Norwegian Author Karl Ove Knausgårds six book autobiography My Struggle (Min Kamp) is an extraordinary book series I have been fascinated with for a few years. As I have reached the last chapter, it is now time to digest and reflect on each part of the series in a brief essay.
The first part about dangerous nostalgia in My Struggle 1. A Death in the Family can be read here (link).
My Struggle 2. A Man in Love deals with many of the issues that Knausgård had already touched upon, the most prominent one being his role and impact as a father to this children. However, as the first part was concentrated around Karl Ove’s relationship with his own father, this novel focuses on the courtship, love dynamics and co-parenting struggle with his wife Linda, taking apart their first experiences as parents and parts of traditional social structures. From that the focus remains on Karl Ove’s Struggle to stay his authentic self while actively fulfilling his duty in all of the conventional roles he has willingly taken on: father, husband and caretaker.
In retrospect I found this part to be one of the slower novels in the series. That does not mean a decrease in the quality of the writing. On the contrary, topics like Knausgårds favourite writers, extracting their essence, thoughts on important literary works, reflections on philosophers and such are taken even further into consideration and a complex introspective world of cultural collisions and historical cross-references in regards to their impact on other literature is shown to the reader.
The struggle of the protagonist is firstly the relationship with Linda, who seems to be quite the unstable figure herself – the relationship sees a plethora of ups, downs, moments of hysteria, mania, depression, happiness, violence, emotional abuse and everything inbetween. As the protagonist and main receiver of sympathy, however, Karl Ove is also somewhat hiding himself behind those roles of father, husband and caretaker. Trivial struggles like annoying neighbours replace inspirational walks and capacities for doing a writer’s work (as long as it doesn’t pay the rent) are reduced.
In contrast to Karl Ove’s self-conception as an anti-christian, something moves him to receive the communion wafer and wine to a rather polarizing reaction from his family at the christening ceremony of his child. He compromises his personality and in some sense his integrity towards an idea of familial harmony. All the while striving to achieve some notion of what seems to be right, his behaviour causes a steady string of disappointments for Linda who does not see him as fulfilling his roles correctly or properly.
Those parts of the novel, necessary parts of the protagonist and his becoming, are for me only a distraction from the real story, as Karl Ove struggles to write while taking care of the children. It never seems like they are something he wishes for, but rather like he desires to achieve something his parents failed to do, thus measuring his success by comparing himself to others and striving for conventional milestones, while still working towards the existentially and inwardly fulfilling goal of being a writer.
A writer’s life – supposedly – is a selfish existence in its core: A person values his or her personal thoughts and creativity so much that they believe others should take into consideration what they have to say and to indulge in the stories and worlds they have created. Surely that is something Knausgård wants to achieve in his career once he has found confidence as a writer.
Knausgård’s books are in large amount an ongoing reflexion on contemporary and classic authors, so we are reading a flow of literary criticism – of exceptional thoughts, a very transparent love of deep literature and a hunger for great writing and to understand what makes a great writer – while at the same time observing this exceptional person straining himself to fulfil goals as trivial as breeding and playing house.
But surely there must be a worth in those goals, if someone so exceptional as Karl Ove places worth upon them?
Obviously the author is driving the reader’s sympathy, so the fact that Knausgård shows himself in such a way is problematic, considering that these are real, factual people and moreso his own family. However, those facts and realisations represent a truth most people are afraid to even aknowledge for themselves privately. Here is a man who lays his thoughts and emotions bare to the world, for a search of truth and rawness, even if it makes him out to be the villain in the story.
The illusory worth of normalcy is evident, since the struggle for normalcy is, in my opinion, Karl Ove’s big mistake. If he would let himself be himself, he would have to deal with at least one less conflict. The goal of having a family is admirable from a certain viewpoint, but the way it is described just doesn’t feel like something that makes any of the two characters happy. It feels like a burden for two individuals who would thrive more in their respective existences if the burden wasn’t placed upon them. The idea of a thing seems to be more exciting than the actual thing itself that one has to nurture daily, hourly, constantly.
Of course, this is how the author makes us feel. So, again – a very polarising thought.
Also: the literary reflections and cultural introspectives on Scandinavian relationships (a part of the novel takes place in Stockholm) are much more interesting than the actual human interactions in this novel. Although Knausgård is a master of highly detailes descriptions of the most trivial processes sandwich-making and child-dressing, at times it seems like a burden to have to witness those exchanges.
So, while on an existential level those revelations are truly valuable and the level of truth found laid bare them is exceptionally hazardous for Knausgård in his real life, I can’t help but to have a bitter taste in my mouth in regards to family bliss being something anyone should strive for, because at this point, in this book, it must be only suppressing a man who is an exceptional person outside any kind of conventional norms.
Of course it is already evident that in some ways striving for conventionality is what restricts Karl Ove from the very beginning, so at some point that must reveal itselt to him as a cycle he must knowingly break.
But that is another story for another episode of Knausgård Digest.
Do you like Norwegian literature? How to you feel about the topics I’ve brought up, and do you think that’s what Knausgård is communicating in My Struggle?
Let’s chat in the comments.
(Photo from here)