Karl Ove Knausgaard is a 46-year-old Norwegian writer who has written an unusual six-volume autobiography called My Struggle. It's getting a lot of attention -- apparently one in 10 Norwegians have read at least some of it and he is both adored in that country and abhorred (for revealing so much about the private lives of his friends and family). Critic James Wood has written admiringly about his work and apparently Zadie Smith said, on twitter, that it was "like crack." (That offhand remark is quoted on the Amazon pages for the kindle books. No wonder people as famous and as "serious" as Zadie Smith tend not to use twitter.) The books are weirdly compelling (at the least the two I've read so far) -- they contain long, unadorned yet extremely detailed descriptions of Knausgaard's everyday life that, somehow, still have relentless narrative drive. You want to keep reading to find out what happens next, even though what generally happens next is just more of the same. I enjoy the second book, A Man in Love, more than the first, and this is probably because Knausgaard devotes a large part of it to his family life with three small children, and he happens to be an active parent, like a lot of men of his generation in Europe and North America (although some part of me wonders if his wife Linda would agree with his assessment of his involvement). I also wonder if Knausgaard's work would get as much attention if he looked like, say, Rush Limbaugh, instead of a brooding rock star. Yet that's probably unfair -- it's difficult to put your finger on just why, but his work is really good. Here is an example of his writing about his children, from the first book, A Death in the Family :
As I write, I am filled with tenderness for her. But this is on paper. In reality, when it really counts, and she is standing there in front of me, so early in the morning that the streets outside are still and not a sound can be heard in the house, she, raring to start a new day, I, summoning the will to get to my feet, putting on yesterday's clothes and following her into the kitchen where the promised blueberry-flavoured milk and the sugar-free muesli await her, it is not tenderness I feel, and if she goes beyond my limits, such as when she pesters and pesters me for a film, or tries to get into the room where John is sleeping -- in short, every time she refuses to take no for an answer but drags things out ad infinitum -- it is not uncommon for my irritation to mutate into anger, and when then I speak harshly to her, and her tears flow, and she bows her head and slinks off with slumped shoulders, I feel it serves her right. Not until the evening when they are asleep and I am sitting wondering what I am really doing is there any room for the insight that she is only two years old. But by then I am on the outside looking in. Inside, I don't have a chance. Inside, it is a question of getting through the morning, the three hours of nappies that have to be changed, clothes that have to be put on, breakfast that has to be served, faces that have to be washed, hair that has to be combed and pinned up, teeth that have to be brushed, squabbles that have to be nipped in the bud, slaps that have to be averted, rompers and boots that have to be wriggled into, before I, with the collapsible double pushchair in one hand and nudging the two small girls forward with the other, step into the lift, which as often as not resounds to the noise of shoving and shouting on its descent, and into the hall, where I ease them into the pushchair, put on their hats and mittens and emerge into the street already crowded with people heading for work and deliver them to the nursery ten minutes later, whereupon I have the next five hours for writing until the mandatory routines for the children resume.
I have always had a great need for solitude. I require huge swaths of loneliness, and when I do not have it, which has been the case for the last five years, my frustration can sometimes become almost paniched, or aggressive. And when what has kept me going for the whole of my adult life, the ambition to write something exceptional one day, is threatened in this way my one thought, which gnaws at me like a rat, is that I have to escape. Time is slipping away from me, running through my fingers like sand while I... do what? Clean floors, wash clothes, make dinner, wash up, go shopping, play with the children in the play areas, bring them home, undress them, bath them, look after them until it is bedtime, tuck them in, hang some clothes to dry, fold others and put them away, tidy up, wipe tables, chairs and cupboards. It is a struggle, and even though it is not heroic, I am up against a superior force, for no matter how much housework I do the rooms are littered with mess and junk, and the children, who are taken care of every waking minute, are more stubborn than I have ever known children to be; at times it is nothing less than bedlam here, perhaps we have never managed to find the necessary balance between distance and intimacy, which of course becomes increasingly important the more personality there is involved. And there is quite a bit of that here. When Vanja was around eight months old she began to have violent outbursts, like fits at times, and for a while it was impossible to reach her, she just screamed and screamed. All we could do was hold her until it had subsided. It is not easy to say what caused it, but it often occurred when she had had a great many impressions to absorb, such as when we had driven to her grandmother's in the country outside Stockholm, when she had spent too much time with other children, or we had been in town all day. Then, inconsolable and completely beside herself, she could scream at the top of her voice. Sensitivity and strength of will are not a simple combination. And these matters were not made any easier when Heidi was born. I wish I could say I took everything in my stride but sad to say such was not the case because my anger and my feelings too were aroused in these situations, which then escalated, frequently in full public view: it was not unknown for me in my fury to snatch her up from the floor in one of the Stockholm malls, sling her over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes and carry her through town kicking and punching and howling as if possessed.
And so on and so on and so on. Sound familiar?