My Struggle: Book 3 (2013)

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Why is this the only one in FSG’s series that doesn’t have a picture of Knausgaard on the front, just some pensive stock-photo kid?

Flicked through 2 after finishing this and was surprised at the amount of philosophical musing I’d bookmarked (ready to concede that I probably remember startlingly little of the second volume, my favourite of the series so far, which I admittedly finished at least a year ago now. After I’m currently 1,484 pages or about 5 shelf-inches into MS.) The first note follows this conundrum:

From my own childhood I remember only a handful of incidents, all of which I regarded as momentous, but which I now understand were a few events among many, which completely expunges their meaning, for how can I know that those particular episodes that lodged themselves in my mind were decisive, and not all the others of which I remember nothing? (2: 17)

3 begins with a captivating discussion about photography and memory (ideas including that personal photographs document an era rather than an individual, because they represent only exteriority [10]; there is also a beautifully Proustian taxonomy of memory on 12) and a blank space where the first six years of his life should be: nothing until the age of six was memorable; all self-knowledge comes from anecdotes. 3 proceeds to tackle the next six years until the move to Kristiansand which connects the story to the chronological start of 1. Strange, then, that K claims at the end of 3 that

little did I know then that every detail of this landscape, and every single person living in it, would forever be lodged in my memory with a ring as true as perfect pitch. (451)

This is in contrast to the figures that populate his life on the island, who are branded with the same wilful memory alluded to in the quote from 2 above. Connecting these passages indicates the extent to which perfect recall is an embellishment employed to give the rest of the fiction – the colouring inside the lines which constitutes the bulk of MS‘s prose – a haunted air. Karl is, supposedly, condemned to remember.

A running symbolic theme throughout 3 – certainly, otherwise, the most straight-faced and mimetic instalment so far – is the interplay of two worlds, often one of light versus one of shadow. The young K’s fear of “seeing your own reflection in the black windowpane and thinking, that image is not me, but a ghoul staring at me” from “beyond” (22) subconsciously recalls the terrifying apparition of a face in the sea on a TV report near the beginning of 1. In 3 the empirical observation, coupled with the relative free reign permitted both to the young boy and his imagination, leads him to interpret crepuscular shadows as reaching from “a parallel reality of darkness, with dark-fences, dark-trees, dark-houses, populated by dark-people,” a world quickly allied with night-time and a fear of the inhuman often derived from comics or TV (48-9, see also 110-1). One of 3‘s most illuminating passages is the account of a book which tells of a boy wizard who conjures up a shadow from the world of death, a shadow which pursues him until it becomes apparent that “the shadow was himself.” (308-10) That this bit occurs after years of maturation from the formative night terrors above suggests that the notion will stick with K; indeed it also suggests that MS is a process not just of attaining maturity but of plumbing the dark side of human nature, even that MS has painted a picture of a “dark-K” which he must learn to identify with himself. Recall the end of 1:

And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor. (1: 441)

It follows that the two-worlds image is often transplanted, in 3, onto the engrossing interplay between childhood and adult life, “parallel lives that never meet” (FSG synopsis). K’s blooming fascination with clothing appears impelled by the synthetic smell of expensive sportswear which “didn’t seem to belong to this world,” (74) the “distant and utterly radiant” world of comics aimed at older kids (76). After splitting “two worlds” between boy and girl friends (200), K later apprehends duality in his pre-pubscesent interest in pornography: “within me there were two incompatible entities,” good and bad, the latter of which “was fantastic, it was terrible, it was the world opening and hell revealing itself, the light shining and the darkness falling…” (295) The increasing focus on sexuality leads towards an orgiastic party on the first day of summer, evoking some unnerving mass pupation, a seasonal attainment of maturity and a curious abdication of K’s individuality (MS at its most ritualistic; see also seasonal aspect of inside/outside world duality on 293).

Of course the strands of terror and maturity connect at a nexus which again forms the text’s gravitational centre: K’s father. K illustrates the personality of the man who haunts 1 and gives us an insight into their poisoned relationship which is engrossing after reading 1 and 2. Having seared his system of discipline into the young K’s mind he becomes omnipresent:

Dad might be behind the house, might come round the corner at any second. Might be waiting for me in the hall, might be in his study, and tear the door open when he heard me. Might be standing at the kitchen window waiting for me to appear. (131)

He sometimes appears in K’s image (as in his “notori[ety] for manipulating the truth”, 261), sometimes its negative (“he wanted to dispel from his mind everything that existed around him”, 211) We see K try to develop away from him – his young Christianity is presented as a reaction against secular paternal authority (286) – until we reach the suggestion that MS as a project is a means of finally attaining control over him, “in the much acclaimed mind and imagination.” (345) The absolute standout passage is a rare secession from character, a resumption of K’s present-day voice to passionately insist upon his overriding desire in life:

I am alive, I have my own children, and with them I have tried to achieve only one aim: that they shouldn’t be afraid of their father. (260)

In this light, K’s father appears as a kind of “dark-K”, a shadow that pursues him everywhere.

What struggles to germinate under the shadow of his father is K’s childishly poetic vision. The versatility and potency of young imaginations is signalled early, as in 67’s delineation of all the scenarios that could arise from the discovery of an abandoned car in the forest. The forest passages are the text’s best, K’s most convincing inhabitation of a young mind; they are also often quite romantic, as in the wordsworthian account of a race through the trees: “it was a good thought, a good feeling, and I tried to hold on to it for as long as possible.” (83) I read Hopkins, too, in the way the trees – like shadows – “seemed to stretch out to whoever looked at them. And that was all they spoke about, what they were, nothing else.” (81) This obviously connects to the issue of attaining singular identity, as in the identifiable characteristics of each kid at school: “each one of us had something of his or her own.” (97) This is also of course the struggle for self-determination beneath K’s father – one which, interestingly (after Louis’ The End of Eddy) elaborates frequently on issues of traditional masculinity and childhood, with K struggling to negotiate his way around his father’s expectations and the taunts of his friends.

K’s humour is often drier in 3, particularly when dealing with his own past. The anecdote about him being warned to respect the privacy of others (159) is a wry inclusion; it also grows into K’s insensitive inability to reconcile truth and prudent empathy (see 225). The childhood subject does afford plenty of opportunity for disgusting and embarrassing (but sometimes uncomfortably recognisable) stories (of which the most striking is probably the discussion of shitting on 105-6; cf. White Noise on going through human waste). The masochism of the self-revelation in MS is often vaunted; there’s a particularly interesting Mannian moment when the boy K is engrossed in a program about surgery, concluding with a shudder that “the heart should not be seen, it should be allowed to beat in secret.” (176) The episode with the pranked gym teacher (368) suggests that the kind of exhibitionism which has made K’s name is endemic to children or derived from childish curiosity.

The themes outlined here surface and are submerged gradually and rhythmically: most of the book details personal experience, expanding and contracting as conclusions suggest themselves, slowly accumulating as K develops as a person and a personality. I like this passage as representative of the natural ease with which K moves through ambient detail and behaviouristic observation:

When we emerged from the shop, each with a small bag in hand, there were just four minutes to go before the bus left. But that was enough time, we told each other, running down the stairs. The steps, covered with hard-trodden snow and ice, were slippery, so we had to hold on to the banisters, which was at odds with the speed we were after. beneath us lay the town, the white streets appearing almost yellow in the reflection from the lamps, the bus station, where the buses skidded in an out like sleds in the snow, and the tall church with the red tiles and green spire. The black sky arched above everything, strewn with twinkling stars. When there were only ten to fifteen steps left Geir let go of the banister and set off at a sprint. After a couple of strides he lost balance and his only chance to stay upright was to run as fast as he could. He swept down the hill at a blistering pace. Then he had more momentum, he was pitched forward and plunged headlong into the drift beside the road. it has all happened so fast that I didn’t start laughing until he was lying in the snow. (325)

is not without inconsistency, even failure. Occasionally leakage between child and adult voices leads to some quite superficially pretentious reflections (“the problem is not so much that the world limits your imagination as your imagination limits the world.” 385). Sometimes the  experiences are so universally recognisable as to merely vocalise the already over-familiar; it feels less like an attempt to elevate the mundane than a requirement to exorcise uninteresting memories (reflecting an unflattering sense of logorrhoea onto that aforementioned compulsion to recollect). 3‘s final third is a kind of extended meditation on pubescent maturation, whose processes of experimentation can wash over each other and feel less formative than inconsequential. However K subtly begins to introduce the darker aspects of developing masculine sexuality until that almost entomological transformation.

Profits from a break from the theorising. A sustained investigation of memory and experiential formativeness. Again balances universal observation and particular biography. A definitive study of childhood to match 2‘s definitive study of modern parenthood – perhaps its shadow.

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