‘Dancing in the Dark’ by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Review)

IMG_5210Another year, another slice of self-absorbed Norwegian musings… Yes, May has rolled around again, so it’s time for the latest installment of embarrassing recollections from everyone’s favourite grumpy Scandinavian, Karl Ove Knausgaard.  This time around, puberty has struck with a vengeance, and Knausi is only too eager to discuss his teenage talents and shortcomings.  Let’s put the needle back on the record – time for part four of his ‘struggles’…

*****
Dancing in the Dark (translated, as always, by Don Bartlett) sees the eighteen-year-old Knausgaard heading north, where he is to work for a year as a teacher in a remote community.  Unwilling to head off to university, or find proper work, he sees the time as an opportunity to work on his writing in an environment with fewer distractions.  However, the reality is that, even in far-flung Hålfjord, there’s football to be played, alcohol to be drunk and (oh yes) girls to be pursued.

Just when we’re starting to settle into life in the north, though, the writer abruptly drags us back down south.  Rewinding two years, we see the writer as a surly teenager, about to head off the rails in a big way.  With his parents’ divorce finalised, Karl Ove decides that it’s time to have some fun away from the stern eye of his father, drinking whenever and wherever he can in the hope that the alcohol will make his life more enjoyable.  There’s also the small matter of his central goal for his final teen years – to finally rid himself of his unwanted virginity…

This is the fourth installment of Knausgaard’s story, and it’s every bit as self-centred and self-absorbed as the others.  Those who have never tried his work before will wonder what’s going on – welcome to Karl Ove’s world…  The book reads like a teenage boy’s diary at times, but old hands will see it for what it is, a man’s attempt to mine the past in order to better understand his present.

The latest adventure has a new angle, his attempts to come to terms with small-town life.  You see, Hålfjord is a place where everybody knows your name (and your dad’s and your girlfriend’s):

“They had grown up and gone to school together, they worked together, they partied together.  They saw one another virtually every day and had done so virtually all their lives.  They knew one another’s parents and grandparents, many of them were first or second cousins.”
p.119 (Harvill Secker, 2015)

Knausi is a new attraction, and this is his chance to make an impression.  Having left his old life behind, he can use the opportunity to remould himself and show a different side to his character.  Then again…

He certainly does his best to persuade the local girls that he’s someone they should get to know, though.  Dancing in the Dark is, at times, a tale of pursuit and conquest, the musings of a confused, horny teenager, obsessed with popping his cherry:

“Could I?  Could I?  If, against all the odds, I succeeded in manoeuvring myself into a suitable situation and was in a room alone with a naked girl, would I be able to make love to her?  Would I be able to go through with it?” (p.83)

With a little (or a lot) of alcohol in his system, he’s actually quite successful in getting to know the girls; if only he could get over his mental and physical concerns.  I won’t go into them in detail here, but never fear – Karl Ove will give you a detailed account should you choose to read the book.

While most teenagers can be forgiven for lusting after the opposite sex, one issue here is Knausgaard’s (undeserved) status as a teacher.  He’s an eighteen-year-old teaching teenagers in an area of the country where the age of consent is flexible, and much of the story focuses on his struggles to stay detached and professional in the face of young beauty (in a town where most women between the ages of eighteen and forty have left for greener pastures). On reading this, I couldn’t help but think back to my own experiences as a language assistant in France when I was twenty-one.  Believe me when I say that pedagogical professionalism is not something you’re born with…

Setting the fairer sex aside for a moment, Dancing in the Dark looks at some more serious issues too.  Karl Ove’s father has left the family, but he still overshadows the son’s life.  As the father begins to drink seriously, so too does the son (an inherited trait) – these men sink a *lot* of alcohol in this book.  The father is slowly beginning to destroy himself, and while Karl Ove is still fairly young (and seemingly indestructible), those who have read the earlier books can see the early signs of the more damaging behaviour described in A Man in Love.

Whatever your take on Knausi, there’s a lot to like in this book.  It’s a pleasant look back at the mid-eighties, with plenty of references to football, television and (especially) music.  The writer is incredibly self-mocking, always happy to make himself the butt of any joke, baring his most pathetic flaws for the world to see.  It’s hard to believe that anything is held back – this is all painfully embarrassing.  Much of the story appears to be written in the style of a teenager, one who truly believes that his writing is great, even if he can barely understand the books he reads.  In truth, his writing (like the teenager himself) is awkward and clumsy, even childish at times.  We can see the man between the lines, though, with occasional glimpses of the adult writer guiding the story.

Despite all this, Dancing in the Dark has its issues too – in fact, for me, this is the weakest of the series so far.  The tone is well done, but it doesn’t actually make for a great read (I found that the more childish, innocent tone of Boyhood Island worked better than the sullen teen voice used here).  Another problem I had with the book was the way the action switched back two years, taking us from his new home back to his house in Kristiansand.  I can see why he did it – he sets up the situation in Hålfjord, then gives an explanation of how the younger Knausgaard got to that point.  The trouble is that it disrupts an interesting story, and when we go back, events never really reach the same heights

The worst problem, though, is the casual, persistent sexism which pervades the book.  This is what Knausgaard does (and full marks for refusing to hide his immaturity), but it doesn’t alter the fact that this is a book where women are mere sexual objects, objectified at every turn, a story with an obsession with breasts which would make even Murakami blush.  I’ve talked about the gender issue in my previous reviews, wondering whether female readers would appreciate Knausi’s tales as much as men – I really wonder if women will even want to finish this one.  What I can say is that if they do make it to the end, the final scene may well make them wonder why they bothered…

The general consensus from overseas is that the middle parts of My Struggle are the weakest links, and I definitely found this one the least convincing of the books by far.  However, I did enjoy parts of it, and it’s clear why he wrote this as he did, showing himself as an overconfident, yet confused, teen.  Having come this far, I’m not about to abandon the series now (especially as I’ve heard that the final volume is a good one), but I do hope that Part Five is a little more like the first two.  Another 500 pages of drinking, sex and immature bravado may have me reaching for the bottle myself…

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14 thoughts on “‘Dancing in the Dark’ by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Review)

  1. Haha!!! I have this altho haven’t actually read it yet . I went to see him speak about it at Foyles when it was published over here. I agree numbers 1 and 2 have been the strongest so far but like you I’m committed now and will see the journey through to the end .

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  2. Like Helen, I’m not about to give up now, though I haven’t rushed out to buy this yet. It’s no surprise that the middle volumes are weaker, I suppose, as their context is created by the early and later books. What we’re left with is his honesty – an honest portrait of a teenage boy is never going to be entirely pleasant!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Grant – I think it was more that he was writing them while the initial books were being published – as well as being influenced by the direction taken, they probably suffered from a lack of polish…

      And yes, it’s very honest and rather unpleasant 😉

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  3. Hi Tony, I’m still not sure if I want to read volumes 2-6 of Knausgard. I read volume 1 and liked it, but when reading volume 2 I quitted after about 100 pages. Your reviews are wonderful as always.
    A month ago I read about 300 pages of “A true novel” by Minae Mizumura. I liked the first part where she describes here own family very much, but after about 300 pages I wasn’t interested anymore. Greetings, Erik

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    1. Erik – Oh dear, very different to my views! Those are both books I really enjoyed: I much preferred Knausi 2 to his first, and ‘A True Novel’ was my book of the year for 2014 🙂

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  4. For all the serious literature and books that you normally read, I wouldn’t believe you would read the Knausgaard series because as I suspect, it may remind you too much of your past life. lol

    Bare it all, dirt selling biographies don’t seem to be the sort of stuff you would read. I see the dark side creeping out… oooo… if only I have more hours in a day to read now, I am dying to read the series.

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    1. Jo – The books do have a certain something, especially the first two, and I suspect the last one will be even better – but no, not my usual fare 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Tony, I just finished part 4 of Knausgard series. Actually I liked it quite a lot, although I agree that it’s the weakest part of the 4 I have read. I can’t get enough of him, so I’ll continue with part 5. Greetings, Erik

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    1. Erik – Lucky you – still no library copy of Part 5 here! Mind you, what with all the Man Booker reading I have to do, it would probably have to wait, anyway…

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  6. Hi Tony, I just finished the last page (1075) of part 6. Parts 5 and 6 are more of the same: descriptions of everyday life of Karl Ove and his family. Part 5 is from age 19 till Karl Ove leaves Bergen, many descriptions of his attempts to write. The second part of part 6 is a long essay of 400 pages about Hitler and his book “Mein kampf”. For me this second part was the most difficult to read and the least interesting of the whole series. If i’ll rank the series in order of my liking them, I’ll place part 3 on top, followed by part 5, 2,1, 4 and part 6 as the least interesting. Greetings, Erik

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Erik – Interesting… I’ve heard good things about Part Six, but I admit that I don’t expect it to be an easy read. My library copy of Part Five is in, though, so expect a review of that in the not-too-distant future 😉

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