Karl Ove Knausgaard
Boyhood Island

Norwegian sensation Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-part autobiographical novel My Struggle has been critically compared to Marcel Proust’s  À la recherche du temps perdu, chiefly, one suspects, because they both take forever to get to the point. True, both sagas are epic, voluminous and meander between remembrance and philosophy, but while Proust searched for transcendence in minutiae, Knausgaard has explicitly steered clear of “aiming for the sublime”.

That won’t likely prevent this, the third volume in the My Struggle cycle, being hailed as genius, as its predecessors were, so it is pertinent to again take stock and ask: is it brilliant? Is he overhyped? Or does everything Scandinavian get a pass in the wake of political drama Borgen?

The earlier volumes drew acclaim for Knausgaard’s unhinged honesty in chronicling his life (Zadie Smith craves them “like crack”, an endorsement that has not gone unnoticed by his marketers). His ambivalence to marriage, fatherhood and literary fame found particular resonance with writers and critics, especially his vocal contempt for his peers in Nordic letters. It’s impossible to imagine any participant in Australian literature being so honest about their friends and rivals.

Boyhood Island, however, deals with his childhood. The title, chosen for the English-language release, has both a literal and figurative meaning. The story opens with eight-month-old Karl Ove moving to a housing estate on the island Tromøy in Norway. There, his life, while idyllic and adventurous on the surface, is alienating and deeply traumatic, as he navigates a childhood in which his father is an omniscient, malevolent presence.

Young Knausgaard, an awkward, effeminate child, goes through all the usual rites of passage – making friends, falling in love, being humiliated in clothes bought by his mother – all under the fist of a domestic tyrant. Dad is an unpredictable, abusive parent who swings between garden-variety bully and sadistic emotional predator. The sense of visceral dread conjured by his father permeates this volume and, consequently, the entirety of Knausgaard’s life and oeuvre thus far. 

In one scene, after realising his cereal is prepared with rancid milk, young Karl Ove eats the whole bowl, quietly retching, rather than risk his father’s anger by complaining. The scene is typically stripped back, deadpan, horrifying, but almost funny. It’s Knausgaard at his best: panning gold from the blackness, drawing poetry out of the mundane. The way falling rain changes a dry road drop by drop, for example, or the sensation of walking through a forest rendered magical by imagination and the intense friendships of childhood. His endless descriptions skirt the line between idiot and savant, sometimes terminally dull, sometimes breathtakingly beautiful, so that you sigh and your eyes skip almost involuntarily back over the past sentence to savour it more thoroughly. 

At these times, the favourable comparisons to Proust seem apt, but then for every passage of beautifully drawn minutiae, there’ll be pages and pages of Knausgaard taking a shit, with nary a madeleine in sight.

A better comparison is to Émile Zola, the novelist who held the social inequity of Second Empire France to account with his gritty, naturalistic novels. But while Zola exploited proletarian grunge to drive his point home, Knausgaard writes searchingly of the existential horrors of a nice middle-class life. Boyhood Island covers the genesis of his trauma and, arguably, his talent as a moral vivisectionist.

In the first two volumes, the narrative is marked by a studied tone-deafness to other’s feelings, a trait flagged by the ironic lifting of his title from Hitler’s infamous screed. He states his intent explicitly in part two: “The life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle.”

The unflinching honesty with which he wrote about the real people in his life led to a massive backlash, the loss of friends, estrangement from family, deep hurt dealt to his wife. Early in Boyhood Island, young Knausgaard is scolded by a teacher for revealing embarrassing details about a friend: “We all have a private life ... Do you know what that is?”

You get the feeling that, just a little too late, Knausgaard does understand, and is trying to minimise collateral damage in this book. Written in the turbulent wake of his earlier successes, it is somewhat safer, less rambling, closer to a traditional memoir.

His mother and brother are loving, sympathetic characters, and the chief villain is his father, long dead. This harrowing memoir of a discombobulating childhood is, compared with the shade Knausgaard normally throws, almost happy, and it offers a curious kind of closure to readers who drank the Kool-Aid with A Death in the Family, the first, heartbreaking part of the saga. 

This instalment is very much a middle volume and, between the lines, one can almost hear Knausgaard taking a breather, which is not unwelcome. There’s perhaps no lazier, more dismissive and wrongheaded thing a critic can say about a book than, “It could have used an edit”, but maybe, perhaps, the first two could have.

In those books, in full flight, he unleashed a torrent of prose, so thoroughly packed with wonderful turns of phrase and philosophical gems that it became almost exhausting.

It reminded me of my first trip abroad, when I tried to pack so much culture and grand architecture into my travels that I lost perspective and could no longer appreciate them. There was the Eiffel Tower, here is the Sistine Chapel, where is a McDonald’s?

This book is Knausgaard’s McDonald’s, accessible and family friendly, at least compared to the earlier works. His more restrained approach, while exploring of the wonders and terror of childhood, is as palatable as a Big Mac: less nourishing than ideal, and perhaps a little bland, but no less desirable for it.  ZC

Harvill Secker, 496pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 29, 2014 as "Boyhood Island, Karl Ove Knausgaard".

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