My Struggle: Book 4 (2015)


1,986 pages / 6.5 shelf-inches into the series now. Opened 4 the day before catching a train to Ox to start a first full-time job in a new town by myself; found Karl Ove Knausgaard catching a train to the north to start a first full-time job in a new town by himself. 4 lauded in the praise section as his most well-arced, which is true despite the same typically engrossing internal eddies and fizzling of vignettes and echoing events. However this sense of structure is surely derived also from the embedded reminiscence back to KOK’s final year at school, which occupies 4‘s middle third at least. Reading this on holiday in Mont was less circumstantially satisfying but still I found myself reading my own moments and memories in his level but mystified way.

If the defining image of 3 was “the interplay of two worlds, often one of light versus one of shadow” then here the two worlds are of inside and outside, and the fear comes not from experience but exposure and openness. The town of Håfjord is introduced immediately as having a silence which “was not oppressive … but open” (15), an atmosphere which seeps into its affably engaging but also disarmingly candid inhabitants. In an autobiographical series which epitomises “openness” (and in the volume which certainly most embodies its much-laud quality of lacerating self-exposure), KOK struggles to reconcile his sociable extroversions, guarded fledging literary efforts, and (painfully) personal experiences of humiliation with this cultural transparency.

Of particular importance in 4 are drunkenness and girls, KOK’s twin preoccupations in this period. Anticipating later graduation excesses and even-later indulgences in H, he recounts early experiments with hard drinking, “I had disappeared, I was empty, I was in the void of my soul … it felt as if I had been let loose in the town, I could have done anything…” (118). This exposure enacts a trip to the “ghost world” (120) in an explicit echo of the penumbral duality of 3. His carelessness is replaced by shame and terror in H:

The worst was probably the notion that others saw me, that I put on a show for them, and that the side of me I displayed then was reflected in the way they looked at me every day. (370)

Alcohol is a violent negotiation between individual freedom/confidence and sexual b/pathos. Women mock him by being “accessible to the eye but in no other way.” (123) He’s constantly tasting ashes in his dreams and imagination, especially as his desperation increases, leading towards the (13-y/o?) pupil Andrea who seems to haunt the school which he prowls out-of-hours:

I hardly knew I had these thoughts, they lived in a kind of no-man’s-land … Everything that came from the outside was dangerous. (438)

The nexus of joyful self-expression and sexualised frustration is KOK’s first literary efforts, which are exposed both to us and to critical friends and family. Apotheosis 463-4 when housemates prank him by adding a graphically parodic passage to a WIP:

It wasn’t just a text he had tampered wth, that wouldn’t have offended me in the slightest, it was something else, much more than that, there was a soul in it, my soul. And when he tampered with that, I could feel it. It  looked different from the outside than  from the inside, and it was perhaps that which lay at the heart of my despair. What I wrote was worthless. So that meant I was worthless too.

Especially poignant given metatextual references to other published works, and memories from 3 (29) (see also 364-5 for memory of tv surgery, Mannian human excavation). Criticism and writing-the-self; another more-direct angle on the Struggle.

Stress on detail again here, flattened coexistence of abstraction and particularity definitely anticipating ‘seasons’ series. Just as young KOK in 3 learned lessons of empathy here he is taught the significance of the differing weights assigned by people to events and elements of life; see particularly appeal of dad of fat kid 460.

What is different is that this is less empirical than 3, more introspective and passionate. Experience is more obviously already memory in a way that confirms praise of experience of being this age. Memories made of this:

Half an hour later we were walking up the hill from the flat. I was drunk in that pure joyful way you can be from white wine, when your thoughts collide with one another like bubbles and what emerges when they burst is pleasure.

We had been at my place, I thought, and this filled me with pleasure.

We were colleagues and on our way to becoming friends, I reflected.

And I had written a damn good short story.

Pleasure, pleasure, pleasure.

And then there was this light, dim down among humans and things human, attended by a kind of finely honed darkness which became diffused in the light though did not possess or control it, only muted or softened it, high up in the sky it was gleamingly clear and clean.


And there was this silence. The murmur of the sea, our foot-steps on the gravel, the occasional noise coming from somewhere, a door being opened or a shout, all embraced by the silence, which seemed to rise from the ground, rise from objects and surround us in a way which I didn’t formulate as primordial, though I sensed it was, for I thought of the silence in Sørbøvåg on summer mornings when I was a child there, the silence above the fjord beneath the immense Lihesten Mountain, half hidden by the mist. The silence of the world. It was here, too, as I walked uphill, drunk with my new friends, and although neither it nor the light we walked in was the main event of the evening it played its part.


Eighteen years old and on my way to a party. (105-6)

Happy to read that line as a self-evaluation not just in the past but also, satisfied, from the present – think he’s caught an adolescent evolution of attention here. This bit goes on to -112 as an evocation of lonely sociability at a party, blending-in but not quite, slipping over the fault-lines of acceptance and isolation. Not surprised that this is the volume of MS in which KOK discovers hash (327).

More stuff on anticipation of self-writing through experience of memory:

One evening we went to the primary school I had once attended, not so far from the their house. I had been twelve when I left, now I was seventeen. The five years felt like an eternity there was almost nothing then connected me with the person I had been, and I remembered next to nothing of what I had done then.

But when I saw the school before us, hovering in the its and darkness, my memories exploded inside me. I let go of Cecilie’s hand, approached the building, and pressed my hand against the black timbers. The school really existed, it wasn’t merely a place in my imagination. My eyes were moist with emotion, it was as though the whole bounteous world that had been my childhood had returned for an instant. (282)

Chimes with discussion elsewhere about need to let personal memories take shape through (ie. pushing through) literary recollection.

What’s left to say is that KOK is a total dickhead in 4. After the estival departure from the end of 3 he has pupated into an ugly creature of teenagerhood; he thoroughly exorcises memories of exploitation, sexual humiliation, pettiness, egregious adolescent self-importance. In a way the grotesque ending is fascinating: its a culmination of My Struggle as perceived by a 19-y/o KOK, and therefore also a cathartically self-accusatory completion of the section of the grander task of MS that 4 represents: revisiting the unrevisitable (he repeatedly assures us from both the past and the present that he will never physically return to H).

On reflection 4 is a fascinating companion to 3 in terms of its stylistic shift as well as the chronologically continuous but qualitatively disjunctive development of KOK’s character; this despite being singular in the series for its grotesqueness and unflinching commitment to necessary structural redundancy and repetition.



My Struggle: Book 3 (2013)


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.