With the April release of Karl Ove Knausgård’s Dancing in the Dark tens of thousands of English-speakers are, or soon will be, reading the fourth installment of his Min Kamp series. The first three, A Death in the Family, A Man Alone, and Boyhood Island have whetted a massive appetite and inspired numerous and particular critiques. Why, I ask, should so many be so true to a 3,600 page project that so thoroughly conflicts with the inattention and micro-forgetting that characterize these days of ours?
Formally, Don Bartlett’s translation is delicious. He presents a flank steak marinated in runic contingencies that is both tender and tough on Anglophones. North Americans are effectively gang-pressed into dire straits: we meet the Norwegian inside his speech acts and the human outside his transnational comfort zone. The copy editing is fantastic.
Narratively, the books are less delicious than nutritious. They are three rucksacks each packed with enough brown cheese, apples, and flatbrød to sustain long journeys. Knausgård faithfully shoulders each sack. As he makes some distance we feel footfalls, smell ripe whey, hear howls of wind and children. Then he finds promontories on which to pause, relieve himself and share what’s left with those who are still with him.
Speculatively, his writing unleashes an avalanche of presence. There is a torrent of unusual coming-together in his work. He locates vulnerabilities within cornices of cultural tension and places them within our reach by triggering – sometimes skilfully and sometimes mistakenly – a slide. When, the human detritus and social debris eventually resolve to a common historically contingent nuisance ground, he clambers over exposed shards of everyday life to revisit and rehearse their meaning and return their investment in his own becoming.
With each avalanche we ask our proxy “how do you survive with everything falling apart?” Karl Ove’s anxiety is partout, partout, partout. We see it in the boy who is perpetually constipated, in the young adult who can’t get enough alcohol, and the in the grown man who somehow musters a shame-faced personal apology to the motive forces of industrialized civilization. Early on in A Death in the Family, Knausgård presents traffic as a wholly mechanized avalanche on pedestrian values. He observes a “huge articulated truck coming down the hill with its chains clanking” behind “tails of swirling snow” left by passing cars.
it braked and just managed to shudder to a halt before the crosswalk as the lights changed to red. I always had a bad conscience whenever vehicles had to stop because of me, a kind of imbalance rose, I felt as though I owed them something. The bigger the vehicle, the worse the guilt. I tried to catch the driver’s eye as I crossed so that I could nod to restore the balance.
The Norwegian landscape as a physical and social-economic beast, is well-suited to his thunderous provocations. For villagers, like his mother’s family, tucked as they were into the base of a steep fjord, their vulnerability is an outfall of centuries-old relationships and stewardships, tasks and duties, knowledge and dialects. For beachhead estate-dwellers like his father’s family, their proximity to near modernity places them at risk of being buried beneath the unresolved contradictions of 19thC anomie and the institutional determinations and 20thC conformity.
The presence-availability of Knausgård’s family – one in the back region, the other in the front – gives him plenty of room to roam. His paternal grandfather’s career in accountancy distinguishes precision and exactitude. Meanwhile, the land-based phenomenologies of his maternal grandfather’s farming life engages flexibility and embraces the wheel of fortune. Knausgård uses these dispositions to demonstrate impact and differentiate outcomes. Fishing trips with his father and his maternal grandfather are one case in point.
In his father’s view Karl Ove must perform on the first pass. The offspring’s inability to lift the line and the prize is tantamount to filial disobedience. The anger and humiliation that his father heaps on him immediately produces tears and, over time, contributes to widening doubts that his father has any skills whatsoever. In an almost identical scenario, Karl Ove is asked to reach out and pull on the line by his maternal grandfather. Here he relates his grandfather’s quiet coaching and – having missed on the first pass – in situ encouragement that he will succeed.
Like a neutron bomb that leaves buildings standing but destroys all life, the avalanche happening in each and every home is wily, insidious, lethal. By the time we get to Boyhood Island we know for certain that his father’s class is in ascendency. His mother’s way of life is in decline. There is no reversing aspirational civilization in Norway. Adding insult to injury, his mother is a mental health professional who is living with a man possessed of more than one undiagnosed psychiatric disorder. At a minimum Karl Ove’s father engages in child abuse and is an addict/alcoholic. The interim remedy is for the father and mother to gain distance on each other. They are apart for longer and longer periods of time. A less than perfect solution for Karl Ove and his brother Yngve.
Familial proximity joining the unwell suggests sickness and inertia will prevail. While making funeral arrangements, the brothers sense logical gaps in their father’s demise: “Surely we couldn’t leave Kristiansand without knowing the circumstances of his death, could we?” But sickness, like an oil slick in the North Sea, spreads. The only one who really knows the truth is Grandma and the truth is that Grandma’s “a little off.” All that’s left for Karl Ove to do is speculate and clean up the mess: “how come [she] hadn’t said anything about the blood? Because something must have happened, he could not have died peacefully in his sleep, not with all that blood there.”
Despite Knausgård’s perilous experiment in the avalanche zone, he removes himself from immediate danger time and again by conspiring to initiate an earthfall of beauty. While a plaintive, blubbering, perpetually adolescent voice resonates throughout the three books, he tempers his own narcissism by bravely pointing up a transfiguration of sorts. This gives him a pleasant christ-like visage and lends him a prescience – such as the moment he is certain his wife has been impregnated – that makes him reliable, trustworthy, safe, sure. His hybridized station as saint and sinner also contains abstractions and the intellectual excesses of art critical commentaries. Instead, references to the Frankfurt School or Rilke are gently passed our way like a basket of bons bons.
Knausgård’s children and wife Linda are the ultimate rock slide. They crash into him and knock him over. They rouse and hound him. They smother him. And they commit him to their woeful purgatory of ceaseless co-presence. His regard for the “little trolls” is charged with a suddenness of joy. Through them he seems to overcome the limitations of a life-time. In this particular debris field, Karl Ove rises up from a childhood legacy punctuated by loud voices and aggression and confronts his capacity for love. At this point, his struggle is simply to reap what he has sown: “”Can you see Vanja,” I said, “the donkeys are refusing to move.” She laughed. I was happy because she was happy.”