Tag Archives: Karl Ove Knausgaard

Satisfying my Craving for Details: Autobiography, Auto-Fiction, and Letters

On one of our daily walks this week, my dear friend was telling me about a cousin she had lost touch with but through a series of different circumstances she had the opportunity recently to meet and reconnect with her family member.  My friend and her cousin had been close as children but in the last ten years had not spoken for a variety of reasons.  I was fascinated by what many would consider an ordinary story and, as is my habit, I asked my friend a plethora of detailed questions, some of which she could not answer.  She likes to tease me that I ask intricate details about a story, a character, a life, that “no one ever thinks of except you, Melissa”   I like to have a complete picture, I like to get lost in the details, I like to know what it is about life and fate that brings people together and drives them apart.  I think that my habit of incessant questioning, seeking out the minutiae, is what has drawn me to reading quite of bit of autobiography, auto-fiction and letters in the past year.

I read Annie Ernaux’s A Man’s Place and The Possession early in the year and had mixed feelings about both.  There are narrow details about specific events in these brief autobiographical novellas.  A Man’s Place, for instance, describes Ernaux’s relationship with her father and the particulars of his painful illness and death.  But the scope of the story was too narrow for me; I wanted to know more about the aftermath of her parent’s death and how it was situated in the broader context of her life.  In The Possession, Ernaux recounts a relationship she has with a man after her divorce.  Even though she is the one to break off the love affair, she becomes obsessed with him after she learns that he is living with another woman.  Once again, I wanted to know how the circumstances of this affair came about—how did he compare to her ex-husband, her father, and to subsequent intimacies in her life.  Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living, which I read over the summer, felt similar in approach to Ernaux’s shorter autobiographical works.  Levy describes a very specific period in her life, the aftermath of her divorce and the adjustment to a new life but, once again, the narrow approach of her subject matter left me wanting more.

I was excited that Ernaux’s longer autobiography, The Years, was finally being translated and published in English because it might give me some of these answers I sought after reading her previous books.   The Years, told in the third person, sometimes third singular, sometimes third plural, is more of a social history than a traditional autobiography.  Ernaux describes the years between the end of World War II and the 2000’s within the broader context of what was happening in the world.  There are a lot of lists and the writing has more of a journalist tone than a personal narrative: “With the abbreviated memory one needs at sixteen simply to act and exist, she sees her childhood as a sort of silent film in colour.  Images of tanks and rubble appear and blur with others of old people who have died, handmade Mother’s Day cards, the Becassine albums, the First Communion retreat, games of sixes played against a wall.  Nor does she care to remember the more recent years, all awkwardness and shame—the time she dressed up as a music-hall dancer, the curly perms, the ankle socks.”  While I appreciate her unique approach to autobiography, I was unsatisfied for lack of personal details.  The lists, the detached narrative, became, at times, too generic and therefore uninteresting.

The recent trend towards auto-fiction feels like an attempt to turn what could be an mundane autobiography into a more engaging narrative that appeals to a wider audience.  Rachel Cusk and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s auto-fiction, for instance, have gained a lot of attention in the literary press and have been included on many a “best of” list.  I read the fourth book of Knausgaard’s autobiographical fiction and was captivated by his details, but, for some reason, I haven’t been drawn back to read any more of his books in the My Struggle series since.   I read the first two books in Cusk’s trilogy last year and enjoyed immensely the style of her writing as well as her storytelling.  But in the spring, as I read Kudos, the final book in the series, I realized that her approach to autobiography is difficult to sustain in multiple works.  There are, in my opinion, much better examples of aut0-fiction in other languages that have not gotten the same attention as Cusk or Knausgaard. Per Olov Enquist’s The Parable Book, Tomas Espedal’s Bergeners, Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow and Friederike Mayrocker’s Requiem for Ernst are all linguistically interesting and satisfied my need for details.

Since reading Kafka, I have been obsessed with the personal letters and correspondence of authors which are uniquely autobiographical.  Kafka’s letter to Felice, for instance,  that painstakingly describes their first meeting at Max Brod’s house could easily have been incorporated into an autobiography.  Kierkegaard’s surprisingly tender letters to Regine would have made a fascinating few chapters in his autobiography. Simone de Beauvoir’s letter to Nelsen Algren in which she describes her encounters with the sculptor Giacometti is the stuff of fascinating autobiographical material.  One of the first collections of personal letters that I ever read were those of Cicero which I was forced to translate during my first year of university.  I thought they were boring, self-centered and self-righteous and I haven’t given them very much attention since then.  But perhaps with my new appreciation for the autobiographical details contained in personal letters I ought to give poor Cicero another try.

Finally, this week I have begun reading Simone de Beauvoir’s three volume autobiography and I have been immediately captivated by the rich details of her childhood that she includes in the first book, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter.  Maybe I am just a traditionalist, or maybe it’s my penchant for loose, baggy monsters, but of all the autobiography, auto-fiction, and letters I have read over the past year, Beauvoir’s work is by far the most satisfying, even at only 60 pages into the first volume.  Her writing is honest, straightforward and charming: “It doesn’t take much for a child to become the sedulous ape; I had always been willing to show off: but I refused to play the parts expected of me in false situations concocted by adults for their own amusement,” she writes.  A strong foreshadowing, I suspect, of how her character and strong personality develop throughout the course of her life.

On one final note (I promise), I bought Journey Into the Mind’s Eye by Lesley Blanch that was just reissued by NYRB Classics.  The introduction, written by Georgia de Chamberet describes this autobiography as an untraditional one: “the non-fiction novel” she calls it.  I’m interested to see where this fits into the genre of “auto” books I’ve described here.

What are your favorite autobiographies, auto-fiction, letters, and non-fiction novels?  Let me know in the comments!


Filed under Essay, Nonfiction

Review: Dancing in the Dark-My Struggle Book 4 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

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.

My Review:
My Struggle 4Music. 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.

About The Author:
Karl OveKarl Ove Knausgaard was nominated to the 2004 Nordic Council’s Literature Prize & awarded the 2004 Norwegian Critics’ Prize. He made his literary debut in 1998 with the widely acclaimed novel OUT OF THE WORLD, which was a great critical and commercial success and won him, as the first debut novel ever, The Norwegian Critics’ Prize. He has since received several literary prizes for his books.


Filed under Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation