(An old post that I apparently never got around to posting)
Normally when something is called a novel, I am resistant to the urge to read it as autobiographical. A good example here is Proust’s novel. While the emotions there are certainly real, as are many of the observations and the details of the narrator’s life, there is no way in which that can be said to be a true story. (For one thing, the narrator is straight, whereas Proust himself was pretty gay.)
Knausgaard’s books feel a bit different. For one thing, he uses the names of real people, including his wife and himself. Secondly, everything seems to pretty much check out, in terms of details. Thirdly, it’s real enough to have destroyed his life, including his relationship with his wife.
The second volume is really good though! Even better than the first! It shows, at times, a lighter and happier Knausgaard. He’s still sick with shame and self-hatred, but he also falls in love! He has children! And the experience of fatherhood, while embarrassing and exhausting, is not entirely unpleasant to him. He writes movingly about his kids’ quirks: their individual foibles and personalities that’re already evident, even when they’re only two or four or six, even as he also writes about how he feels feminized and undone by the experience of fatherhood.
It’s the ambivalence that makes Knausgaard worth reading. Even when he’s falling in love, there are moments–sometimes even entire swathes of time–when he feels curiously ambivalent toward his wife. And later, once he’s made a life with her, he portrays their anger and discord. But not in a way that makes their marriage seem altogether sick. He’s already survived one bad marriage, for one thing, and seems to have no thought of leaving his second wife, Linda. It’s more of an assessment that this is what marriage is. When you join two people under conditions of immense strain (three kids, no money, and an insane upstairs neighbor), there are going to be cracks. And just when things with Linda seem at their worst, there is a cessation of hostilities and they become peaceful and loving again.
The criticism of Knausgaard, amongst many others, is that he only gets this attention because he’s a man who writes about home and family and fatherhood. Which might have an element of truth. But…he is a man who writes about those things. He’s a man who writes about changing diapers, and about how while he’s trying to change her, his daughter gets her foot into the dirty diaper and smears her foot with feces and now he must go to the bathroom and wash her off entirely.
There’s a lot here that’s honest and well-observed. And, honestly, it’s like nothing else I’ve ever read before. In some ways the only comparison feels like the other foreign phenom, Elena Ferrante. I read her Days of Abandonment recently, and there’s a part in that book, too, where the mother–abandoned by her husband–grows indifferent to the fate of her children. Both authors have the courage to write about what the heart really holds, rather than what it ought to hold.
Which is not the same as writing about darkness, mind you. I think that’s the other way in which authors go wrong. They’ll write about cruel or indifferent characters, and their portraits will be bold but flat. Knausgaard doesn’t do that. In his work there’s always a mixture of light and dark.