OK, I might as well admit it. I am a Karl Ove Knausgaard fan. But am I a groupie? Well, I did go to Toronto to hear him talk at the International Festival of Authors last year. And I did stay afterwards to say how much I liked his books (no book signing though). He is as dark and ruggedly handsome in person as in his photos. His eldest daughter was there, long blond hair. I feel I know the whole family.
I have read all the English translations of My Struggle to date and loved each one. Volume 5 chronicles Knausgaard’s years in Bergen, Norway; arriving at nineteen, a neophyte at the Writer’s Academy, through his time at university, his friends and especially his girlfriends, various jobs, leading finally to his hard won debut as a writer. The Dylanesque title vividly references rain-slogged Bergen and also the self-inflicted gaffes and betrayals perpetrated on those for whom he cares most.
Having plodded through a full volume of adolescent self-indulgence in Dancing in the Dark (Volume 4), one of my friends, a devotee of the first three books, threw that one across the room – enough of this male adolescent bullshit! No, not quite I am afraid, there is still more as Karl Ove takes his lonely and tentative steps towards adulthood. Progressing through Volume 5, the male reader cannot but be moved, remembering our own self-destructive and tormented youth, fueled by alcohol as both enabler and disruptor. How interminable that period seemed!
Knausgaard’s unique talent is to bring the reader into the precise moment and being of his character. He is nothing if not brutally honest. No doubt this is one of the series' most beguiling aspects. And yet some novelistic discrepancies begin to appear. The powerful episode in A Death in the Family (Volume 1), when Karl Ove and his brother, Yngve, are obliged to clean their dead father’s rubbish filled and bottle strewn quarters, is retold here, but with Yngve strangely missing, arriving with his family only on the day of the funeral. And did Karl Ove really cut his face in a humiliated, drunken stupor twice – once over his first girlfriend, “Gunvor,” and again, as depicted in A Man in Love (Volume 2) after rejection by Linda, his second wife to be? These minor inconsistencies remind us that we are dealing with a work of fiction. Yet some of the most satisfying segments of this book are those when the readers’ questions about Tonje, his first wife, whose absent presence lurks throughout prior volumes, are finally answered.
The man that emerges from this long autobiographical novel is one tortured by insecurity and self-doubt, while imbued with high ambition. Despite its provocative allusions, My Struggle is an apt title for Knausgaard’s journey, both literary and human. Completely self-absorbed, racked with shame and guilt, it is only through writing that the author seems able to cleanse himself from all the “shit” of his early life, so graphically portrayed in Boyhood Island (Volume 3). Volume 5 ends with his escape from Bergen, rejecting once again his present life, heading alone towards Sweden and the future.