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.
He gets away with stuff that would sink most writers. He’s good at the aimless years of adolescence, the groping, the relentless search for parties and alcohol, but Chuck Berry managed to do it in two minutes 40 in “No Particular Place To Go” and Matt Thorne did it better in Child Star.
There’s also the question of what exactly we’re reading. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s books are billed as novels, but they do feature a writer called Karl Ove whose life bears an uncanny, methodical similarity to Knausgaard’s. While memoirs have always been subject to sexing up and indeed outright fiction, and novels are often subject to legal action because of the weight of reality they carry, there’s a difference in the reader’s expectations.
In a memoir the reader will tolerate a certain amount of unthrilling detail and tedium because it’s meant to be a record of what happened: there’s a pact that this dull stuff is there to shore up the important stuff. The pact that comes with the novel is different: I take your money and I give you pleasure. Of course, there is an irony in that the modern novel was conjured up by Daniel Defoe, who failed as a forger of memoirs.
It’s also ironic that Knut Hamsun was the writer who torpedoed the many-paged, furniture-filled 19th-century novel with Hunger (1890) and created the tone for 20th-century classics such as Albert Camus’s L’Etranger and J.D.Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, while his compatriot is bringing back the clutter. While Knausgaard has inherited the absolute egocentricity of Hamsun’s narrator, we also get the page-padding techniques of Dickens, Melville and Balzac again. It’s as if Knausgaard was being paid by the word and his bank account is massively overdrawn. Every 60 seconds of Knausgaard’s life seems to receive its adoration. Close examination of the everyday can provide insights, and to some extent that’s the main aim of literature, but not constant close examination. Constant close examination of reality might be the writer’s job, but it’s not the reader’s. Wasn’t it Proust who said the man who remembers everything remembers nothing?
The last quarter of A Death in the Family which deals with the death of Karl Ove’s father is a fascinating read as long as you don’t mind uncut bleakness. The second volume, A Man in Love (Harvill Secker, £8.99), sees Knausgaard pouring out his life in even more excessive detail and he is, if nothing else, indisputably the poet laureate of child care. No one will ever write a more thorough account of a children’s party, and Knausgaard will probably be an idol to anyone with toddlers.
Just when you hope that he has wrung his childhood bone dry, the third volume, Boyhood Island, revisits his summer holidays. Perhaps my reserves of patience had simply been depleted by this point, but, for me, this was by far the weakest book.
Should you read Knausgaard? His work is very, very slow and very, very little happens. Let me write that again in case you don’t believe me or it didn’t fully register. It’s very very, very slow and very, very little happens. In fact if I write that again, you’ll get a sense of Knausgaard’s style: it’s very, very slow and very, very little happens. And just when you think I won’t write that again, as homage to Knausgaard, I will; it’s very, very slow and very, very little happens.
There is a soothing charm to the gentle pace, rather like an excessively relaxed soap opera or a secret webcam in someone’s home. If you’d enjoy watching someone washing their dishes or wondering exactly where to place their toothbrush, then this is for you. I won’t be tucking into volume four.