I have had Karl Ove Knausgaard’s work on my reading list for a while, particularly as some of the better critics have sung his praises (for example James Wood, writing in The New Yorker, or Boyd Tonkin, in The Independent). Now that I’ve read the first volume, dealing with his adolescence and the death of his father, I have to admit I’m a little bewildered at all the fuss. I don’t think I’ll be reading the second volume, in which he famously deconstructs his first marriage.
So much of Knausgaard’s story seems to be saying things simply to fulfil his own obsessive need to say them, to ‘record everything’. But he isn’t – thank god – ‘recording everything’; he is merely giving the spurious impression of thoroughness. I’m not convinced that much of it needs saying. It serves no purpose and is filled with tedious blather: ‘I dried my hair with the small towel’ . . . ‘I swallowed the last morsel and poured juice in my glass’. The ‘detail’ comes replete with set phrases and cliché: ‘I was as hungry as a wolf’ . . . ‘two sides of the same coin’, ‘seeing is believing’, etc. He piles on astonishingly boring reams of information, as though simply filling a page will do. Much of this book is typing, rather than writing, as though the author wanted to get the series of six volumes out as soon as possible – given his sales in Norway this might have been reasonable motivation. His work has received startling and adulatory comparisons with A la recherche du temps perdu. But Proust it ain’t.
There is some strong writing in the early pages when the author reflects on death in general and his relationship with his father (referred to throughout as a lower case ‘dad’) but the intensity of these opening pages is lost as we sink into the larger litany of the exhausting details of everyday life. Anyone who writes knows there is no such thing as ‘total honesty’: everything is, to a large degree, confection and elaboration, a weaving around or manipulation of some essential fragment of reality. There is not a writer alive who would claim to reproduce events from their own lives with a rigorous adherence to the truth because, as we all know, a writer can only ever present a version of events to the world: if you want to call that ‘corruscating truthfulness’ you’re welcome, but – as Bob Dylan once said – I don’t believe you, man.
Besides, as ‘Karl Ove’ confesses on page 387 of the Vintage edition: I usually forgot almost everything people, however close they were, said to me. This is an alarming confession, if we are being asked to consider the work as an example of corrosively truthful writing, or a “scorchingly honest, unflinchingly frank, hyperreal memoir” (The Guardian) – especially after 386 pages containing extensive tracts of dialogue with people who were ‘close’ to him. But perhaps ‘forgetting’ helps Knausgaard to remember in a more ‘honest’ way.
After a fashion, I can see this series of books as emerging from and resonating with the narcissistic tradition of Facebook and twitter, a constant attention-seeking and a wanting-to-be-noticed in a world in which everything is on display for all to see. Just as the young Karl Ove desperately needs, and fails to receive, his father’s attention. Knausgaard tells us he “wanted so much to be special” as an awkward teen who played in a heavy metal band (but dreamed of greater things, and had “the ambition to write something exceptional”).
It would be invidious to pick out one of the many examples of frankly bad writing in this first volume. Besides, I get it: I see what he’s doing with the self-consciously unedited prose style. But this thinly veiled autobiography (no, let’s stick with ‘novel’ – the old boundaries no longer count for anything) is not breaking new ground, as so many critics seem to be claiming. Apart from the strong opening and some isolated aperçus on death, it is pretty dull for the most part, with some legitimate seasoning of ‘profound thoughts’ edging their way in on occasion:
She glared at me. I swallowed the last morsel and poured juice in my glass. If there was one thing I had learned over recent months it was that everything you heard about pregnant women’s fluctuating and unpredictable moods was true.
‘Don’t you understand that this is a disaster?’ she said.
I met her gaze. Took a swig of juice.
‘Yes, yes, of course’, I said. ‘But it’ll be all right. Everything will be all right.’
And this description of rolling as fag:
I drained my drink and poured myself a fresh one, took out a Rizla, laid a line of tobacco, spread it evenly to get the best possible draught, rolled the paper a few times, pressed down the end and closed it, licked the glue, removed any shreds of tobacco, dropped them in the pouch [dropped what in the pouch?], put the somewhat skew-whiff roll-up in my mouth and lit it with Yngve’s green, semi-transparent lighter.
Does any of this matter? Who cares if the writer’s brother had a ‘green, semi-transparent lighter’? Who cares, even, what he dropped in the pouch. I cannot agree with James Wood’s assertion that “the banality is so extreme that it turns into its opposite, and becomes distinctive, curious in its radical transparency.” To my mind, the banality simply remains banal. And the writing, sloppy.
But perhaps I’m being unfair. Knausgaard clearly writes in a hurry, producing 10 to 20 pages a day, according to one account. Perhaps he should slow down a bit, do some editing even. But I guess it’s too late for that now. Or perhaps I should try again, and read him in a different way, accepting that, as Wood writes: “the writer seems not to be selecting or shaping anything, or even pausing to draw breath.” But then again, why should I? Life is short enough as it is, and I’d rather re-read Proust.
The relentlessness of his descriptions does serve a purpose, I’ll concede that: the deluge of ordinariness is meant to elicit in the reader a stronger consciousness of whatever we consider to be ‘reality’, but then again, this is all rendered with a naivety and dedication to ‘honesty’ that I find deeply suspicious. Maybe the resistance to – or outright rejection of – ironic detachment as a strategy in this writing is what I find most unsettling. For all the words, all the typing, there seems to be very little, if any, self-awareness here. And as with reality TV, I cannot quite take that world of written ‘reality’ seriously – especially when being asked to consider the ‘merciless frankness’ of an author who ‘can’t remember a single conversation’ – but who nonetheless has managed successfully to achieve that longed-for fame and specialness which he so craved as a teenager.