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July 6, 2014

“My Struggle: Book 2”

by Anne Paddock

At the age of forty the life you have lived so far, always pro tem, has for the first time become life itself, and this reappraisal swept away all dreams, destroyed all your notions that real life, the one that was meant to be, the great deeds you would perform, was somewhere else. When you were forty you realized it was all here, banal everyday life, fully formed, and it always would be unless you did something. Unless you took one last gamble.

Karl Ove Knausgaard – a Norwegian living in Sweden, nearing 40, on his second marriage with three children under the age of 4 – finds himself joyless, overwhelmed with the demands of marriage and fatherhood. A lifelong reader and writer, Knausgaard has also lost faith in literature and turns to his personal diaries and essays for inspiration. From those writings, two elements that shaped his life – his father and a lifelong feeling of not belonging – lead him to write My Struggle: a 6-volume autobiography published between 2009-2012 in Norway.

My Struggle:  Book 2My Struggle:  Book 2 was published in 2009 and then translated into English by Don Bartlett in 2013. Titled A Man in Love in the British press, My Struggle: Book 2 primarily covers a 7-year period in Knausgaard’s life after he leaves his first wife in Norway in 2002 and moves to Stockholm where he falls in love with Linda, a writer and actress who he met 3 years earlier at a seminar for new Nordic writers, outside of Stockholm.

Karl Ove and Linda move in together and have three children in quick succession, which causes a great deal of stress in their relationship primarily because neither of them had the foresight to see what parenthood entails. Linda, who suffered from manic depression for two years has recovered and is joyful at the prospect of having children but unable to take care of them by herself once they arrive. Karl Ove is equally enthusiastic although he doesn’t want to stay home and take care of the children either because he prefers to hole up in his office and write.

Talented artists and writers often marry a supportive spouse who takes care of all the details in life, enabling the artist or writer to focus on work but Karl Ove did not choose a partner to relieve him of household responsibilities. Instead of marrying a Gala Dali or Sophia Tolstoy, Karl Ove marries Linda, a complicated woman described as a combination of Madame Bovary and Kaspar Hauser. Linda is unable and unwilling to sacrifice her emotional and physical needs and in fact, needs Karl Ove much more than he needs her.  Most of the childcare, shopping, cooking, and cleaning is left to Karl Ove who is also the wage earner in the family. A man bound to duty (primarily because he was raised by a mother who fervently believed we are here for others), Karl Ove is nonetheless unhappy and angry because he wants to be left alone to write.

Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or that made me happy….So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts.

My Struggle: Book 2 is a painfully honest account of a talented writer caught up in the banal day-to-day routines that define most of our lives. Karl Ove loves the idea of children and family but finds himself bored out of his mind in their presence. He sees contemporaries embrace parenthood, absorbed in family life; he’s just not a man who finds family life meaningful (except for the written page). This is no more apparent than at a birthday party he attends with his 3-year old daughter. Karl Ove has nothing in common with the other doting parents and cannot summon himself to socialize with people he doesn’t know how to talk to. He feels contempt for parents who organize their lives around their kids, make it look so easy, serve healthy food at birthday parties, and take pride in how they look and dress. God, he would hate me…but, I still couldn’t stop reading the book.

Many of the stories are hilarious – the time he takes his toddler daughter to Rhythm Time music class and feels humiliated to have to participate by singing childish songs and dancing with his baby in front of the hot 25-year old instructor who he would rather bed.  Or, when he walks through the streets of Stockholm with a baby stroller and feels invisible because women don’t stare at him. Karl Ove – tall, lean, and handsome with rock star looks that only enhance his bad boy literary image – is used to being looked at and doesn’t like to be treated as a sexless middle-aged house husband.  He is the antithesis of the nerdy prize-winning corduroy wearing author we are used to seeing in the US and yet, Knausgaard is a doting father who loves his wife and kids.

Beyond marriage and parenthood, the book is also about cultural differences which is utterly fascinating. People often think of states or nations as homogenous: the Americans, the Europeans, the Scandinavians – but there are huge differences within these groups which the author painstakingly writes about. Norwegians and Swedes may be Scandinavians but they are as different as the Swiss are from the Italians in Europe or the New Yorkers from the Texans in the U.S.  In the same way the Swiss look down upon the Italians (and arguably the rest of the world), the Swedes look down upon the Norwegians as a bunch of overly demonstrative swashbucklers who would do well to know where they are going, what they are supposed to do, and say what they are supposed to say. Suffocating in conformity, Karl Ove sets out to prove himself his way, offending not only the Swedish sensibilities but all the Scandinavians in his forthright honest depiction of life in a society that does not write about shame.

While My Struggle:  Book 1 was about Karl Ove’s adolescent years with his dad and coming to terms with his father’s death years later, Book 2 is about Karl Ove coming to terms with himself as a partner and father while struggling to find the time to write. The minutiae of reading about the countless meals he prepares  or his tendency to use “of course” is offset by the long tirades in which he contemplates literature, art, and poetry and with the exception of a disparaging comment about the author Don DeLillo (the American writer primarily known for White Noise), the commentaries are interesting and noteworthy…as is all 592 pages of this book.

Ladies and gentlemen. I don’t give a shit about you, I don’t give a shit about the book I’ve written, I don’t give a shit if it wins a prize or not, all I want is to write more.

And, write more he does.

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