Karl Ove Knausgaard

Ferrante, Knausgaard

Not far into My Brilliant Friend, the first of Elena Ferrante's four Neopolitan novels, it was clear that I was setting out on a journey similar to what I had started with the novels that make up My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard's hexology. The similarities astonish. Both writers address their childhood in detailed, autobiographical fashion. Both create page-turning narratives. Both address contemporary issues, especially those of gender, though Ferrante does it analytically, while Knausgaard takes the opposite tack, largely shows instead of tells. He provides a modern male perspective, while Ferrante presents the view of a woman who changed as society changed. Their approaches challenge the trope that women write about the domestic and men about the larger world. That's just one of the differences that make comparing the two novelists irresistible, and many journalists, writers, and book lovers have been compelled to do so. When I first read Knausgaard, earlier in the year, his humanity stood out as much as his wizardry at scene creation. Ferrante is direct, political. I loved it that she kept returning to the neighbourhood where she grew up, both literally and figuratively, and how she inspired me to read "neighbourhood" as Italy in general. Actually, the entire western world, as she declares in the final volume of the series, Story of a Lost Child.
Lake (MB)

Ferrante's work is dominated by Mount Vesuvius, by sun and traffic, people who yell at each other and threaten to kill each other, on one hand, and discuss splits in left-wing politics on the other. The narrator is haunted by her insecurities, childishly pleased with, but also defensive about her successes as an author. Temperatures low enough to keep beer cold, even freeze it, ice, snow, and sylvan summers on the farm weave through Knausgaard's work and feel more essential to it than the beach towns and cities of Ferrante's Italy, until near the end of the last volume, when Naples gains historical weight.

Ferrante is the author's pen name. She prefers to remain anonymous and eschews public appearances, explaining in a Vanity Fair interview that was conducted via email,
"I simply decided once and for all, over 20 years ago, to liberate myself from the anxiety of notoriety and the urge to be a part of that circle of successful people, those who believe they have won who-knows-what. This was an important step for me. Today I feel, thanks to this decision, that I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present. To relinquish it would be very painful." Yet her fictional self, the narrator Elena Greco, seeks just that kind of engagement with the literary establishment and feels unsuccessful when readers, editors, journalists stop paying attention to her.

Knausgaard is famously shy. The journalist Heather Mallick suspects he agrees to the appearances he makes out of courtesy. But he isn't a complete loner. The eurozine article Mallick refers to in her piece reveals him to be dependent on his editor and a small group of friends for feedback as his novels take shape. Almost anything one reads by him reveals him to be verbose, in print if not in person.

Italy feels violent, although, despite the many threats Ferrante's characters aim at each other, the murder rate there is actually less per capita than in Canada. The violence in Norway seems sinister because, perhaps, hidden, as in the case of Karl Ove's father. I imagine glowering faces, clenched jaws, narrowed eyes.

There's a clear arc in Ferrante's novels. Although they are about much more, they focus on Elena Greco's relationship with her friend Lina. This leads to some neglected threads of other storylines and a fair bit of repetition. Since the last two novels in Knausgaard's series are not yet translated, I don't see as clear an arc and doubt there is a single one. His prose depends for its forward movement on a series of arcs. Each scene, each chapter rises and falls, and cunningly draws the reader to the next.

With eleven novels between them, Ferrante and Knausgaard provide a literary feast. Pasta? Pickled herring? It's impossible to choose one over the other. I'll take both.

Trash as Literary Treasure

What is literature going to do with the no garbage movement? In his My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgard leaves indelible images of the dump where he and his childhood friends found stacks of dirty - in all senses of the word -  magazines that they snuck away and hid in the woods. Margaret Laurence's The Diviners, features a refuse collector as one of the principal characters, the unforgettable Christie.

"By their garbage shall ye know them," Christie yells like a preacher, a clowny preacher. "I swear, by the ridge of tears and by the valour of my ancestors, I say unto you, Morag Gunn, lass, that by their bloody goddamn fucking garbage shall ye christly well know them. The ones who eat only out of tins. The ones who have to wrap the rye bottles in old newspapers to try to hide the fact that there are so goddamn many of them. The ones who have fourteen thousand pills bottles the week, now. The ones who will be chucking out the family albums the moment the grandmother goes to her ancestors."

Having just returned from our local dump, I can tell you there's little to spark a writer's imagination. The impassive guy in the trailer who is responsible for the before and after weighing of vehicles and giving directions? He is the face - the main character - of the garbage dump. If he came out from behind the window where he operates the electronic scales, he might prove to have as much potential as Christie.  Actually it isn't called a garbage dump anymore, but the landfill site, as if land needed filling. Who has ever heard of hollow land, unless is honeycombed with tunnels or mined, which creates a similar effect. A long drive uphill through forest led to this bald place at the top. No smoke evoking The Inferno, but the smell of something burnt coming from somewhere. Open sand-clay ground dug out in places for "bins" that are actually big craters below grade, easy to throw into. One for scrap iron, one for building materials, others I was discouraged from investigating, because people are not supposed to wander around. A separate turn off leads to discarded-appliances-ville, where naked white fridges blandly shoulder over stoves and washing machines as if in some apocalyptic Best Buy franchise.

With a small load of scrap metal, the remains of a rusted out barb-b-que, I got nowhere near anything like what Christie saw. There has to be a place for ordinary garbage from the one-can-per-household our garbage trucks are allowed to pick up, but it was nowhere in sight. Perhaps beyond a slope where there was a sign, NO ENTRANCE. At bin number four, a kid of about eighteen -- tall, hard-hatted, high-voiced-- helped unload my trunk. "Nope, no bears," he said, "not since the electric fence was put up.  We can't keep out anything with wings, though." We looked to the sky where a handful of large crows swept towards what sounded like an eagle. Eagles are not as profuse in summer as in winter when there can be.... did he say thousands?  His words got lost in the grind of a truck motor, or in my distraction. There'd been a small job to do yes, to justify the trip; but I'd had expectations for this dump. Fantasy exceeded reality again. My camera remained on the passenger seat.

A civilization is defined by what it throws away, reminds a review of Don De Lillo's Underworld . But how it's thrown away says quite a bit, too. The recycling movement has transformed town dumps. What is thrown away is dissembled, washed, flattened, and divided into pieces that may be barely recognizable for what they were once part of. A challenge to piece together a novel from this disparateness, but maybe free verse, as in this by A.R. Ammons. (From Garbage)
"much can become of the clear-through plastic
lid: it finds security in the legit

museums of our desecrations--the mounds, the
heights of discard . . ."


Childhood Ends

Would you want to personally meet someone  - some artist, writer, musician - you really admire? In the old days I was a bit of a groupie, though circumstances prevented me from going all out, such as becoming part of the tribe that followed the Grateful Dead around the country, the Deadheads. Anyway, it was literary heros I worshipped. On my first trip to the British Isles I visited Joyce's martello tower in Dun Laoghaire near Dublin and imagined the artist as a young Joyce. I took my notebook to the Burns museum in Edinburgh to copy out bits from the Scots bard's diary. On this continent, I stood at the graves of Henry David Thoreau in Concord, Massachusetts and Félix Leclerc on Île d'Orléans outside Quebec City. It was easier when the object of my admiration wasn't there, even though I have wondered what I got out of it; wondered if, for example, I expected the spirits to fly up and imbue me with a drop of their genius. I even wrote letters the odd time or two, such as to the writer Margaret Laurence and revered the answers I received. John Irving. Could it be him at the old zoo in Vancouver? He liked bears. He titled his first book Setting Free the Bears. Should I just go up and say welcome to Vancouver or something? Of course I didn't.

Friends mentioned seeing movie stars on the street, but I never recognized their ordinary off-screen selves. I did see Joni Mitchell at a café near the ferry terminal, sitting alone, smoking. She might have liked company, but what would I say to her? I so respected genius I didn't know if I could stop myself from gushing if an opportunity came to confront it. I was sufficiently stunned by Margaret Laurences's four-page reply to the beginning writer I was at the time that I did not even write back. Not even a thanks. So, John Lennon? If we should have met somehow? What would I have said to him? I could never be cool enough.

Now that I have finished the third volume, Boyhood Island, of his My Struggle opus, I am pretty sure I wouldn't want to meet Karl Ove Knausgaard either, certainly not as a kid. He reveals himself to have been both vain and oversensitive, crying all the time he wasn't reading or playing football, or, as the book tails off and childhood ends, thinking more and more about girls. Well, he had good reason to cry, his father was a bully.  It's awful to be in the presence of someone whose moods are so unpredictable. Still, should I have met the tall skinny boy with protruding teeth and a protruding arse, who blubbered (as he puts it himself) whenever he was disappointed, I would have probably reacted like his childhood friends did, which might have produced more tears. The mothery side of me thought, aw, when I read those parts. I also thought: man, you are not prettying this picture, are you?

I remember when my students would complain that they had nothing to write about, that their lives were not interesting. If only they had had the gift to see that it's the way one looks at a life that is unique. K.O. is still entrancing me with his way, despite the unpleasant image he presents of himself whimpering, his vanity, his self-described long eyelashes and penchant for talking about clothes. I liked the comparison with David Bowie, though. As for the book as a whole, I continue to be gob-smacked by the detail he remembers or invents, by the forward movement of his prose. Boyhood Island lacks some of the back/forth in time that lent perspective to the earlier volumes. He seems to have made the choice to stick to the boyhood he experienced. It is the same but different and it held me just as the first two volumes did. Maybe it's because of the sense of anticipation he is able to create when he introduces a scene and the narrative arc begins to rise. Where will he go with this, I wonder. The answer is, often nowhere, then a new climb begins.

As for hero-worship, I have realized, even if it took awhile, that when I really admire, even love a piece of art or music, a book, it's the creation I'm infatuated with, not the creator. Any creator who thinks otherwise is heading for an inevitable fall.

"The shadows that descended over the ground outside were so long and distorted that they no longer bore any resemblance to the forms that created them. As though they had sprung forth in their own right, as though there existed a parallel reality of darkness, with dark-fences, dark-trees, dark-houses populated by dark-people, somehow stranded here in the light, where they seemed so misshapen and helpless, as far from their own element as a reef with seaweed and crabs is from the receding water..."
Boyhood Island, K.O.K.


Most constant readers will have heard of the six-volume work by Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle. Those who have not yet dipped or plunged into it, however, should know that the struggle does not apply to the writing or reading. Knausgaard appears to write effortlessly, fluidly, a rhythmic prose that has reeled this reader in and held her for two of the thick volumes. As for the life he documents in careful detail, well that is often a struggle; avoiding his father's anger, dealing with the disgusting aftermath of his death; so struck by the rejection of a girl that he self-harms, as it is called in current parlance, literally cuts himself.
     I like the way he plays with my attention. At one point he fixes it on the scene at a tawdry amusement park where he and his family have stopped after having left the home of friends who were not used to young children. Everyone's hot and the baby starts wailing, for no apparent reason, unless he's been stung by a wasp. But nothing dramatic happens, in fact there is little conventional drama in the 700 pages I have read so far. Nothing and yet somehow everything happens. Daily life makes the ever ongoing foreground, with occasional time outs for literary musings and philosophical thoughts, deep discussions with his friend Geir. The forementioned cutting turns out not to have been deep enough to score Karl Ove's face; embarrassed by his extremes of feeling, he chalks it off to drunkeness. Not long after the amusement park incident he is writing about Dostoyevsky and the drama of the soul.
    While most writers of realism use at least some material from their own lives, My Struggle is deliberately autobiographical. I heard Knausgaard say in an interview that basically everything is true.  The characters are actual people identified by their real names, as are the places he refers to. It is unlikely that he would be walking around the world with a notebook or a recorder of some kind, but he's a wizard with details and dialogue. And he doesn't merely report. He relates the yellow and grey of a restaurant's decor, the grey green white of a landscape to the use of colour in modern art. He has made enemies in Norway because of his honesty; yet the feel of truth makes the book compelling and not because of voyeurism. I don't know any of these people and for those of us who are in no danger of having his thoughts on our appearance or character or our relationships with him exposed, he is a sympathetic narrator. It has often been woman authors who use dailiness in their work. As a writer who has done that myself, aimed to depict the spectacle of so-called ordinary life, I have felt I must explain why I do it. But Knausgaard freely recounts what he made for dinner, how he cleaned the apartment or painted it, the neighbours, the activity on the street outside the balcony where he smokes and smokes, though by late in Volume 2  he realizes he's going to have to quit. His lungs are burning and his throat full of phlegm in the morning. When he and Linda fight, I wonder if this will be it for them while knowing perfectly well that in the last Wikipedia entry they are still together and now have four children. Portrait of a marriage day by day. The marriage of two highly charged people, too, or so Knausgaard's driving pace impels me to think of them.
     I don't know if I will read all six books. I wonder if he can keep me enthralled. Will his acute self-consciousness eventually seem like a pose? A strategy? Will I feel that he has overstayed his welcome?
     I do know that reading the first two volumes of My Struggle has returned me to my late teens and twenties when I was always excited about reading, when a good day meant a pile of unread books by my chair and nothing to stop me from opening them. I will order the third volume, maybe the fourth when it is translated. In between I will miss him; I will feel that I have I moved to a different country where Norwegian names are rarely spoken and no one debates the difference between Nordic countries, and if someone describes how he made dinner and poured a glass of wine for his wife and watched his baby sleeping on her back, the scene may not be as captivating as it is in the words of the often tortured, always questing Karl Ove Knausgaard, though he would surely cringe to hear it.