Back in March, during my IFFP reading for this year, I tried the first part of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, A Death in the Family, a book which looked at parts of the writer’s life in minute, painstaking detail. Today, we’re back for part two – it’s a touch lighter than the first instalment, but still very, very personal…
A Man in Love (translated by Don Bartlett) starts with our friend on a summer trip with Linda, his second wife, and his three kids. Knausgaard playing happy families? Not exactly…
“The situation infuriated Linda, sitting at the other end of the table – I could see it in her eyes – but she bit her tongue, made no comment, waited until we were outside and on our own, then she said we should go home. Now. Accustomed to her moods, I said she should keep her mouth shut and refrain from making decisions like that when she was in such a foul temper. That riled her even more of course, and that was how things stayed until we got into the car next morning to leave.”
p.5 (Harvill Secker, 2013)
Three pages in, and he’s at it already. Knausi (as I like to call him) paints a detailed picture of a man who loathes family life…
Then we go back in time, witnessing the writer’s arrival in Sweden, overweight and depressed. Despite his literary success, he’s not a happy man:
“All the music around me, all the literature around me, all the art around me, it should have made me happy, happy, happy. All the beauty in the world, which should have been unbearable to behold, left me cold. That was how it was, and that was how it had been for so long that I could no longer stand it and had decided to do something about it. I wanted to be happy again. It sounded stupid. I couldn’t say it to anyone, but that was how it was.” (p.136)
Having walked out on his first wife, Tonje, he’s decided that what he needs to kickstart his life, and his writing, is a new start in a new country.
Having escaped from his past, the world is now his oyster. He sets himself up in an apartment in Stockholm and decides to spend his time focusing on writing and unwinding. That is, until he catches up with Linda, a poet and dramatist he once met at a writing workshop, and falls suddenly and violently for her. One evening, after being entranced by an Ibsen play, and by her company, he has a sudden realisation:
“After we parted company and I was trudging up the hills to my bedsit in Mariaberget I realised two things.
The first was that I wanted to see her again as soon as possible.
The second was that was where I had to go, to what I had seen that evening. Nothing else was good enough, nothing else did it. That was where I had to go, to the essence, to the inner core of human existence. If it took forty years, so be it, it took forty years. But I should never lose sight of it, never forget it, that was where I was going.
There, there.” (p.184)
The trouble is that when we get what we want, it rarely seems to be how we imagined it…
In terms of plot, A Man in Love is the story of how Knausgaard fell in love with Linda, and the progress the two make from friends to lovers to married with children; of course, that plot could be written in twenty pages. However, this is Knausgaard we’re talking about, a man who (as a friend jokes) could write ten pages about going to the toilet and make it fascinating. The book contains the usual minute detail, descriptions of absolutely everything that happens in his life. Stories branch off into other stories, one memory leads to another. Somehow, it all works.
On one level, it’s the story of a man looking for his place in society and life. The writer is a foreigner, a boorish, drunken Norwegian in a land of mineral-water-sipping health freaks. In a country where everything is done by the book, and where, instead of sweets, veggies are served at kids’ parties, the chaotic, confused Knausgaard feels even more adrift than he did back home. He’s made to feel low-class and provincial, and his new start threatens to turn sour.
Another view of the novel is the story it tells of the frustration of the writer, when life and absolutely everything gets in the way of what you really want to do – which is write! He agrees to interviews he really doesn’t want to do (and which often go spectacularly wrong), but it is his family life which really angers him. He resents any time stolen away from him by his wife and kids, loathing his feeling of being a ‘feminised house-husband’. Knausgaard behaves like a 19th-Century man in a modern, equal society – one he hates. On a side note, I’ve seen lots of praise and understanding for the book recently from bloggers and reviewers like myself – men, in their mid-thirties, married with small kids…
One name that gets bandied about frequently when discussion turns to Knausgaard is that of Proust, and there seem to be two opposing camps here. The first, mainly consisting of publishers and blurb writers, is effusive in its Proustian comparisons; the second, comprising critics and grumpy bloggers, slams this as a lazy comparison. Personally, I’m somewhere in the middle (sitting on the fence, picking out splinters). Language-wise, there’s absolutely no comparison. Knausgaard uses fairly ordinary language, and he rarely sweeps the reader away by force of expression or beautiful Proustian imagery. Story-wise though, they are definitely more similar. Knausgaard’s style of slowly, laboriously describing events is obviously Proustian, but there’s also a sense of Proust’s handling of memory, with recounts going off at tangents, and smells and images evoking long-forgotten memories. Admittedly though, there are probably better comparisons out there – just ones I haven’t encountered yet.
A Man in Love is a little different to A Death in the Family. It seems even more internal, reflective, and self-flagellating, and there is a deeper sense of something amiss, the writer’s madness bubbling to the surface. Linda herself has a mental illness, and Knausgaard’s first attempt to attract Linda’s attention, an attempt which ends in a bloody, stunning mess, shows that the writer has (how can I put this tactfully…) ‘issues’. It’s painful to read at times, incredibly close to the bone, and this is the genius of Knausgaard, his ability to say the unsayable, the unthinkable… I. COULD. NOT. DO. THIS. (never – not even in my head).
All in all, I enjoyed it a lot more than I did the predecessor, and I do hope that the other four books in the series get translated at some point (even if I suspect that this may be the high point of the series). As mentioned above though, this is a book which hits very close to home for thirty-something men with kids, trying to balance writing with family duties (ahem…) – and I haven’t heard much praise from women…