Tuesday, December 2, 2014


When I last left off with the roundly and deservedly celebrated Mr. Knausgaard as he documented his existential struggles with himself, his life and with the world around him, I was picking my jaw up off the floor. I was also attempting to grapple with why the 600-page memoir/autobiography/exegesis I'd just finished – the first of six such 600-page books in a series – was so phenomenally thrilling to read. You can read my review of that one here. Not much time was squandered before I leapt into Book Two. While I'll admit to a nearly imperceptible (and somewhat unexplainable) drop-off in my engagement with this one (I went from rabid and frothing page addiction to merely rabid page addiction), I'll also recommend "My Struggle, Book Two" unequivocally and with much gusto. Knausgaard is actually redefining literary form and function in the course of the "My Stuggle" ("Min Kamp" in his native Norwegian) series, and while I really haven't read everything yet, I've certainly never read anything like this before.

If the first book was his plunge into a life defined, in no small measure, by his overbearing father, and that father's death, "My Struggle, Book Two" attempts to pick apart in detail things that are much closer to the here and now. Chief among these are what it's like to be a father of three in an egalitarian, liberal Scandinavian country (Sweden) in which the individual ego is sublimated and the collective good is celebrated in ways both good and ugly. Knausgaard is not one for having his individuality sublimated, let me tell ya. He's very honest - painfully honest at times - about how important his personal "freedom" is, and he defines that freedom as his love of being alone and able to do nothing but write, or read, or shop for and hoard many dozens of books. This sense of self, as you might imagine, rubs up against his reality as a parent, partner and professional author quite often. While he's got some very close and highly intelligent friends with whom he treasures his time, such as fellow Norwegian-in-Stockholm Geir, Knausgaard finds the mechanisms of daily family life both dreary and depressing while they also fill him with deep, emotional love – especially for his vulnerable children. He grapples with guilt, pride and shame throughout the book.

His relationship with his second wife, Linda – the mother of Vanya, Heidi and John, their children – is as complex, emotionally difficult and emotionally rewarding as any marriage can be. Theirs in particular seems to have been forged with a mutual understanding of each other's deficiencies. Knaussgard relates a horrible tale of cutting up his face at a writer's retreat when he was a young man because he thought he'd been rejected by Linda, whom he'd fallen head over heels for. Linda, before they reconnected years later and started dating, tried to kill herself. These are people who feel, and it seems as though there's a reinforcement mechanism in place that ensures that neither of them disappears too far down the mental rabbit hole. Having children – which was clearly Linda's raison d'ĂȘtre and Karl Ove's ambivalent concession – has helped to cement their bond while also preventing them from deepening it due to the daily grind of child-rearing.

There's an especially funny scene in which Knausgaard takes his toddler daughter to an emasculating "baby sing-along" class. He's profoundly shameful at his stereotypical "stay-at-home dad" status, and mentally lashes out at the other dumpy dads who arrive at the class, makes fun of their clothes and (lack of) hair,  lusts after the beautiful 20-something Swede who leads the class, then tries to rationalize and explain his many feelings to himself and the reader. Knausgaard is either working this stuff out in real time on the page, or writes so well that it only seems like he is.

Some readers may find some of his esoteric intellectual diversions – which interrupt the narrative frequently yet always elegantly – jarring and impenetrable. Certainly I haven't heard of any of the Scandinavian writers whom he dissects from time to time, but this is his world, not mine. Knausgaard will jump off into several pages of exploration of Dante or Dostoyevsky before returning to diapers; he'll also meditate for pages on nature and its awesomeness. Norway and Sweden, where I've spent considerable time, will do that to a person. He also has much to say about family, a big theme in Book One. In this edition he discovers that his (much loved and admired) mother-in-law is furtively drinking alcohol while taking care of their young daughter, and has to confront her on it; he also struggles with managing his wife's relationship with his own mother as well as where an introverted, admittedly self-centered man such as himself places family obligations in relation to personal desires.

Lots to chew on, as before. Knausgaard has done something remarkable in drawing so many readers into his insular, multi-book world, and of course it'll only be a matter of weeks before I start in on "My Struggle, Book Three". There are three more to follow that one, not translated into English yet. Heldigvis, jeg snakker litt norsk.