Leav­ing the naive world of boy­hood

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James Ley

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.

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