagrin when friends get published before him.
The descriptions of playing in the band are also a bit blah. He says he played the drums badly, but they played some gigs, they went okay, and they all went out afterwards. End of story.
There are accounts of his love affairs, two long relationships during this time, both with beautiful, stable, independent young women, one ending in marriage. From the ecstatic days of early love, when he says to himself, ‘the heart never lies,’ to the angst when he has had a momentary fling, they lapse into lack of interest. It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate these women, but his own life far and away takes priority.
For me his writing is most alive in the little passages about his family. He stays with his grandparents and his mother, sees his uncle Kjartan (another aspiring writer) and these scenes are closely observed and written in a more simple style. He sees this:
…then I saw something through the open door and stopped. Grandma lifted her trembling hand and took a swipe at grandad, which with some doddery footwork he managed to sidestep. She sat down in her wheelchair, paddled it with her feet and took another swipe. He stepped to the side again. All this went on in eerie slow motion and without a sound…
Upstairs in my room. I lay on the bed….It had been like a dance, the grisly dance of the aged.(p177)
He also describes his time as a student working in the facility for the mentally and physically disabled. They immediately dislike him, as do the other staff and he cannot manage them. He gets into power struggles with the most helpless of patients. He could not be said to be compassionate towards the weak and helpless
The human race was full of fools, idiots and freaks, either they were born like this, or they became like this, but they were no longer on the streets, they no longer ran around frightening the wits out people, they were in civilization’s shadow, or night.(p 566)
He revisits his father’s death once again and this time it is a more minor incident, quickly passed over. The funeral is held and the house is cleaned; the passion and agonizing detail of the first volume A Death in the Family are missing. True, it’s not the kind of story one can repeat, but it does highlight how so much of the freshness and vitality of the first book have gone now his main focus is his own inner world.
His first book is published before he leaves Bergen. It is based on the incidents in Dancing in the Dark Book 4, where as a young teacher he has an obsessive relationship with a thirteen-year-old girl. He hates the publicity this receives and realises nothing has changed. He’s still suffering.
I considered committing suicide, simply swimming off into the sea, it gave me a fine tingling feeling, it had an appeal, but I would never do it, giving up wasn’t in my nature, I was the kind to endure (p 659)
And so he is.
Only one more volume to go.