Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Karl-Ove Knausgaard, _My Struggle, Book Two: A Man in Love_

I LIKED THIS one even better than I did the first one. They can't keep getting better--eventually the project will hit its La Prisonniére phase--but I'm in for the long haul, if I live.

This one begins with the children's birthday party sequence sometimes cited by the haters, but having myself attended a few children's birthday parties in the parent-of-guest role, what struck me most forcibly was how perfectly Knausgaard nailed it. For instance, he captures that peculiar relation one has with the parents of the children one's child goes to pre-school with--you're not exactly friends, not exactly colleagues, yet you see each other every day, know each other's names, have one important thing in common…yet usually only that one thing in common. Knausgaard is also excellent on the special vigilance of a parent whose child is at a birthday party. Is my child behaving? Is my child having fun? Is my child being welcomed by his or her peers? The answer to each of these questions can veer from "yes" to "no" and back again very abruptly, so one is in full-on, second-by-second deep monitoring mode.

As its subtitle makes plain, Book Two is about Knausgaard's relationship with his wife, the mother of his children. so the narrative embraces not only parental moments like the birthday party, but also earlier, angst-saturated young writers' retreat moments that end with Knausgaard carving his face with a shard of glass, tense in-law moments, blissed-out urban dérive moments, tears of joy at pregnancy announcement moments--the whole panoply.

As you know if you have even heard about this novel, the moments do not come in chronological order, or even in any obviously patterned way, beyond the narratives having mostly do with Linda. Is the artlessness of My Struggle real or only apparent? Real, I think, but it is the artlessness of someone who had to work hard to become artless. Writing naturally did not come naturally to him, one suspects; he's a mot juste, sentence-wrestling, blood from a stone kind of writer, left to his own devices. He had to relinquish control.

Book Two includes at its end the Proustian paving-stone moment of My Struggle, and that moment is about relinquishing control. A broken collarbone forces Knausgaard into relative inactivity, which becomes a revelation:

I sat still, I was passive, and it was as though I had lost control of my surroundings. So, had I always felt I controlled them and had power over them? Yes, I must have. I didn't need to make any use of the power and control, it was enough to know that it existed, it permeated everything I did and everything I thought. Now it was gone, and I saw it for the first time. Even stranger was the fact that the same applied to writing.

What Knausgaard then goes on to describe writing are scenes we recall from Book One. The trigger for the monumental work we are reading was not a paving-stone or a madeleine, not a memory (though it is full of memories), but a surrender, a letting go.

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