Monday, February 02, 2015

In pursuit of unhappiness


Within a span of three years (2009-11), Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote a 3,600-page, six-volume series of books that catapulted him into literary immortality at the age of 43. These books chronicle his life right from his childhood to adulthood, all the while retaining the names of everyone involved in it. If the subject matter of the books wasn't sensitive enough, he named them, collectively, Min Kamp (My Struggle), a Hitleresque reference that only Mr Knausgaard deserved to evoke. The first three instalments have been translated - quite ably so - into English by Don Bartlett. The latest, the third in the series, titled Boyhood Island, was released in English this summer.

As someone who has read all the three books that have been translated into English, I would implore everyone to read this brilliant writer. The first in the series, A Death in the Family, is a heart-rending account of how Mr Knausgaard dealt with his father's death. Of particular note is his unflinchingly honest description of the filth that pervades the house where his father died: "When the last item of clothing had been carried out, I sprinkled the Klorin over the floor, using half of the bottle, and then I scrubbed it with the broom before hosing it all down the drain. Then I emptied the rest of the green soap all over it, and scrubbed it again, this time with a cloth."

In the second book, A Man in Love, Mr Knausgaard is strikingly unsparing in his gripe about his second wife and the three children that she bore him. For example, read this: "When I look at a beautiful painting I have tears in my eyes, but not when I look at my children. That does not mean I do not love them, because I do, with all my heart, it simply means that the meaning they produce is not sufficient to fulfil a whole life. Not mine, at any rate." The fourth child, born after the book was published, escaped his father's vexation.

The third book, Boyhood Island, describes his stifling childhood, spent under the grim shadow of his father, a martinet in every sense of the word.

Writing a series of books out of one's own largely unremarkable life is no mean feat; the Western media has rightly dubbed Mr Knausgaard the "Norwegian Proust". There are, for example, minutely detailed descriptions of adolescent life (as many as 60 pages on Mr Knausgaard, as a teenager, procuring beer for a New Year's party), heavy dependence on memory (Book Three has the writer recollecting all the bands his elder brother ever introduced him to), and philosophising about morbid tasks (buying a coffin, Mr Knausgaard writes, is "a bit like buying wine in a restaurant. If you're not a connoisseur, I mean. If you've got a lot of money you take the second-most-expensive. If you haven't, you take the second-cheapest. Never the most expensive, nor the cheapest").

Having said that, Mr Knausgaard lacks the emotional and intellectual depth of Marcel Proust's magnum opus, Remembrance of Things Past. Nevertheless, as James Wood wrote in The New Yorker, "There is something ceaselessly compelling about Knausgaard's book [A Death in the Family]: even when I was bored, I was interested." It's not for nothing, after all, that a quarter of Norway's population has read his books; what's more, some firms are reported to observe "Knausgaard-free" days, when talking about him is off-limits. It's not surprising, then, that the redoubtable Zadie Smith had this to say on Twitter about A Death in the Family: "It's unbelievable. I just read 200 pages of it and I need the next volume like crack. It's completely blown my mind." Novelist Katie Kimamura told The New York Times that “every time we have a small family drama, we’re like, ‘Karl Ove would get 200 pages out of this.’”

It's not hard to see why these writers are fawning over the Norwegian literary sensation. It is a widely held belief that writers thrive on unhappiness; Mr Knausgaard takes this writerly quirk to another level. Nothing seems to make him happy. The magnetic presence of kids, a mostly understanding wife, a unanimously praised work, an enviably close-knit bunch of friends - a simpler person couldn't imagine life beyond this. Not Mr Knausgaard, who is in constant, desperate search for an escape, where he doesn't have to attend to kids, take them to school, feed them, pacify them in the middle of the night, or even go picnicking.

To his credit, Mr Knausgaard internalised every event of his life and has spewed it out in an unadorned fashion. Even as he divulges family secrets and reveals the most intimate details about those close to him, the unobtrusive manner in which Mr Knausgaard himself sneaks in and out of the narrative makes him the poster child of a genre that he very well may have spawned - which is sure to make every reader champion the writer's cause for this year's Nobel prize in literature.

For the uninitiated, then, I have three words about Karl Ove Knausgaard: believe the hype.

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