Bumpy ride be­gins in Ber­gen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Mal­colm Forbes

And so the Knaus­gaard jug­ger­naut rolls around again. Those who have avidly fol­lowed the progress of the in­ter­na­tion­ally ac­claimed My Strug­gle cy­cle have ad­mired Karl Ove Knaus­gaard’s chutz­pah (his pro­ject is called Min Kamp in the orig­i­nal Nor­we­gian, Mein Kampf in Ger­man) and rel­ished his can­dour. His self-por­traits, whether of an angst-rid­den ado­les­cent or a man bat­tling the vi­cis­si­tudes of adult life, have been up-close, in­depth, warts-and-all de­pic­tions of highs and lows, stum­bles and falls. Each book has been noth­ing less than an im­mer­sive and com­pul­sive read­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. It is no won­der that devo­tees wait hun­grily for the next in­stal­ment.

Some Rain Must Fall con­sti­tutes the fifth and penul­ti­mate chap­ter in the saga. The first four books took in the death of Knaus­gaard’s father and the col­lapse of his mar­riage, his boy­hood in the south of Nor­way and his stint as a teacher in the far north of the coun­try. On this out­ing — again ex­pertly trans­lated by Don Bartlett — a 19-year-old Karl Ove moves to Ber­gen and at­tempts to get his writ­ing ca­reer off the ground.

Like its pre­de­ces­sor, Danc­ing in the Dark, whose ti­tle cov­ered sev­eral bases (Karl Ove’s love of 80s mu­sic; the lit­eral dark of the Arc­tic and the fig­u­ra­tive dark of en­croach­ing demons), Some Rain Must Fall proves to have more than one mean­ing. Ber­gen is “the town of swish­ing wind­screen wipers”, and whole episodes in the book play out in show­ers and down­pours. But that rain also sym­bol­ises bouts of bad luck. On the first page, Knaus­gaard fore­casts many a washout, telling us his stay in Ber­gen was “such a ter­ri­ble time. I knew so lit­tle, had such am­bi­tions and achieved noth­ing”.

Read­ers new to Knaus­gaard will learn some­thing else on the first page. “The four­teen years I lived in Ber­gen, from 1988 to 2002, are long gone,” he writes by way of a dis­claimer, “no traces of them are left other than as in­ci­dents a few peo­ple might re­mem­ber, a flash of rec­ol­lec­tion here, a flash of rec­ol­lec­tion there.” On no ac­count, then, is this a mem­oir. But the book doesn’t fully live up to its “fic­tion” des­ig­na­tion ei­ther. How­ever, rather than de­bate whether it mer­its that rare cross-breed clas­si­fi­ca­tion of “fic­tion­alised au­to­bi­og­ra­phy”, we should just dive right in and be swept along by Knaus­gaard’s free-flow­ing sen­tences and the rough and smooth cur­rents that make up this stage in his life.

Karl Ove ar­rives in Ber­gen to study at the pres­ti­gious Writ­ing Academy. He gets into writer mode by read­ing and be­ing en­thralled by Knut Ham­sun’s Hunger and find­ing a bed­sit that has “a Dos­to­evsky feel”. He is the youngest stu­dent on the course and his im­ma­tu­rity man­i­fests it­self when the other par­tic­i­pants cri­tique his work. He is bruised by their con­struc­tive feed­back, most of which high­lights cliches and su­per­fi­cial thought, and feels in­ad­e­quate and un­able to im­prove. “I had to de­scend into the depths of my own con­scious­ness, into the dark- ness of my soul, but how the hell was I sup­posed to do that?”

In­stead of per­se­ver­ing he pla­gia­rises a fel­low stu­dent’s work, then be­gins to bunk off and lose him­self in round-the-clock binges (“in the middle of the day, drunk, it was as though I was right and ev­ery­one else was wrong”). In hap­pier, more sober mo­ments, we see him start­ing and strength­en­ing friend­ships and re­la­tion­ships, be­ing a du­ti­ful grand­son, en­thus­ing about Bri­tish post-punk pop and Amer­i­can in­die rock, and writ­ing lyrics for and later drum­ming in brother Yngve’s band.

But then more rain falls, trig­ger­ing acts of self-de­struc­tion and waves of self-pity. Real disas­ter strikes when Yngve steals Karl Ove’s girl­friend. Par­ties and drink­ing ses­sions at Cafe Opera cul­mi­nate in blackouts, po­lice cells and self-harm.

Af­ter leav­ing us with an in­deli­ble im­age of his younger — or fic­tional — self hit­ting rock bot­tom, Knaus­gaard fast for­wards to 1992. We hear of his ar­du­ous shifts work­ing at a hos­pi­tal for the men­tally ill (“a ware­house for un­wanted peo­ple”), his de­ter­mi­na­tion to be a dili­gent stu­dent of lit­er­a­ture at univer­sity, and his in­duc­tion into the field of book re­view­ing — one early re­view be­ing a hatchet job on “a Ja­panese writer by the name of Mu­rakami, the book was about some­one hunt­ing spe­cial sheep”.

A fresh round of scrapes and blun­ders un­folds, but at the end of the may­hem come sev­eral new, life-chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ences. Knaus­gaard de­cides that his lat­est flame, Tonje, is the woman of his dreams and so moves in with her, then mar­ries her. His father dies. And at long last he be­comes a pub­lished au­thor.

But just when we think he will live hap­pily ever af­ter, set­tling down with a lov­ing wife and em­bark­ing on a promis­ing ca­reer, he sleeps around (and is found out) and can­not write a se­cond novel. By rights, we shouldn’t be sur­prised: from be­gin­ning to end, the book has been a chron­i­cle of in­fi­delity, naivety and selfish­ness, a cau­tion­ary tale about sky-high ideals, botched op­por­tu­ni­ties and squan­dered tal­ent.

As ever, this is nar­rated in a long, chap­ter­less screed. Knaus­gaard’s cre­ative writ­ing teach­ers would be ap­palled not only by the book’s struc­ture but also its con­tent. Sen­tences come clogged with the un­fil­tered minu­tiae of daily life. Ev­ery in­con­se­quen­tial move­ment and ba­nal ges­ture is recorded: “I lit a cig­a­rette, ran a hand through my hair. The rain had made my hair gel sticky. I dried my hand on my thigh, leaned for­ward and took the Walk­man from my ruck­sack …” Shop­worn turns of phrase (“a rate of knots”, “it takes two to tango”, “slept like a log”) punc­tu­ate cir­cu­lar rou­tines (end­less drink­ing, heartache and navel-gaz­ing) or sit along­side car­toon­ish shock-and-awe out­bursts: “OOOOOHHHHH” Knaus­gaard says af­ter a fall; “haw, haw, haw” he guf­faws; “Da-dum. Dadum. Da-dum” goes his pulse.

And yet once again, Knaus­gaard’s sto­ry­telling is a mas­ter­class in clar­ity and in­ten­sity. The litany of quo­tid­ian de­tail is strangely mes­meris­ing, even grip­ping. When not shar­ing in­ti­mate thoughts on mas­tur­ba­tion or frank con­fes­sions about girls, friends or his tyran­ni­cal father, he goes off on re­ward­ing ex­is­ten­tial tan­gents, di­lat­ing on time, fate and for­tune. Trips to Florence, Reyk­javik and Nor­wich of­fer wel­come breaks from rain-drenched Ber­gen, and a des­per­ate flit into ex­ile in the clos­ing pages sets up the next and last in­stal­ment in the se­ries.

The book serves as a por­trait of the artist as a young man, and as such it is at its most ab­sorb­ing when writ­ing is on the page. Knaus­gaard starts out with the firm be­lief he will be a writer (“a star, a bea­con for oth­ers”) and strives to pro­duce a novel that is “en­ter­tain­ing but pro­found too”. Grad­u­ally, how­ever, that faith is shred­ded. Over the years he is sur­rounded by more dis­ci­plined, more bril­liant, and ul­ti­mately more suc­cess­ful writ­ers. At one point he re­alises that over the past two years he has writ­ten be­tween 15 and 20 pages. A painful truth dawns on him: “I was a wannabe who was ac­tu­ally un­able to write be­cause I had noth­ing to say.”

Weigh­ing in at nearly 700 pages, Some Rain Must Fall has plenty to say. It is a lengthy jour­ney, a bumpy ride full of pit­falls and set­backs, but one that shapes its pro­tag­o­nist and trans­ports its reader. Knaus­gaard may only present fic­tion­alised events, but on each page, and in ev­ery de­tail, Karl Ove pulses with life. Da-dum. Da-dum. Da-dum.

is an Ed­in­burgh-based critic.

Nor­we­gian au­thor Karl Ove Knaus­gaard

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