I received an advanced review copy of this book from Archipelago Books through NetGalley. It was published in the original Norwegian in 2009 and has been translated for this English edition by Don Bartlet. Knausgaard has published his autobiographical novel in six parts and this is the fourth installment that has been translated into English. You do not have to read the other books in the series first as this book stands on its own. But after you do read Book 4 you will be clamoring to pick up the first three.
Music. Sex. Drinking. These are the three main topics on eighteen-year old Karl Ove’s mind at any given time. He has just graduated from high school, or gymnas as it is called in Norway, and has accepted a temporary teaching position at a school in a remote fishing village in the northern part of Norway. Karl Ove wants to get as far away from his hometown as possible and he also wants the opportunity to write since this is what he forsees as his future career.
The first third of the book deals with Karl Ove’s settling into his new home in Norway and trying to teach a variety of subjects to middle school students. He feels a certain sense of freedom while he is living by himself and earning his own way for the first time in his life. A lot of music is mentioned in the book as it is one of his main areas of interest. Karl Ove writes music reviews for a local paper and begins to appear on a radio program that discusses music. If you are nostalgic for pop and rock music from the mid to late 1980’s you will appreciate the discussion of Karl Ove’s collection of albums.
A large part of the book is a flashback to Karl Ove’s last two years in high school where he slowly begins to distance himself from life as a child, an existence that is constantly reliant on his parents. A large part of his growing up has to do with the separation of his parent’s and the dissolution of their marriage. Karl Ove’s father is a distant, cold and harsh man who beat and scared his children when they were younger. Now that he father has moved out of their home, Karl Ove attempts to get beyond the issues he had with his father in the past and become his own independent man.
One incident in the book, in particular, that demonstrate Karl Ove’s struggles as he is coming of age is his attempt to keep in touch with his father. One day when he has gotten out of school and has nothing to do he pays a surprise visit to his father. When he arrives, his father is cold and distant and scolds Karl Ove for not calling first. As a sixteen-year-old high school student, Karl Ove still craves a relationship with his father, despite their dysfunctional past. Reading about his father’s reject of him in such a heartless way is distressing but this incident does not deter Karl Ove from still trying to forge a relationship with this undeserving and cruel man.
One of the things that surprised me is the amount of autonomy he has throughout the book. His mother works full-time as a teaching nurse so he comes and goes as he pleases. He only visits his father, who has developed a rather severe drinking problem and has gotten remarried, once in a while. Karl Ove starts to smoke and drink in excess, to the point where he blacks out and loses large chunks of time. His mother finally catches on to how serious his problem has become and she throws him out of their home. This has the opposite effect she intended and instead causes him to go on a drinking and hash binge for days on end. Throughout the book I worried for him, I was concerned that no one keeps a better eye on this sixteen-year-old who is really still a boy and I felt his constant, underlying sadness and loneliness
Karl Ove also wants, more than anything, to be in some sort of a relationship with a girl but the situations involving his romantic life never quite work out. He is desperately in love with a girl named Hanne who pays Karl Ove quite a bit of attention to the point of leading him on, but she never actually intends to start a relationship with him. It seems that all of his friends have girlfriends, or are at least having sex, and Karl Ove is very self-conscious of the fact the he is still a virgin. Time and again in the book he has an opportunity to be with a girl, but he has a severe case of premature ejaculation. It is tragic that he is too young and immature to understand that patience and the right woman would solve all of his problems.
The style of the book is very unusual and does not read like a traditional novel. The experience of feels more like perusing the very detailed diary of a teenage boy; there are minute descriptions of what he eats, where he goes, and his daily activities. I did not find this boring or mundane, but instead it helped to vividly set the scene of his life for me. The only completely developed character in the novel is Karl Ove himself. He has interactions with countless people but what he describes is his own reactions to them and their effect on him; we never get to know other characters that show up in his life in any depth.
What I enjoyed, and even admired the most about this autobiographical novel is that the author’s experiences are raw, unfiltered and completely honest. Knausgaard could have censored some of his feelings and most embarrassing moments. I think that by laying it all out there for the world to see is brave and makes MY STRUGGLE BOOK 4 an absorbing and emotional read.
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