Leaving the naive world of boyhood
Boyhood Island: My Struggle: 3 By Karl Ove Knausgaard Harvill Secker, 496pp, $32.99
NEAR the end of A Man in Love, the second of his My Struggle series of autobiographical novels, Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard notes an odd feature of the fiction of his celebrated compatriot Knut Hamsun: it contains almost no depictions of parenting and childhood. “Characters emerge from nothing in his books. Without a vestige of the past.’’ This is one of the things that makes them seem curiously modern, since they “somehow become the first mass-produced humans, that is without their predetermining origins. They are determined by the present.’’
Knausgaard’s observation is not strictly accurate. Isak and Inger, the salt-of-the-earth farming couple in Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil, have children. But that novel’s opening sequence, in which a grown man without a distinct past, without apparent familial and social connections, walks across a virgin landscape, finds an unoccupied piece of fertile ground and begins to farm the land and establish a home, is a good example of the peculiar quality Knausgaard has in mind. Hamsun was an arch-reactionary who despised the rootlessness of the modern world, yet he was self-created in precisely the manner he affected to deplore, and when he came to give literary expression to his idiosyncratic, proto-fascist blood and soil ideology, he invented a myth of origin, an impossible fantasy of pure and noble independence to set against the corruptions of society.
Hamsun is one of several prominent writers whose legacy shadows the My Struggle books and his significance for Knausgaard lies in the paradoxes of his character and his anti-modern modernism. Indeed, the beginning of Boyhood Island, the third book in the series, may be read as a rewriting of the resonant opening pages of Growth of the Soil, and perhaps a rebuke to Hamsun’s ahistorical mythologising. In Knausgaard’s version, it is not a solitary man who arrives from nowhere at the site of his new life but an established family of two adults and two children. They do not walk across virgin territory but travel by bus to the Norwegian island of Tromoya, which has a long history: it has fortifications from World War II; there are the ruins of a 12th-century church; stone flints can be found in the soil.
Yet Knausgaard’s arrival scene is also depicted as a fresh start, a decoupling from the past. His family is one of many moving into Tromoya’s new housing estates. His parents belong to the first postwar generation, which established a new kind of Norwegian society. They broke with tradition: they moved away from their home towns, obtained qualifications and worked in middle-class professional jobs. Knausgaard, who is the eight-month-old baby in the pram in the opening scene, considers this disconnection in a characteristically subjective manner. His understanding of the distinctiveness of the historical moment is defined by the fact he is a product of this new society.
Boyhood Island plunges us into the presentdetermined world of his childhood, documenting the minor misadventures of his early school years. He records small humiliations (when he needs a swimming cap for lessons, his mother buys him a fetching Esther Williams number adorned with plastic flowers), feral behaviour (he and his friend Geir like to shit in the forest) and acts of immature foolishness. The book also extends the devastating portrayal of Knausgaard’s dysfunctional relationship with his father, whose bullying presence hangs over these early memories like a dark cloud.