Almost half-way through Some Rain Must Fall – the fifth and penultimate installment of My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s wrist-straining series of autobiographical novels – you find a passage that encapsulates all that is good, and even extraordinary about this much-hyped Norwegian writer.
Karl Ove, as his hero is inventively called, begins by summarising the “story” of the latest 663 pages (out of a total of 3,600), which spans the period he spent in Bergen between 1988 and 2002. This includes his first serious attempts at writing, his first serious relationships, his first serious infidelities, his continued over-indulgence with alcohol, quite a lot of playing drums, working at a mental hospital, broadcasting on radio and (as detailed elsewhere) the deaths of his grandparents and his father.
“I was 21 years old, doing the first year of a literature course,” he writes. “I knew nothing, but I was getting better and better at pretending I did.”
Having introduced us to his regular supporting cast (his brother, Yngve, his cousin, Kjarten, friends in Bremen and elsewhere, girlfriends both real and ideal), Karl Ove switches his attention to the future: “Everything was of the moment, I took everything as it came and acted on the basis of premises I didn’t even know myself, without realizing this is what I did. I tried to write, but it was no good…”
The passage then shoots off in different directions. There’s a guide to Karl Ove’s musical taste – jazz, post-punk, the Happy Mondays, Talking Heads, Beastie Boys – a meditation on the ways his competitive friendship with Espen, a fellow writer, pushes both forward, all of which crescendos with a startling expression of youth, inexperience, and literature: “We were nobodies… chatting away in a rickety old house in a small town at the edge of the world, a place where nothing of any significance had ever happened and presumably never would, we had barely started out on our lives and knew nothing about anything, but what we read was not nothing, it concerned matter of the utmost significance and was written by the greatest thinkers and writers in Western culture, and that was basically a miracle.”
The all-encompassing movement of these paragraphs mimics not only the scheme of Some Rain Must Fall, but My Struggle as a whole. The prose ebbs and surges, from trivialities to grand statements, and enacts the very experience Knausgaard has just described: how art can portray and examine even the most inconsequential parts of existence. In this, Knausgaard is the latest novelist – after, say, George Eliot of Middlemarch, Joyce of Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, Proust of In Search of Lost Time – to attempt to say everything in prose fiction.
My Struggle‘s fascination with minutiae – his washing up technique, whistling the Ghostbusters film theme in the shower, thoughts on the Stone Roses or obscene, one-word poems – is not simply for minutiae’s sake: he wants to replicate the vivid, overwhelming sense of being alive on the page.
As if to prove his point, Knausgaard’s passage rolls on, gathering up mountains and the Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno, only to wonder if tilting at comprehensiveness isn’t simple hubris. Can language ever hope to emulate the myriad dimensions of life as it is lived? Ever the provocateur, Knausgaard poses the question by risking our disgust, not least in a series that alludes to Hitler’s Mein Kampf: “There was no such thing as the Holocaust,” he writes.
Knausgaard’s point, however, is to illustrate how language expresses “notions of reality”, not reality itself: “For what the term indicated was so incredibly complicated, right down to the comb in the pocket of a jacket in the pile of jackets in the warehouse, it had belonged to a little girl, the whole of her life exists in the term ‘the Holocaust’, and up again to the big concepts like evil, indifference …”.
The list, inevitably, goes on for some time. But as in Karl Ove’s life, the details (the comb in the pocket of a jacket in the pile of jackets) turn incitement into pathos.
This is part of the reason why My Struggle is ultimately so satisfying and moving. Even as you grow exasperated with Karl Ove’s mistakes, frailties, boorishness and self-obsession, his plain, clear writing brings you into intimate contact with the composition of his character, and practically dares you to think about your own. We may all be hooked on Karl Ove’s past, his triumphs and disasters, glory and silliness, but his struggle is our struggle, too – for meaning, love, and friendship in a world beautiful and baffling.
James Kidd is a regular contributor to The Review.
Source: art & life