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Nonfiction Norwegian’s memoir is a massive masterpiece

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, May 26, 2013, at 9 a.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, June 5, 2013, at 7:19 p.m.

“My Struggle: Book Two: A Man in Love” by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Don Bartlett (Archipelago Books, 575 pages, $26)

Infinity sweeps off the glaciers of Norway into the glassy fjords precisely at the point where you think that civilization has ended for good. The land here commands. You obey or perish – from beauty, perhaps, or the unforgiving elements, from isolation, or ecstatic visions of creation, but never from culture.

You were born here, you grew up here with an alcoholic father who drank himself to death and a grandmother equally drowning in drink – and squalor. You love literature, but true greatness for you lies elsewhere. Not here on the edge of the forest. Not here in the Nordic emptiness.

Still, you crave solitude, loneliness. It is your refuge.

You mature, a troubled teen. Your father dies besotted. Your anger doesn’t. You teeter on the brink of self-loathing, lusting for the raw intensity of being fully alive. Call it Munch’s scream etched into your soul, settling into the hard features of your face: its off-putting furrows.

Infinity inspires as much as it awes. The primordial power of fir and rock and ice shapes your psyche into lonely depths of longing. Happiness eludes you even at your most creative. Think of Henrik Ibsen and his suffocating dramas. Think of Knut Hamsun, Nobel laureate and Nazi sympathizer. Now think of you, Karl Ove Knausgaard, celebrated novelist and majestic memoirist.

You write two novels in Norwegian that garner numerous accolades and prizes. You fend off the hounds of the press, only to give in to them. You play the publicity game and despise yourself for it. Your inauthenticity haunts you like one of Ibsen’s ghosts.

Your excuses blow away with the Nordic gales – your humanity now but a rhythm of shame, ascetic candor, alienation, parenthood, ethical yearning, disgust.

You quote the German poet Paul Celan:

Don’t write yourself

in between worlds,

rise up against

multiple meanings,

trust the trail of tears

and learn to live.

And yet you fail to trust; you make an art of failure. You chronicle the banal in all its tedious detail. Time looms: your destiny as a writer, as it was for Marcel Proust.

You flee a failing marriage in Bergen, Norway, and land homeless in Stockholm. Here, you can die from a wealth of culture. But you cannot speak the language. Still, you fall in love with Linda, whom you had met years earlier at a writer’s conference.

You move in together, marry, father three children, make a home in Malmo.

Your children’s needs force you into an unwitting eternal now. Only the present exists; the past is no match for tantrums and diapers, prams and chores.

You succumb to moments of joy, flooded with light. Only to flee inwardly. Life is always elsewhere. So you write and write and write, 3,600 pages of memoirs, pinning down your life and the light like one of Nabokov’s pristine butterflies.

You call it “My Struggle.”

But your struggle is no neat display of order. Only chaos. Being the family man will never satisfy. You love your children as you should, but they are not enough.

So you turn to language to open up what is inaccessible to language, what you crave. You struggle to break through to the nonconceptual, to life as a pure animating force, not confined by words.

Just like your novels, Book One of “My Struggle” sweeps up myriad literary prizes, and slides seamlessly into Book Two, the story of a man in love. Together, they make a thousand pages of the everyday, with no higher meaning than the ordinary.

This is your authenticity. This is you life here and now, examined at a fever pitch, your daily recollections recounted in exhausting but exhilarating detail.

The book is a doppelganger of your existence, extended into the infinity of Norway. Illumined by, illuminating the sacred light, the stirrings of the divine that you find in another German poet, Friedrich Holderlin.

You are brilliant at your memoir: a masterpiece of staggering originality, the literary event of the century.

You are your father’s son. But with a writer’s penchant. Perhaps nothing more. Yet a great writer’s penchant. Ibsen, Hamsun, Knausgaard. You belong now.

Infinity commands; like a dutiful son and father, you obey. In “My Struggle” (with four more volumes still to come in English), you embody the light.

You will not perish.

Arlice Davenport is Books editor for The Eagle. Reach him at 316-268-6256 or adavenport@wichitaeagle.com.

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