Karl Ove Knausgaard: “Come Together”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “Come Together” (tr. from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett) was originally published in the February 17, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.

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Trevor

Since this is merely an excerpt from the third installment of Knausgaard’s My Struggle, which is coming out from Archipelago Books in May, I’m going to forgo reading it (my review of the first volume, which I loved, is here). I’m already sold. As Betsy says below, though, this excerpt might be just what some of you need to get going on the long trek through Knausgaard’s series.

Betsy

This excerpt (“Come Together”) from Karl Ove Knausgaard’s  soon-to-be published-in-English third book in his autobiographical series was my introduction to this writer. Here is a case, Trevor, where having access to a long excerpt really worked for me. Otherwise, I would have missed him.

Then, I went back to your fine piece on him. Knowing you, I could really triangulate on my reaction. You said you were “in from the beginning.” You also call the writing beautiful, powerful, personal and meaningful. Now, this particular excerpt is, among other things, hilarious and touching on the life of a twelve year old. I really liked it. But I felt intimations of all the things you felt as well.

I thought – I need to know more about this writer.

After reading Cressida Leyshon’s worthwhile interview (here), I also read James Wood in the New Yorker (here), Larry Rother in the New York Times (here), and Jesse Baron’s superior interview in the Paris Review (here).

I am struck by how much I am drawn to the idea of self-revelation. We’ve been reading Alice Munro, and certainly she reveals a great deal about herself in her writing, but she also writes about concealment and dissembling, even deception. I have recently been reading a little Rae Armantrout, a poet who is Knausgaard’s opposite — someone who hides behind multiple voices, who is almost impenetrable, and who epitomizes the line of writers who descend from Beckett. Knausgaard obviously epitomizes the line from Proust.

I think this is a personal taste, shaped by upbringing and one’s own nature. I grew up with an attentive, responsible, caring mother who was nevertheless a sphinx. That personal history makes me drawn to a writer like Knausgaard. I am not really deeply interested in silence. I’ve had a lot of experience with silence, and I treasure openness. To me, openness is rare. Knausgaard interests me, although I’m a little wary of the time commitment.

Everyone comments on Knausgaard’s everyday language. True, this is a shock, after all the jewel-like sentences we have come to love in other writes. In the Paris Review interview, Knausgaard says:

It’s all the difference in the world. I had tried to write from the age of eighteen, but didn’t succeed at all. Then, when I was about twenty-seven, I changed my language. This is difficult to explain. You can write a radical Norwegian or a conservative Norwegian. And when I changed to a conservative Norwegian, I gained this distance or objectivity in the language. The gap released something in me, and in the writing, which made it possible for the protagonist to think thoughts I had never myself thought.

In an interesting article in The Millions (here), Jonathan Callahan writes about Knausgaard’s style:

While there’s very little polish at phrase-level, sentences are syntactically complex — circuitous, recursive, serpentine in the way bar-stool disquisitions on points of intense personal interest can be — and if consistently guilty of the serial-comma-splice, then also a reflection of the almost desperate speed with which Knausgaard seems determined to track every insight, notion, thought-line, argument, reflection through the labyrinthine warrens of whatever burrowing creature’s hole it’s drawn him down.

I am interested in the idea that Knausgaard’s writing reflects the nature of thinking.

This is a writer who appears to be confronting the uses of openness as an antidote to the psychotic’s withdrawal from reality. The fact that he uses Hitler’s title as his own is jarring. But if “Come Together” is any example, Knausgaard celebrates life, praises it, and tries to be at one with it. If he is a descendent of Proust, I also hear Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Dickens. And in this piece, Twain. So in contrast to Beckett, Knausgaard answers Hitler (and all other destroyers) with life.

So — Trevor — this is an interesting writer. As with your other readers, I am guided by your own interest in Knausgaard. But in this case, I also appreciate the excerpt. It really got my attention.

10 thoughts on “Karl Ove Knausgaard: “Come Together””

  1. Archer says:

    According to the author Q&A, this piece is “adapted” from the third volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle series. An excerpt of the second volume was published last year in the online Page Turner section.

    I’m also inclined to just wait for the book to come out. I really liked the first two.

  2. Trevor says:

    This post has been updated to include Betsy’s thoughts.

    I’m thrilled that you were drawn in, Betsy!

  3. Roger says:

    The voice in this one and the descriptive details, rendering everything almost tangible, made me enjoy it initially. The scene wher Tore is presented to Fru Hensel is hilarious. But as this moves forward and concludes, doesn’t it turn out to be an almost generic and predictable coming of age story?

  4. Betsy says:

    I don’t know, Roger. I thought that the small scene of competitive making out (can we beat the record?) was unique and yet painfully true. Twelve or thirteen year old girls don’t get what the heck twelve or thirteen year old boys are up to. And vice versa.

    I really enjoyed this take on it. It seemed to encompass and explain things I remember. I loved his suffering at the end. I thought only girls that age suffered. But he reminds me that my suitors (I, too, had suitors at 12) had souls, too. I love being reminded.

    Also, he reminds me I actually knew they had souls. I especially knew they had souls when we went sliding. Especially the night we neighborhood eighth graders all arranged to go sliding under a full moon. What speed! What brightness! What a transformed world!

    But middle schoolers making out? Oh my gosh – what a collision!

    Knausgaard gets the twelve year old – boy and girl. Unequaled, really.

  5. Roger says:

    Betsy, I’m glad Knausgaard’s take on coming of age, with the adolescent boy having no idea how to handle the girl, was enjoyable for you. It definitely made for some laughs, and one can’t help but feel some compassion for the boy.

    I think he does a nice job of conveying how the boy felt, physically during the marathon kiss, and emotionally. If this were pure memoir rather than autobiographical novel, I might appreciate this more for its honesty alone. But as fiction (at least purportedly), I would have liked to see something more out of the ordinary. I agree that Knausgaard gets the twelve-year-old boy/girl dynamic. The kissing competition angle seemed very true to adolescent behavior – so true as to come across as standard, by my lights.

    A writer we’ve talked about before, Tobias Wolff, “Deep Kiss,” presents a rich, odd twist on adolescent romance. Wolff recognizes in that story that he’s writing into a context and that the burden is on him to do something unusual with it. To say more would spoil….

  6. Betsy says:

    Well – I guess saying “unequaled” was risky. Will let you know after I’ve read the Wolf story.

  7. Ken says:

    I enjoyed this and certainly thought it a very good, detailed, sensitive evocation of first love and the whirling emotions of adolescence. I also, though, agree that the territory he covers is awfully familiar and I feel that within the context of the larger work it’d work better and doesn’t work all that well as an excerpt.

  8. danthelawyer says:

    To sum up what I understand to be Ken’s opinion, and which I share: A fine retreading of well-trodden ground.

  9. Julie (juliemcl) says:

    Knausgaard evokes perfectly the utter idiocy of childhood. I was laughing out loud (really) while reading the tonguing scene. He obviously at that age had no regard for the girl at all or what she may have been feeling. I think that’s true to life – for both boys and girls. I’m waiting for my local library to get with the Knausgaard program, but meanwhile will be ordering Book One. I’m in.

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