Scandinavia in slow motion
Karl Ove Knausgaard: Tedious chronicler of his own life (credit: Thomas Wagstrom)
It's a little pointless reviewing Karl Ove Knausgaard as he already has a prominent position on the international publishing stage. The paperback edition of the first volume of his "My Struggle" series comes with eight pages of radiant accolades from the Scandinavian, Spanish, German and Italian press, and the cover is garlanded with climactic endorsements from the Anglo-Saxon literati. You can't argue with that. You can quibble, but you can't argue.
It's funny how the Scandinavians have recently moved from relative obscurity in the Republic of Letters (or being figures of fun) to being the saviours of bookshops.
Thirty years ago publishers were hacking their way through the jungles of Colombia and Paraguay to unearth more writers for El Boom. There were all those wacky dictatorships, death squads, ghastly jails, brothels, lunatic guerrillas, choking poverty and Yankee imperialism. You couldn't pay a publisher to take on something from Scandinavia (unless you had a new Moomintroll book). What would the Scandinavians write about? Going to the shops? A trip to the library?
That's pretty much the trick Knausgaard has pulled off. Five years ago when I was a judge for the Independent Fiction Prize I had to read several Norwegian novels, very long Norwegian novels (Beatles by Lars Christensen for example). I swore I'd never read another Norwegian novel again.
It wasn't that they were especially dreadful or badly written. It was the lack of regard for the reader, it was the total uninterest in being entertaining. There would be a powerful page or two, a memorable or moving incident, but then there would be ten or 20 or 30 pages of inconsequential filler before you got to the next bit you'd actually want to read. Had they killed all the editors in Norway?
Knausgaard is part of this tradition. The pedestrian doesn't scare him. He has a daredevil disregard for dullness.
The giveaway signs are there in the text. First the mention of Proust. Then more ominously the name of Thomas Browne. Thomas Browne, the unacknowledged begetter of the stream of consciousness. Just stick it on the page and see what happens. And finally Thomas Bernard, never a good sign.
Many critics have invoked the name of Proust since Knausgaard is an investigator of memory and since he writes at such inordinate length. As Proust does have a few cheery, optimistic moments in his work, I'd actually suggest Beckett as the inspiration for "My Struggle", but a Samuel Beckett on a truth serum, a Samuel Beckett who just can't shut up: "I didn't care any more, anyway. But there had been days when I cared, days when I had been on the outside and had suffered. Now I was only on the outside."
So what happens in the first volume of "My Struggle"? Not much and there's very little in the way of twists as the title A Death in the Family (Harvill Secker, £8.99) gives away the major action (whoever came up with this isn't a whizz at titles). There are some reminiscences about his childhood and teenage years. He moves to Stockholm and gets his new partner pregnant. His father dies. That's your lot.
I never like to judge a book in translation, because you never know what you might be missing. Yet there's no doubt that Knausgaard is a talented writer otherwise he wouldn't be able to sustain so thin a narrative over 400 pages.