Exhaustive but not inventive

Karl Ove Beowulf Sheehan PEN American Center

I want to warn you about this guy called Karl Ove Knausgaard, just in case you make the same mistake as me.

I picked up this book of his, A Man in Love (My Struggle: 2). I read the back. It was about a guy in his thirties – he goes to “humiliating” antenatal classes, he has fights with quarrelsome neighbours, he becomes a father. I thought: I can identify with some of this stuff. It promised bits about “the emotional strain of children’s birthday parties and pushing a pram around Stockholm when all you really want to do it write.” I thought: could be good, could even be touches of humour (I mean, the guy has called a book about himself My Struggle – Min Kamp in Norwegian – so he must have a sense of humour? He must at least think he’s being ironic?)

And then there was a quote on the front from my old pal, James Wood. A critic I’ve liked ever since I read The Art of Fiction. The quote said: “Intense and vital…ceaselessly compelling…superb.”

Well, later on I went and read the full Wood review, in which he also says “even when I was bored I was interested.” That would be a fairer quote to put on the cover.

To cut to the chase, the problem with the writing is that it’s exhaustive but not inventive.

Karl Ove has written six volumes about his life (he’s now 46) – and if you write six volumes based on your life and the people you know it’s pretty inevitable that comparisons will be drawn with Proust.

So Karl Ove has been referred to as “the Norwegian Proust”.

But Proust rarely feels exhaustive, and he often feels inventive.

Listen to this, from page 29. He’s at a child’s birthday party with his wife and kids and he’s being directed into the kitchen:

“The others are in the kitchen,” Erik said. “There’s some wine in there, if you fancy a glass.”

Heidi had already entered the room, she was standing in front of a shelf with a wooden snail in her hand. It had wheels and a string you could pull.

I nodded to the two parents down the hall.

“Hi,” they said.

What was his name, now? Johan? Or Jacob? And hers? Was it Mia. Oh hell. Of course. Robin, that was it.

“Hi”, I said.

“You alright?” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “What about you two?”

“Everything’s fine, thank you.”

I smiled at them. They smiled back.

Now, you might say: that’s not so bad. And maybe it’s not, taken in isolation. But the book goes on and on like this. There are nice parts – like when he talks about the distinct feeling each of his children radiates – but these observations are swamped.

Maybe the series is a testament to the age we live in, where so much information can be, and is, recorded, that is it difficult to cut the information down and shape it into a clear narrative.

(I know it sounds lame to say “the age we live in” – and all I mean is the world as it has been altered by the internet and the omnipresence of the laptop and the smart phone).

Maybe Karl Ove recognises this even in the title. A Man in Love is the second instalment in the series, but it’s not the title he gave it himself. It’s just the title Book 2 got in translation. The same decision was taken with Fallada’s Alone in Berlin – I suppose that was a little cuter, a little more inviting, and little more mysterious and maybe romantic, than the title he gave his book, which was Everyone Dies Alone. Karl Ove’s original title is perfect: Min Kamp Andre Bok: My Struggle (Another Book). It’s a more honest declaration: I wrote 400 pages first time around; now here’s another 664.

It’s like what Stanley Kaufmann said about The Godfather Part II: that it wasn’t a sequel, it was just more.

Photo by Beowulf Sheean/American PEN Centre

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s