“To me, someone who held diving in greater esteem than anything else,” Knausgaard writes, “he was the greatest man I could imagine.” But one day this headmaster comes to speak with the students about the ship, and young Karl Ove finds himself “a tiny bit disappointed when it turned out the wreck lay in waters that were only a few meters deep. . . . I had expected a depth of say a hundred meters, . . . extreme pressure, . . . an overwhelming darkness, . . . perhaps even a little submarine or diving bell. But on the seabed near the coast, right beneath the feet of bathers, within the range of any boy with flippers and a diving mask?”
We shouldn’t be. That wrecked slave ship from 1768 remained undiscovered in those shallows for centuries; the depth of the water isn’t the way to measure the achievement. Consider, for example, that in the nearly 1,500 pages of “My Struggle” to appear so far in English translation, I would estimate that not more than a few dozen days are detailed, and those days not fully. We sit through a couple of New Year’s Eves, talk about art with his friend Geir, watch the birth of one child, prepare for a funeral, listen to records, sneak candy into the house — in total, a very tiny fraction of the 16,000 or so days of the main character’s life to date, and those not even in order, yet we feel we have been this guy’s constant companion. What at first appears to be the problem of how we as readers have patience for so much information reveals itself, upon inspection, as the problem of how it is that, with so little information, we feel we have witnessed an entire life.
As in other very long books, something is inevitably being revealed about time, and about memory. “Around us, on all sides,” the narrator says of a quiet dinner with his father and brother, “it is the ’70s.” There follows a discussion about a pineapple and cream dessert, who eats it and who doesn’t. In and out of the book, Knausgaard repeatedly claims to have a weak memory, a claim one might argue the book belies, but I believe him. Knausgaard forgets most everything (which is very different from everything) the way we all forget most everything, and he might forget even a little bit more than the rest of us. His grandfather tells him a story about having once joined a rescue mission for a plane that crashed in nearby mountains. No one survived, the grandfather says, but he remembers seeing the captain’s head: “His hair was perfect! Combed back. Not a strand out of place.” It’s a kind of gruesome metonymy for memory itself: So much life gone, and this one head in the snow is what remains in the mind’s eye. The past returns to us like light almost entirely obscured by a heavy, dark screen in which memory has made a few pinholes; we see very little, really, yet we look upon it as if at the starry vault of the heavens.
But it’s not only the past we can barely see. In Norway, we learn from this book, there is a special kind of ghost, a vardoger — a spirit that arrives before its resemblant person does, so that when the person actually does arrive, it feels as if we have already seen and heard and smelled him or her. Book 3, with its focus on Knausgaard’s childhood on the Norwegian island of Tromoya, captures especially well how life in the present tense has the character of a vardoger, how it is most spectral while it is actually going on; events begin to seem more substantial only later, paradoxically, in reflection. “The book he read was about an old woman in the wilderness, impossible to understand, not a word,” Knausgaard says, recalling an early teacher but also evoking — with that seemingly nonsensical book — the undercurrent of all of his childhood experiences. A soccer game reads like a convocation of shades; the Knausgaard who is in the scene (as opposed to writing it) often misses the essence of what is happening. The project of noting what you’d think need not be noted — this and then this and then that, we get it — begins to make sense: What we are seeing right now, we can’t yet actually see.
We might wonder why, right now, we as readers are able to see Knausgaard pretty well. If “My Struggle” — which is arguably most engrossing when it describes the care of children in what feels like minute-to-minute detail — were written from the point of view of a woman, would it be the literary sensation it is? I don’t think it would be. But this points to blindnesses outside the book, not in it. That cultural norms are obtuse about men and women in such different ways is an essential part of Knausgaard’s predicament; he changes diapers, he cooks dinner, he is said to be pretty good-looking, he doesn’t talk about sex all that much — he often feels perceived as too feminine. This runs deep. One of his very few childhood memories of his mother involves her buying him a swim cap with flowers on it, and one of the most hilarious moments in the novel so far comes at a party when Knausgaard realizes no one expects him to be the guy to break down the door behind which his own pregnant wife is trapped. The female mirror of “My Struggle” would arguably not be a woman’s detailed domestic diary — we are all too comfortable seeing that situation as wholly normal, and therefore not seeing it at all — but instead a kind of virago story. Perhaps the vardoger that preceded “My Struggle” is that work by another Norwegian great, Henrik Ibsen — “A Doll’s House.”
Book 3: Boyhood
By Karl Ove Knausgaard
Translated by Don Bartlett
427 pp. Archipelago Books. $27.