Or you can start by declaring that novels can no longer be written, and then, behind your own back as it were, produce a mighty blockbuster that establishes you as the last of the great novelists.
- The Tin Drum, Günter Grass.
In the latest installment of My Struggle, Karl Ove -- the hard-drinking Norwegian proto-hipster protagonist of the longest-running Proustian neurotic multiple-volume pseudo-memoir since Proust himself -- wakes up in a remote Norwegian village and has a sudden feeling of displacement: “Where was I? In the house in Tybakken? The house in Tveit? Yngve’s studio? The youth hostel in Tromso?” Several things have changed since the account of his childhood and adolescence in Book Three: his parents have divorced, his father has remarried and moved north from Trondheim, and Karl Ove is an eighteen-year-old schoolteacher in Hafjord, Norway’s Arctic version of the rural South or an Indian reservation -- a place so devoid of stimulation that even the mountains across the fjord “didn’t care, anything could happen around them, it meant nothing, it was as though they were somewhere else at the same time as being here.”
Not that teaching school in rural Norway is exactly a Teach for America gig. Karl Ove himself is going through an awkward phase (at one point his six-four frame supports a rock-inspired spiked leather belt, a long overcoat, a black beret, and a crucifix dangling awkwardly from one ear). His predecessor “turned up drunk for classes, was always taking days off, and finally had just taken off and never returned.” The standard of behavior, which consists of showing up reasonably sober, is mercifully low: Karl Ove himself “would drink several times in the middle of the week…but I always managed to stagger out of bed and get myself to school punctually.” The easygoing locals, happy to have any teachers at all, take it all in stride. Their rapid acceptance of Karl Ove into the local community is a sharp contrast to the cold and standoffish south. On the other hand, that’s probably because there’s nothing to do in a ridiculously boring fishing village of 250 (on a busy day), where all the partying has been diverted to the larger towns of Finnsnes and Hellevika. Schoolgirls come by to flirt; fishermen share bottles of vodka. Karl Ove himself, between blackouts, is mostly concerned with losing his virginity. Even this enterprise is hampered by existential malaise -- specifically, a nagging premature ejaculation problem that is exacerbated by a neurotic psychological inability to masturbate due to path dependency (“And once I hadn’t done it as a twelve- or thirteen-year-old, time passed and it slowly became unthinkable, not in the sense of unheard of, more in the sense of beyond my horizons”).
The very fact that a recent high school graduate who earnestly believed that “occasionally getting so drunk that I couldn’t remember a thing was cool” could walk into a remote Norwegian fishing community in the 1980s and be entrusted immediately with the education of the young demonstrates either a great optimism in the human spirit or an abject inability to cope with life. My Struggle, mirroring the general trends in postwar Scandinavian society, contains elements of both. There’s the unspoken, but deep satisfaction of reading -- when a book by Jan Kjaerstad arrives, “the first thing I did when I held it in my hand was smell the fresh paper….The style was so alien, and yet so cool with the short incomplete sentences, all the alliteration and the sprinkling of English words.” There’s even the innocent excitement of his first literary gig as a record reviewer for the local paper. On the other hand, the pettiness of everyday life invariably triumphs. For instance, after accidentally forgetting to pass on a 100-kroner Christmas gift to his brother, Karl Ove is banned from his grandparents’ house on the grounds that “you’d never had anything to eat whenever you turned up, you were shabbily dressed, and were always asking them for money.” The social shame that follows a typical bender causes Karl Ove endless torment: “Oh hell, did I do that? the cries resounded inside me the next day as I lay in the darkness. Oh no, shit, did I say that? And that? And that?” Even in the middle of helping a struggling sixth-grader through a math problem, Karl Ove thinks, “I felt sorry for her, almost every lesson held a humiliation of some kind, but what could I do?”
There’s a frontier aspect to Knausgaard’s account of his youthful time in the wilderness, a sense of a shared cultural touchstone between Norwegians and Americans. Although the year in the sticks was originally intended as a waypoint in Karl Ove’s journey to becoming a great writer in the bohemian/gonzo tradition of Kerouac, Hemingway and Thompson -- the equivalent of working on a fishing vessel, hiking through Afghanistan in the 1970s, or driving a bus at the airport at McMurdo Station in Antarctica -- it turns out to be far more and less than a romantic attempt to “suck the marrow out of life” (and then write about it). The experience of being a stranger in a unforgiving landscape, along with the sudden promotion from high school student to rookie teacher, forms the backdrop to a transition into adulthood. As a teacher, Karl Ove has surprisingly sensitive observations: “They took out their books and started work, I walked around and helped them, I liked the way they went from being a small, chatty, giggly class to falling into step and just being themselves.” Barely out of childhood himself, he manages to keep some semblance of classroom order because he is able to reduce the visceral experience of school to a child’s perspective -- “What good Martin Luther would ever do them I had no idea. For them it was probably more about being here and writing in their notebooks with their pencils.” It’s sort of like Laura Ingalls Wilder when she goes off to teach school in These Happy Golden Years, except that everyone is really drunk.
In 2014, around the same time that Book Four was translated into English, a Swedish director named Roy Andersson made a consciously pomo arthouse flick called The Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. With its loosely-connected, disparate storylines set in a simultaneously hyper-realistic and dreamlike Scandinavian city, the movie is a meaner, tougher, and more deadpan-comic version of Waking Life. There are some awkward death scenes, including a five-minute opening shot of an elderly man having a fatal heart attack as he tries to open a bottle of wine. Some children with Down Syndrome recite poetry, including the poem from which the film derives its title. Two hapless salesmen try to sell some egregious “novelty items” -- vampire fangs, creepy plastic masks -- to a variety of uninterested customers; Charles XII and his army descend upon a bar in modern-day Gothenburg, only to return defeated and wounded. An aging officer in the modern Swedish military repeatedly gets stood up for lunch.
As comedy goes, this isn’t Naked Gun. But it takes almost the length of the movie to realize that the cruel, itchy un-funnyness of The Pigeon is in fact the point. In one of the final sequences, one of the travelling salesmen has a terrifying dream in which a group of slaves is forcibly herded into a bright copper vessel studded with trumpet mouths, then roasted alive over a bonfire. Their screams from inside the ark are transmuted, outside, into abstract sounds of heartrending beauty. Transfixed by the sublime music created by suffering, a wealthy audience in full evening dress watches the scene in fascination as they grip glasses of champagne. The salesman wakes up and tells his friend, “I dreamed I was involved in something very horrible.” But he can’t describe the source of his guilt.
To the kind of guy who was actually guffawing at the sight of someone dropping dead in a ferry cafeteria while his fellow passengers discussed the fate of his untasted beer and shrimp-salad sandwich, the movie may seem esoteric. (At a recent Upper West Side screening, a middle-aged couple actually confronted us as we were exiting the theater and demanded to know “what the meaning of all that was.”) Yet there is no movie that more heavy-handedly summarizes the dilemma of My Struggle. Is all art founded on the miseries of others? Why is it pleasurable to hear the pain of others? Shouldn’t we want to see other people happy and not sad? Are we so desperate to break into the neurotic despair of another that we would read a 500-page book that focuses primarily on beer and premature ejaculation? In Against Nature, itself another self-cannibalizing pseudo-memoir written by a Norwegian, Tomas Espedal marvels to his lover at the sheer slash-and-burn nature of Knausgaard’s work: “Did you read that? I’d ask. How does he dare, it’s quite amazing, he’s destroying himself, I’d say.”
It isn’t just the self-torturing navel-gazing that makes My Struggle uncomfortable; it’s also the literary exploitation of people with obvious substance abuse issues. At one point in Book Four, a middle-aged Karl Ove recalls reading his alcoholic father’s old journals from the mid-1980s, which he inexplicably considers suitable for widespread publication:
“Thursday 8 January. Tried to get up for work. But had to call Haraldsen and throw in the towel. Grinding abstinence -- stayed in bed all day…I made an attempt to read Newsweek. Managed a few TV progs. School tomorrow?
“Friday 9 January. Up at 7:00. Felt lousy at breakfast. Work. Survived the first three lessons. Had terrible diarrhea in lunch break and had to give the HK class a free. Home for repair -- rum and Coke. Incredible how it helps. Quiet afternoon and evening. Fell asleep before TV news.”
Flashing forward in the non-linear style of the series, forty-year-old Karl Ove observes, “I understand why he noted down the names of everyone he met and spoke to in the course of a day, why he registered all the quarrels and all the reconciliations, but I don’t understand why he documented how much he drank. It is as if he was logging his own demise.” Himself a career schoolteacher, Karl Ove’s father is the shadowy foil to Karl Ove himself: he is the one who originally encourages Karl Ove to teach, and both father and son yearn desperately for a more liberated and unrepressed life.
Yet most of the internal inconsistencies in My Struggle relate, intriguingly, to the aspects of Karl Ove’s life that yield potential comparisons with his father. In earlier books, Karl Ove portrays himself as someone who does not drink and has never done drugs; in Book Four he’s consistently tanked on alcohol and hash. There’s one spring where he’s “drunk almost all the time” and frequently wakes up in a “russ van,” which is basically a van that facilitates the month-long partying to which all Norwegian high school seniors are entitled. In an insightful review, Jeffrey Eugenides -- a co-presenter at the recent Knausgaard talk at the New York Public Library -- notes that My Struggle deals with distinctly selective memories. The idea of an analogy between father and son is apparently so painful that it cannot be directly contemplated -- and must, moreover, be repeatedly revisited and revised.