Bumpy ride begins in Bergen
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