Karl Ove Knausgård, A Man In Love – TLS
A Man in Love, the second volume of Karl Ove Knausgård’s autobiographical novel series, My Struggle, continues his remarkable exploration of the modern self. The first volume, A Death in the Family, 2009, created a publicity storm with its uncensored portraits of family and friends, many of them members of Scandinavia’s literary elite. Noted for its candour, it was widely read and acclaimed in Norway, and has been similarly praised in translation. In this volume, Knausgård opens up part of the earlier story, looping in and out of memory. We learn how he left his wife and country, moved next door to Sweden, fell in love and started a family, all the while struggling to carve out space to think and write. This tension, provoking endless complaint in Knausgård, might seem to be an updated version of Cyril Connolly oppressed by the pram in the hall, but it signifies a larger shift in the relation between the individual and the world and how we think about what it means to be free.
The series has been compared to that of Proust. A Man in Love, though, is not so much a poetic remembrance as a confessional recounting. Knausgård seems laceratingly frank, but as with all confessions we are aware of narrative being spun, an alibi sought out. The effort is to scrutinize and explain himself fully, to convey, as the last words of his novel say, “how it felt”. He describes his day-to-day movements in exhaustive detail, sinking the reader into a family routine that veers from the banality of getting things done to the hallowed ritual of caring for others.
As before, there are forthright appraisals of people, some dismissive, others lit with imaginative sympathy. Always strong, because each is a testament to his freedom, Knausgård’s judgements are open to alteration in the light of later understanding: sometimes he discovers he has misread someone (often the case among his ultra-competitive literary set). With Geir, his best friend and intellectual sparring partner, his determination to exercise this freedom sees him discussing the possibility that as a young teacher he had sex with a thirteen-year-old pupil. The conversation is provisional, though, couched in misgivings about the reliability of memory or the certainty of any conviction. There is further doubt about the credibility of his thinking, he tells Geir, because the education his generation received trained them to think only in the abstract, critically comparing schools of thought, but excluding concrete reality in which “all independence is rooted, including independent thought”.
What emerges from this is not the kind of self-reflexive novel we might expect, where doubt is indicated in textual game-playing. Here, Knausgård wants to reinstate the supremacy of the self over all else, including the text, so his language is unobtrusively prosaic and he seems always to be reaching for immediacy. He speaks of wanting “to go to the essence”, lay himself bare – in all his guises and circumspection, even the mysterious and “stupid” parts, impossible to conceptualize – and to meet the reader “at eye-level”. In the creature glaring back at us what we see is something new: as no other writer has quite managed, Knausgård captures our modern self-preoccupation, which is both liberating – a limitless realm of internal exploration – and at the same time caging. He grapples continually with how to be open to the world while defending himself against its onslaught.
Much of the novel has Knausgård enduring life as an emasculated house-husband, despairing of the boredom parenting forces upon him, resentful of being kept from the self-absorption of writing by his needy children and neurotic wife. (His moment of greatest humiliation comes, when in a playgroup with his daughter, he is handed a rattle to shake.) Yet he is full of agonized tenderness for his daughter, watching her straining to connect or impose her will, to discover – and defy – the “rules of the game” by which life is mediated and arranged. These are Knausgård’s own struggles, too, and part of his fascinated love for his child derives from the way her storminess and maladroitness mirror his own. There is comedy in this, of course: it is impossible to divide Knausgård the fitful bully, whiner and narcissist from Knausgård the fearless self-interrogator, meditating on the grand existential questions. Only teenagers now read Dostoevsky, he observes ruefully.
Unlike the older writers he admires, he cannot refrain from the publicity sideshow, submitting to a parade of interviews, lectures and seminars. Every appearance brings a new sense of capitulation. It’s a fight he wages elsewhere in life when he finds himself parroting something he doesn’t believe or making “agreement noises” as the social situation demands. The target of much of his anger at the unseemly and “feminized” position this places him in is Sweden’s social democratic system, bent, according to Knausgård, on enforcing equality and levelled to the point where everything becomes interchangeable and indiscriminate. He mounts a comedy of exacerbation out of the problems of “house rules” and cooperation – in the nursery where he is forced to have an opinion on which sausages the children should eat, or when war breaks out with a noisy neighbour. But generally his sense of self is so imperious that he finds only tedium and coercion in the idea of getting along together: “relationships [are] there to eradicate individuality, to fetter freedom.”
When Milan Kundera argued that the novel “did more for freedom of mind than…noisy protest” or collective action, he was arguing for its pre-eminence in the struggle for liberation. In Knausgård’s book the instinct for collaboration is so debased, the self now so defended that the quest for freedom has itself become a form of entrapment. While complaining about homogenization he seems blind to the different lives all around him (there are endless swipes at multicultural conformism); while arguing that “getting things to run smoothly…is the antithesis of art’s essence…which is based on restricting or being restricted”, he rages against the “sameness spreading through the world, making everything smaller”. The novel’s sole obligation is to search for something different, he argues, but (perfectly in tune with the times) he is in danger of restricting the source of that difference to himself.
This review appeared in the TLS as ‘Rattling the bars’ on 14.6.2013.