With the third book hitting reviewers’ pages in the United Kingdom and due here in the United States in late May, I think it’s safe to say that we English readers are well on our way through Karl Ove Knausgaard’s deeply personal, six-volume project, My Struggle. Recently My Struggle: Book Two (Min Kamp 2, 2009; tr. from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett, 2013) made the Best Translated Book Award longlist, and it’s a strong contender to make the final round, and maybe even go all the way.
I wrote a bit about Knausgaard’s goals and ambition when I wrote about My Struggle: Book One last year (here). There I also attempted to explain “what makes such a long and seemingly self-indulgent book worth reading,” and I have to begin here by saying my opinion has not changed in the slightest after reading Book Two. For, though the subject matter has changed, the reason I can sit down and read hundreds of pages about the minutia of Knausgaard’s life has not changed, which shows how coherent and whole this six-book project is. I still get a great deal of “meaning” out of these books that are haunted by the passage of time, about how time enlarges or erases bits of our lives, all the while trampling all over us, forcing us to find some kind of meaning in it all.
Book One was, in a manner of speaking, primarily about the death of Knausgaard’s father. Here in Book Two we delve into something I felt was even more personal: Knausgaard’s relationship with his second wife, Linda.
When Karl Ove and Linda first met, she told him that she was not particularly interested in him but rather in his friend. Distraught, or really trying to show her how serious he was, or simply crazy for any number of reasons, Karl Ove took some broken glass and cut up his face. They drifted apart, and Karl Ove didn’t hear anything about her for years. Then one day he finds her on a list of tenants in a building he’s moving into. I’m not sure if they were now able to laugh about that whole face-cutting incident from years earlier, but, regardless, they get together and start a family.
At each juncture, Karl Ove feels a great sense of rightness. Things are as they should be. Here he is recalling the summer he and Linda regained contact:
The spring I moved to Stockholm and met Linda, for example, the world had suddenly opened, the intensity in it increased at breakneck speed. I was head over heels in love and everything was possible, my happiness was at a bursting point all the time and embraced everything. If someone had spoken to me then about a lack of meaning I would have laughed out loud, for I was free and the world lay at my feet, open, packed with meaning, from the gleaming, futuristic trains that streaked across Slussen beneath my flat, to the sun coloring the church spires in Riddarholmen red in the nineteenth-century-style, sinisterly beautiful sunsets I witnessed every evening for all those months, from the aroma of freshly picked basil and the taste of ripe tomatoes to the sound of clacking heels on the cobbled slope down to the Hilton Hotel late one night when we sat on a bench holding hands and knowing that it would be us two now and forever. This state lasted for six months, and for six months I was truly happy, truly at home in this world and in myself before it slowly began to lose its luster, and once more the world moved out of my reach.
Yes, there at the end he admits that the happiness that “embraced everything” was slipping, but it came back with the birth of their first child, Vanya: “But that passed too, we got used to that too, and I began to work . . .”
When Book Two begins (I’ve cheated a bit here and laid out the happy parts up front; Knausgaard does not do that), Karl Ove has just finished the first book of My Struggle. It is July 29, 2008, and he is in the doldrums of life.
The summer has been long, and it still isn’t over. I finished the first part of the novel on the 26th of June, and since then, for more than a month, the nursery school has been closed, and we have had Vanja and Heidi at home with all the extra work that involves.
He already sounds tired. The holiday is work. In this period right after finishing the first book, he and Linda go on a little vacation, but that is a failure. Over the next sixty pages, we see Karl Ove struggling to be happy when everything is going really well — only he is sad. Those bursts of meaning are few and far between, and they seem to function like any drug: he seeks after them voraciously, but when they’re done the emptiness is almost worse than never having it in the first place.
But things are not exactly as Karl Ove would have them. He is an attentive (if often frustrated and moody) husband and father, but he is also an artist. His primary desire, it seems, is to capture that burst of meaning in his writing, capture it so he can keep it once and for all. When he isn’t chasing that goal, he is frustrated he cannot. He is frustrated at those around him, and the responsibilities they bring to him. Add to this the responsibilities — and ease — of contemporary life. He feels out of place.
Yes, all of this I thought about, all of this filled me with sorrow and a sense of helplessness, and if there was a world I turned to in my mind, it was that of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with its enormous forests, its sailing ships and horse-drawn carts, its windmills and castles, its monasteries and small towns, its painters and thinkers, explorers and inventors, priests and aldrugstores. What would it have been like to live in a world where everything was made from the power of yours hands, the wind or the water? What would it have been like to live in a world where the American Indians still lived their lives in peace? Where that life was an actual possibility? Where Africa was unconquered? Where darkness came with the sunset and light with the sunrise? Where there were too few humans and their tools were too rudimentary to have any effect on animal stocks, let alone wipe them out? Where you could not travel from one place to another without exerting yourself, and a comfortable life was something only the rich could afford, where the sea was full of whales, the forests full of bears and wolves, and there were still countries that were so alien no adventure story could do them justice, such as China, to which a voyage not only took several months and was the prerogative of only a tiny minority of sailors and traders, but was also fraught with danger. Admittedly, that world was rough and wretched, filthy and ravaged with sickness, drunken and ignorant, full of pain, low life expectancy and rampant superstition, but it produced the greatest writer, Shakespeare, the greatest painter, Rembrandt, the greatest scientist, Newton, all still unsurpassed in their fields, and how can it be that this period achieved this wealth? Was it because death was closer and life was starker as a result?
When he was writing one of his first novels, translated into English as A Time for Everything, he had a moment of elation, of true meaning, one that mirrors the feelings he had when he first got together with Linda and they first had Vanya:
I was filled with an absolutely fantastic feeling, a kind of light burnt within me, not hot and consuming but cold and clear and shining. At night I took a cup of coffee with me and sat down on the bench outside the hospital to smoke, the streets around me were quiet, and I could hardly sit still, so great was my happiness. Everything was possible, everything made sense. At two places in the novel I soared higher than I had thought possible, and those two places alone, which I could not believe I had written, and no one else has noticed or said anything about, made the preceding five years of unsuccessful, failed writing worth all the effort. They are two of the best moments in my life. By which I mean my whole life. The happiness that filled me and the feeling of invincibility they gave me I have searched for ever since, in vain.
When that book was finished, he realized he had been very selfish with his time, spending weeks away from his young family. He figures it is his turn, then, to watch the kids for a while so Linda can go out and pursue some of her own goals. Much of this book is about the tedium and frustrations of caring for children you love and cherish but who also make the day so mechanical and exhausting as to render it — seemingly — meaningless. He accepts things as they are but wonders if he could have done it differently — more selfishly, no doubt, but differently, more akin to those imagined artists of the old days:
If I had wanted it otherwise I would have had to back out and tell Linda before she became pregnant: Listen, I want childen, but I don’t want to stay at home looking after them, is that fine with you? Which means, of course, that you’re the one who will have to do it. Then she could have said no, it’s not fine with me, or, yes, that’s fine and our future could have been planned on that basis. But I didn’t, I didn’t have sufficient foresight, and consequently I had to go by the rules of the game. In the class and culture we belonged to, that meant adopting the same role, previously called the woman’s role. I was bound to it like Odysseus to the mast: if I wanted to free myself I could do that, but not without losing everything. As a result I walked around Stockholm’s streets, modern and feminized, with a furious nineteenth-century man inside me.
I do want to say that there is much more going on here. By the time this post is done, it will be nearly 2000 words long (granted, I quote long passages — it seems it would be impossible to quote short passages), and I won’t have covered close to everything that could be covered from this amazing book about Karl Ove’s struggle with his family and his writing. I have not yet brought up Karl Ove’s first wife, whom he left, a temptation he feels often — and threatens, for goodness sake — with Linda. It’s fascinating to see someone struggling with these issues on the page, on page he hopes will yield some answers, some relief. Hence: the six-volumes of My Struggle.