While one of the major multi-volume literary novels of recent years (Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels) has finally come to its conclusion, the other is still going strong, even if an end is in sight. The first four parts of Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle epic have already appeared in English, and the fifth has just joined them, allowing us to resume our journey through the bearded wonder’s early life. As the title suggests, there may be trouble ahead – rest assured Knausi will tell us about it, not missing a single detail 😉
Some Rain Must Fall (translated by Don Bartlett, published by Harvill Secker) takes up where Dancing in the Dark left off. Having finished his year of ‘teaching’, young Karl Ove moves up to Bergen where he is to spend a year at the prestigious Writing Academy. His brother Ingve’s presence there means settling in is fairly smooth, and with people to drink with, the start of his writing career in plain view and the beautiful Ingvild (a young woman he’s been exchanging letters with all summer) soon to arrive in Bergen, life seems pretty good.
However, the series isn’t called My Struggle for nothing, and the fifth volume is just as full of Knausi’s problems as its predecessors. The relationship with Ingvild, predictably, never gets off the ground (even if the reasons for this are not what you’d imagine); despite the constant parties, Karl Ove struggles to reveal his true nature to most of the people he meets, his shyness when sober turning to psychotic episodes when drunk; as for his writing course, well, it’s not too long before he realises that he is a lot further from being a published writer than he could have imagined. The truth is that he’s in way over his head, a little boy playing at being a grown-up author…
The latest translation of Knausgaard’s autobiographical novel to appear in English is another extensive slice of Norwegian angst. Some Rain Must Fall (a pun alluding both to the ‘suffering’ the writer undergoes and the almost constant precipitation in Bergen, the town he spends a large chunk of his life in) takes us from the end of Dancing in the Dark, and through some of the events of A Death in the Family, before ending with the writer’s flight to Sweden, the event which begins the period covered in A Man in Love. This one is a novel in two parts, the first focusing on Knausgaard’s year at the Writing Academy, before the second takes us briskly through more than a decade in the writer’s life, examining his gradual, painstaking route to publication, via part-time jobs, wrecked relationships and psychosis.
We meet Karl Ove again on his way to the Writing Academy, his usual deluded self, a boy in a train on his way to his big break:
Otherwise I sat in my seat smoking and drinking coffee, reading newspapers but no books, on the basis that it might affect my prose, that I might lose whatever it was that had got me into the Writing Academy.
p.14 (Harvill Secker, 2016)
This cocky demeanour doesn’t last too long. On his arrival at the academy, he finds he is one of eight writers, the others all older (some much older), with a couple already having had work published. One of his teachers is Norwegian writer Jon Fosse (a fairly well-known name, even in our world of fiction in translation), and it soon dawns on our hapless hero that he’s completely out of his depth:
Even when I really concentrated and read as slowly as I could, several pages at a time, I didn’t understand. I understood as good as all the words, that wasn’t the problem, and I also understood the sentences, as such, but I didn’t understand what they meant. I had no idea. And that took the wind out of my sails because I knew of course that there was a reason we had been given these two particular books. They were regarded as good literature, as having importance, and I didn’t understand them. (p.65)
Humiliated in classes and unable to write at home, poor Karl Ove realises that he’s unlikely to be able to live up to his reputation as a literary Wunderkind.
In fact, in the second half of the book the opposite occurs. Knausgaard makes friends with a couple of younger students, more intelligent and better read than him, who then go on to become published writers while he is still struggling to put a few pages together. Stung at the prospect of being left behind, he gradually starts to get a toehold in the literary world. It begins with reviews for magazines and newspapers, essays he writes both for courses and for himself. When he does manage to put together a story, he has occasional success, with several being included in anthologies. None of this comes easily, and the reader gets to see his first works slowly come together from painstakingly generated fragments.
As much as Some Rain Must Fall is about the man and his writing, though, another major focus is on his (mis)adventures with the opposite sex. Young and good-looking, 192cm (6’ 4”) tall – throw in a dark and brooding nature, and you have a Nordic Heathcliff, a man who can’t help but stand out from the crowd, no matter how infrequently he opens his mouth. Yet while he has no trouble attracting women, taking to them is another story:
We stayed there for almost an hour, it was torture, neither of us managed to get a grip on the situation, it was as if it existed independently of us, something much bigger and heavier than we could handle. When I said anything it was tentative, and every time it was the tentativeness, not what was said, that prevailed. (p.107)
After his early setback with Ingvild, he manages to involve himself in a string of relationships and escapades, the bright, cheery Gunvor and the sophisticated Tonje being the women he spends most time with. As easy as he finds it to get together with these women, though, the emptiness inside him prevents him from making it work. He wants a stable relationship, but his destructive personality means he deliberately sabotages what he has, always looking for ways out (but too afraid to sever the ties himself…).
Particularly in the first part of the book, there’s a palpable sense of novelty, with everything seeming new, and so important. Anyone who went to university away from home will recognise the enthusiasm Karl Ove has for his new life, and the mix of excitement and trepidation he’s almost drowning in. However, one of the effects of this enthusiasm on the book is that every event is given exaggerated importance. Every woman is the girl of his dreams, every setback is the end of his writing career, and the reader feels his anguish in the writer’s words, even twenty years after the fact. Yet twenty pages later all is forgotten, with new girls coming along and fresh literary embarrassments just around the corner (which can be rather annoying for the reviewer trying to put their finger on the main events of the novel!).
Because of this, there are times when Some Rain Must Fall feels like a simple page-turner. It may be entertaining to read, compelling in a train-wreck sort of way, but the writing isn’t always that impressive, at times trite, even. On reflection, though, there’s a sense that this is largely deliberate, the mature writer allowing himself to regress to this stage in his life, choosing a style that suits the Karl Ove of the time. Certainly the style (to me, at least) appears to improve as the book progresses, the later parts more complex, more introverted, reflecting the development in Knausgaard’s abilities as he returns to university and attempts to make up for lost time.
There was also something panicked about my desire to acquire knowledge, in sudden terrible insights I saw that actually I didn’t know anything and it was urgent, I didn’t have a second to lose. (p.278)
It’s now that we see the real writer emerge, reading voraciously and becoming obsessed with his self-education.
Part of the charm of this episode of Knausgaard’s life is also the contrast between the good and bad sides of his character (Karl Ove Jekyll and Knausi Hyde), with the sinister alter-ego always only a few bottles of wine away. He’s a man who accepts people for who they are, loves to discuss poetry, works hard, cares for his grandmother, always living in the shadow of Ingve and his absent father. He’s also the man who, when drunk, sleeps around when he gets the chance, attacks his brother and rages through the night, waking up under bushes, in hallways, horrified the next day by memories of what he said and did. Early on he’s every bit as immature and clueless as he was in Dancing in the Dark, but what makes Some Rain Must Fall stand out from what was easily the weakest book in the series is his growing realisation of the fact and the increasingly pathetic and inexcusable nature of his actions. What’s funny when you’re nineteen is sad when you’re pushing thirty, and Karl Ove realises this better than anyone, terrified of ending up a pitiful, lonely has-been (he only has to look at his family for a glimpse of a possible future…).
With Some Rain Must Fall being an integral part of the My Struggle project, it could be a difficult work to try as a stand-alone book. At first, I thought it might be entertaining enough read in isolation, but the more I tried, the more I realised the depth the earlier parts lend to this one. For the new reader, the mention of his grandma’s house will go unnoticed, which will not be the case for anyone who has read the seventy-page cleaning section of A Death in the Family. Readers of Boyhood Island will feel much more sympathy for Karl Ove when he struggles to cope with simple interactions with his father. Those who managed to get through Dancing in the Dark will recognise the driving force of Knausgaard’s first novel, a man running away from the temptation of a young girl’s love. As for his jealousy, and what happens when he sees Ingve and Tonje flirting, well, A Man in Love shows just how far that can lead…
One of the features of my other My Struggle reviews is the way in which I continually stumbled upon creepy parallels between Knausgaard’s experiences and my own, and Some Rain May Fall, set mainly during my high-school and university days, intersects with my own life more than ever. Quite apart from the superficial similarities in taste (mentions of Supergrass on the radio, going to an Elastica concert), there are more serious, unsettling traits I share. Sunday morning, around 11 a.m. – I’m having a shower, thinking about this review as the water pours down, the structure slowly coalescing in my mind. As I finish, I’m desperate to dry off, get dressed and run to the computer to get it all down before it vanishes into the ether. In the front room my daughters are playing Monopoly, in the study my wife is idly surfing the net. They’re all going out at 12.30, leaving me with the house to myself for the day, but I want the computer now. As I pace around the kitchen, waiting for my wife to get up, all I can think of is Knausi fuming in the corridor when Tonje needs to do something for work, scowling in a chair, robbed of his rightful place, his routine affected. This is why, despite some of the faults (the dull sections, the banal conversation), I keep turning the pages. I’m not entirely sure that’s a good thing…
I had my doubts at times that this one would manage to live up to the heights of the first two in the series, and early on it certainly didn’t seem that way. However, by the end Knausgaard had me hooked – it took me five days to read the 663 pages of my version, and I knocked off the last two-hundred pages on that fifth day. You can’t help but be swept along by the sheer energy and honesty of his writing, the way he lays bare his emotions and his honest description of the joy of being young and in love… I can’t wait for the sixth and final instalment of My Struggle, even if I have no idea how he’ll manage to finish the book off (surely we know everything there is to know about him by now?).
Anyway, I’d better stop there – my wife is calling me, and she does not sound happy…