My Struggle: Book 2: A Man in Love. Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Knausgaard, Karl Ove. My Struggle: Book 2: A Man in Love. English translation Don Bartlett. Original Norwegian: Forlaget (Norway) 2009; English Archipelago Brooklyn 2013. 

This is the second of the “Struggle” series I’ve read. I didn’t appreciate before but now understand that I don’t connect with this author, and I’m not sure I’ve completely figured out why. His unique approach (rendering personal fact as fiction, and being deeply self-critical) is compelling. There’s a genre called “Confessions”, and because nearly everybody feels inferior at least occasionally it’s affirming to consider a reasonably self-deprecatory frame of mind as though it were … acceptable. Confession well-done lets us do that: Augustine, De Quincy, and I guess Rousseau. The one I’m most familiar with is Franz Kafka, whose work I studied as an undergraduate when my own helplessness needed redeeming. And reading Kafka helped, a bit.

But much as this Struggle reminded me of Kafka’s exploration of personal darkness, I think Mr Knausgaard is in a different league, or at least he’s a completely different type of writer and character. He presents as humble, but for me he doesn’t have the same credibility or offer the kind of lost sheep I recall being forty years ago the same nourishment Kafka did. Both authors are spilling the beans, but one serves them seasoned with cigarette-smoked raw and suspiciously rotten frozen fish, and the other gave me the subtle middle European vinegar, garlic and goose fat comfort food I craved, although I probably ended up frying in it.

Our author, unhappy and wanting to be happy again, leaves his first wife apparently with little in the way of hard feelings. Moving to Stockholm, he makes friends and continues to work on a novel, and then meets his second wife. There is a brief time of brilliant joy, which although it fades continues to brighten his life with lovely moments with his children. But the marriage is difficult, they argue, his wife is moody and probably meets new expanded inclusion for bipolar, the children are problematic, he can’t balance family life and his writing, he wants to enjoy his children but wants even more to be by himself, and his fundamental belief in his own cowardice, shallowness, futility, and failure doesn’t go away.

So he heroically abandons his family and goes off all by himself to write about it. Now he can write. I get the same clear stark descriptions that impressed me in Struggle: Book 1. But in this book each time that lyrical feeling seems like it might ascend into territory that could get him (get us all) out of his personal nightmare, he veers into puffy theoretical ideas. He obviously finds rescue there but for me it’s emotionally and substantively off-topic. I want to delve into and solve (or at least intelligently commiserate about) the real problem – why we can’t feel good in the company of others – not try to avoid it by being erudite and reflective about something unrelated:

(Reflecting on a biological museum built in the past) In those days there were still enormous tracts of the planet untouched by humans, so its re-creation was not prompted by any necessity other than to provide knowledge; and the view it offered of our civilization, namely that everything had to be translated into human terms, was occasioned not by need but by desire, by thirst; and the fact that this desire and thirst for knowledge which was meant to expand the world, at one and the same time made it smaller, also physically, where what then had only just been started, and was therefore striking, had now been completed, made me want to cry every time I was there.

His theorizing isn’t all like that. Sometimes it’s near-tangential to human relationships:

Was it the shrill sickly tone I heard everywhere, which I couldn’t stand, the one that arose from all the pseudo-people and pseudo-places, pseudo-events and pseudo-conflicts our lives passed through, that which we saw but did not participate in, and the distance that modern life in this way had opened up to our own, actually inalienable, here and now?

I understand that, and I like it. It’s nothing new or particularly profound, but I see how frustrated Knausgaard feels that he can’t connect with experience. But this kind of clarity and relevance I find only in the minority of his abstract riffs.

His stock-in-trade is unflinching show and tell about his low opinion of himself. Admitting to being a coward preoccupied with appearance is pretty personally risky I’d say, and it’s impressive because the events and people in the book are famously real in his life. But there are times where I don’t feel I can trust the authenticity he seems to guarantee by bravely rendering those real people and real events. The conversation among the three couples having dinner at his home on New Year’s about their pathologic parents felt cleverly fictional. So the person whom sad cowardly self-condemned social misfits may be beguiled into trusting to lead them through their diffidence into a new world view, turns out to be capable of a cool social good time rendered as normal. We are not identifying with and feeling admiration for pathetic little nerd Kafka, but instead suddenly confronting big ruggedly handsome socially invincible Karl Ove with his heavy boots tramping through a good time with friends who respect him. In that scene at least he leaves that kind of reader behind.

I think it was about two-thirds of the way through this quite long book that I began to consolidate in my mind why else I was actively avoiding being charmed by this writer. Along with not quite transcending genuine self-doubt as Franz Kafka does, I was not sensing the trust I also felt reading Wallace and Nadas, Cunningham and Ondaatje, Borges and Nabokov. All these writers connect with me through honest literary charm. But something disingenuous in Knausgaard’s sly narcississm about his awful stark blundering personal nightmare stopped me from giving him that benefit of the doubt. I repeatedly felt that in escaping to the solitude of his writing, this tortured hard-drinking tough guy is only doing more of what he really, honestly doesn’t like himself for. Being needy and feeling inferior. And celebrating that by telling me about it without guile or offering me something … wonderful, left me needy as well.

In the end doing what he does works for him because he’s enjoyed literary success, but the rest of us (or whatever part of us feels inferior, nerdy, small, hopeless, failed, and left out of the happy success of effective social intercourse) are still back where we were before we found out about his struggles. The expected moral feast ends up containing empty calories. 5.0/7.6

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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