By Karl Ove Knausgaard
Archipelago. 485 pages. $27.
Reviewed by Katherine Hill
Serial storytelling is a wily enterprise that by definition aims for forever. The characters feel alive between volumes, and the readership, though often niche, tends to skew obsessive. In the case of the autobiographical sensation My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard is literally alive, and his Thoreauvian appeal to the everyday sublime certainly qualifies as niche. As for obsession, it's possible that now, with the publication of Book Four, we've finally achieved peak Knausgaard. And just think: There are still two volumes to go.
Readers of the first two books witnessed the Norwegian novelist Karl Ove clean his grandparents' filthy house in his 20s and suffer through a child's birthday party in his 40s. The tedium is so exquisitely rendered, so tied to life and death, it is actually thrilling. This is what everyone who has read Knausgaard will tell you: You can't believe you are so transfixed by something so banal.
Book Three looks back on a nervous childhood, and in Book Four, we are at last in the territory of the traditional bildungsroman: the somehow universally interesting experience of surviving age 18.
In that year of his life, Karl Ove is teaching school in Hafjord, a fishing village north of the Arctic Circle, where many of his students are not much younger than he is. He has taken the job not because he wants to teach, but because he is determined to write fiction, which he does on evenings and weekends, when he's not drunk or chasing girls. Set against the craggy, fjord-laced backdrop of northern Norway, Karl Ove's experience as he claims to remember it highlights all the dramatic desires of 18. "The days became shorter, and they became shorter quickly, as though they were racing toward the darkness," is a signature Knausgaard sentence. But so is "Oh no, oh no."
Yet premature ejaculation, alcoholic binges, and artistic hubris in the north do not in themselves make compelling reading. What sets Karl Ove's version apart is his excruciating, almost scandalous sincerity. He seems to live in every line.
Book Four features a number of fantastic, detailed scenes of Karl Ove carousing, followed by fantastic, detailed scenes of Karl Ove vomiting. These are as haunting as they are disgusting, because we already know how his alcoholic father died. "I understand why he noted down the names of everyone he met and spoke to in the course of a day, why he registered all the quarrels and all the reconciliations," 40-year-old Karl Ove writes of his dad's journal from this time, "but I don't understand why he documented how much he drank. It is as if he was logging his own demise."
Yet 18-year-old Karl Ove, the primary voice of this book, does the same, and defends it vigorously. "Alcohol makes everything big," he declares:
it is a wind blowing through your consciousness, it is crashing waves and swaying forests, and the light it transmits gilds everything you see, even the ugliest and most revolting person becomes attractive in some way, it is as if all objections and all judgments are cast aside in a wide sweep of the hand, in an act of supreme generosity, here everything, and I do mean everything, is beautiful.
The longer we spend with Karl Ove, the more we understand his life: his contradictions, his sticking points, his addictions, his blind spots. In Book Four, he finds many ordinary things "unthinkable" - having children, talking to his older brother about sex - and we know by now how well the word suits this sensitive man, whose hyperfocalized perspective governs every page of My Struggle.
It's worthwhile to surrender to that perspective, to read each volume deliberately. This is the closest reading comes to living, for Knausgaard confronts, as Thoreau would have us do, only the essential facts of life: the genuine meanness of it, and the sublimity.
Katherine Hill's first novel, "The Violet Hour," is now out in paperback.