Book 3 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six volume novel/autobiography/memoir has just been published. These novels have been widely praised all over the world for their use of a different model of what constitutes fiction, or the novel itself. I went a bought Book 1 and Book 2, to see what the hype is about. They are riveting, mesmerizing, nearly diaristic in their intensity and their use of the writer’s daily life and thoughts to constitute the “plot” of what will become nearly a tome.
Although frequently compared to the writing of Marcel Proust, the writers actually have virtually nothing in common. It is important to make this point, and to get past it, in fairness to both writers. Both writers deal with the past exclusively, but Proust is trying to capture lost time, and thus make the past an always present. One reads Proust as if the events in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu are occurring in a never ending present, and the author is painting a portrait of a period of time, mostly La Belle Epoque in Paris at the turn of the century, when a constellation of social forces brought together certain groups of people (aristocrats with artistic leanings; artistic patrons; haute bohemians; society intellectuals; social climbers; and social homosexuals) as French society was at its apogee, but changing rapidly and declining forever. Proust captures both the beauty of the era, its politics, and its culture in what may be the greatest novel ever written in the world. He is the novel’s chief psychologist.
Knausgaard recreates his own past; Book 1 mainly deals with his late childhood and early adolescence, his family’s strife and division, and eventual divorce of his parents. He is a genius in his ability to capture what children think and how adolescence think and behave alone and in groups. The son of an abusive father, the novel is really dedicated to and partly a tribute to that father. His ability to remember the details of daily events and thoughts is fascinating, and transcends his own life and allows us to think of our own at such times and places. The stuff of Knausgaard is genuinely mundane, while the stuff of Proust is the opposite, and their intentions are completely different.
Book 2 mainly deals with the writer’s second marriage, the birth of his three children, and his career as a writer. What he reveals is a very shy man, an idealist and an romantic (the romantic and the cynic are often the failed idealist), a man with low self-esteem who is too eager to please others, but prone to internal rages and the holding of grudges. By holding a microscope to his marriage and family life, he makes us privy to the incredible strains of living with little money as a young and just published writer, who is juggling his writing career with his newly agreed to roles as father and husband. His mentally unstable wife also works, and their juggling of the children, meals, shopping and the like is almost totemic in its absolutism. What should be boring isn’t, and that is the great strength of his project. Kierkegaard maintained that “everydayness is despair”, and that quote would be a fitting summery of what Knausgaard fights against in his life and his work.
His occasional nights out with male friends are thus that much more important, and occasionally riveting, both for their rareness and for their ability to portray the often philosophical nature of male friendship. The occasional dinner parties that he and his wife host are tender affairs of the heart, and help us remember that, contrary to Kierkegaard, the creation of small special events in our daily lives is what makes them transcendent.
Knausgaard can be self -absorbed in the extreme, occasionally a bit of a brat, but never a bore. That such a series of novels are written by a man makes them even more compelling, as “domestic fiction” has long been considered the territory of women writers, from Jane Austen forward. Knausgaard often questions his role as a “new man”, and it’s a role he doesn’t much like, as he meditates upon Sweden’s emphasis on equality and diversity at the expense of individual achievement and self-actualization (the writer is Norwegian, but lives in Sweden; most of us have no idea how different those countries are).
I recommend these works of genius to people who enjoy novels about detail, and how the detail represents the whole. He writes as well as anyone alive, and although it would seem the opposite, the books are real page turners, hard to put down, hard to define, but easy to recommend in a time of such pervasive cultural mediocrity. Knausgaard may be said to be challenging those norms, and demanding that we ask for more, and not settle for less.
By: Daniel Brown