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Sunday, 29 June 2014

My Struggle - Book Three - Boyhood Island - Karl Ove Knausgaard (translated by Don Bartlett) - 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

Why would you read a six-volume, 3,600-page Norwegian novel about a man writing a six-volume, 3,600-page Norwegian novel? The short answer is that it is breathtakingly good, and so you cannot stop yourse3lf, and would not want to... The New York Times Book Review

I love this quote on the back cover of Archipelago Books’ latest release, “My Struggle, Book Three”, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s latest volume to be translated into English by Don Bartlett. Over the last seven months I have delved into the world of Karl Ove, via the first two volumes, referred to in some circles as “A Death In The Family” and “A Man In Love” with the latest release called “Boyhood Island”. Whereas the Archipelago Books publications refer to all of them simply as “Book One”, “Book Two” and “Book Three”.

Personally I can’t review this work as a single stand alone book, as I’ve already been exposed to the first two volumes and through them know of Karl Ove’s feelings towards his tyrannical alcoholic father and his own behaviour towards his children, as driven by the shortcomings of his own upbringing.

So volume three starts with the Knausgaard family, Karl Ove as an eight month, old arriving in Arendal on the south east coast of Norway, before they are about to settle on the island of Tromøya. As per the first two volumes in this Knausgaard epic, we have our protagonist laying all minutiae bare, this time between the ages of eight months and puberty. The childhood memories run thick and fast, with the first half of the book simple childhood stories:

Stealing matches to light fires, turing on the television set for his grandapretns, searching for a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, his fear of foxes, the humiliation of his mother buying a swimming cap with flowers on it, when he’d been looking forward to his first swimming classes, an old cure for warts of rubbing bacon on them and burying it in the backyard, his “love” for a fellow classmate Anne Lisbert, his visits to his grandparents on his mother’s side, and their wonderful farm and of course the concept of honour amongst young children.

And as readers of volume one would know, none of this occurs without the overbearing tyrannical father, the man who knows all, who has a meticulous garden, strict rules, no visitors, beatings and the constant fear. Of course he can take solace in his wiser, stronger, understanding older brother Yngve. As well as the love and tenderness of his mother.

Speed and anger went hand in hand. Mom drove carefully, was considerate, never minded if the car in front was slow, she was patient and followed. That was how she was at home as well. She never got angry, always had time to help, didn’t mind if things got broken, accidents happened, she liked to chat with us, she was interested in what we said, she often served food that was not absolutely necessary, such as waffles, buns, cocoa, and bread fresh out of the over, while Dad on the other hand tried to purge our lives of anything that had no direct relevance to the situation in which we found ourselves; we ate food because it was a necessity, and the time we spent eating had no value in itself; when we watched TV we watched TV and were not allowed to talk or do anything else; when we were in the garden we had to stay on the flagstones, they had been laid for precisely that purpose, while the lawn, big and inviting though it was, was not for walking, running, or lying on.

In the second half of the book Karl Ove starts to develop emotions, morals, the understandings of being human, as he slowly understands new concepts they become included in our story:

His realisation that he didn’t know his mother’s middle name, he was “shaken to the core” and this stark realisation “Was there anything else I didn’t know?”, the constant crying that he cannot control, New Year’s Eve fireworks and the family traditions, birthday presents (Everton will do it’s close to Liverpool), grandma’s visits, musical tastes and the emotion that it evokes and bullying. The search for “porn mags”, “the magazines belonged to the bad, but what they filled me with, the intense thrill that forced me to gulp again and again, was something I desired with a wild urgency.”

We have tales of Karl Ove training and playing soccer and of course girls:

Lene only indirectly, though, she was the kind you looked at and pined for in secret. At least I did. Her eyes were narrow, her cheekbones high, cheeks soft and pale, often with a slight flush, she was tall and slim, she held her head at an angle, and often interlaced her fingers as she walked. But she also had something of her sister in her, you could occasionally see it when she laughed, the glint that appeared in her turquoise eyes, and in the obstinacy and unshakable certainty that sometimes shone through, so difficult to reconcile with the otherwise predominant impression of dreamy fragility. Lene was a rose. I looked at her and started to tilt my head the same way she did. That’s how I made contact with her, that’s how we had something in common. I couldn’t hope for more really, because I had set her on too high a pedestal to dare make any kind of approach. The thought of asking her to dance, for example, was absurd. Talking to her was unthinkable. I contented myself with looking and dreaming.

This is yet another enthralling journey into the life of Karl Ove Knausgaard, the man who has put all the turgid detail of a simple life onto the page, a writer who reveals so much about the standard questions of existence in such a simple form that it is un-put-down-able, another wonderful instalment in his life as a writer, this time the formative years, the reasons why he acts as he does in Books One and Two. Another revelation – bring on Book Four. The following is a rather long quote (not in the context of a 427 page book but generally for my blog entries), but I couldn’t help myself, it says it all…the kitten they adopt becomes ill and dies…

There are two pictures of the kitten. In one he’s standing in front of the television with a raised paw, trying to catch a swimmer. In the other he’s lying on the sofa beside Yngve and me. He has a blue bow tie around his neck.
Who put the bow tie on?
It must have been Mom. That was the sort of thing she would do, I know that, but during the months that I have been writing this, in the spate of memories about events and people who have been roused to life, she is almost completely absent, it is as if she hadn’t been there, indeed as if she were one of the false memories you have, one you have been told, not one you have experienced.
How can that be?
For if there was someone there, at the bottom of the well that is my childhood, it was her, my mother, Mom. She was the one who made all our meals and gathered us around her in the kitchen every evening. She was the one who went shopping, knitted or sewed our clothes; she was the one who repaired them when they fell apart. She was the one who supplied the bandage when we had fallen and grazed our knees; she was the one who drove me to the hospital when I broke my collarbone and to the doctor’s when I, somewhat less heroically, had scabies. She was the one who was out of her mind with worry when a young girl died from meningitis and at the same time I got a cold and a bit of a stiff neck. I was bundled straight into the car, off to Kokke-plassen, her foot flat on the accelerator, concern flashing from her eyes. She was the one who read to us, she was the one who washed our hair when we were in the bath, and she was the one who laid out our pajamas afterward. She was the one who drove us to soccer practice in the evening, the one who went to the parents’ meetings and sat with other parents at our end-of-term parties and took pictures of us. She was the one who stuck the photos in our albums afterward. She was the one who baked cakes for our birthdays and cakes for Christmas and buns for Shrovetide.
All the things that mothers do for their sons, she did for us. If I was ill and in bed with a temperature she was the one who came in with a cold compress and placed it on my forehead, she was the one who put the thermometer up my backside to take my temperature, she was the one who came in with water, juice, grapes, cookies, and she was the one who got up in the night and cam in wearing her nightgown to see how I was.
She was always there, I know she was, but I just can’t remember it.
I have no memories of her reading to me and I can’t remember her putting a single bandage on my knees or being present at a single end-of-term event.
How can that be?
She saved me because if she hadn’t been there I would have grown up alone with Dad, and sooner or later I would have taken my life, one way or another. But she was there, Dad’s darkness had a counterbalance, I am alive and the fact that I do not live my life to the full has nothing to do with the balance of my childhood. I am alive, I have my own children, and with them I have tried to achieve only one aim: that they shouldn’t be afraid of their father.
They aren’t. I know that.
When I enter a room, they don’t cringe, they don’t look down at the floor, they don’t dart off as soon as they glimpse and opportunity, no, if they look at me, it is not a look of indifferent, and if there is anyone I am happy to be ignored by it’s them. If there is anyone I have happy to be taken for granted by, it’s them. And should they have completely forgotten I was there when they turn forty themselves, I will thank them and take a bow and accept the bouquets.

Why would you read a six-volume, 3,600 page Norwegian novel about a man writing a six-volume, 3,600 page Norwegian novel? Because you simply can’t help yourself. If you haven't started the journey, I suggest you get Book One (or “A Death In The Family”) and start the revelations yourself – trust me, you’ll be hooked.

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