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Posts Tagged ‘My Struggle’

Boyhood Island‘ is the third book in Karl Ove Knausgaard’sMy Struggle‘ series. In this book, Knausgaard describes his childhood from the time of his birth, till around thirteen years of age. This book is different from the first two books in the series. Which is good news and bad news. The good news is that the story told is pretty straightforward – it starts from year zero and runs till around year thirteen. So we can read it as a novel about childhood, as a coming-of-age story. The bad news is this. In his other two books, Knausgaard digresses a lot from the main story, he takes an idea or theme and runs with it for many pages, and these parts have some of the most beautiful passages in the book. But this book doesn’t have those digressions. So those beautiful passages are missing. I missed reading those long sentences and those multiple pages that I highlighted continuously. But I still liked ‘Boyhood Island‘.

One of my favourite characters in the first part of the series, ‘A Death in the Family‘, was Knausgaard’s mother. She was such a wonderful person. She plays only a minimal role in the second book, but she is back here, and it was wonderful to read more about her. One of the main themes of this third part was Knausgaard’s relationship to his dad. Knausgaard’s dad appears to be a menacing figure who bullies his kids but who also shows them the occasional kindness, and treats his wife, Knausgaard’s mother, well. Those parts were hard for me to read, because my dad was menacing too when I was a kid (not as bad as Knausgaard’s dad, but still), and sometimes the incidents that Knausgaard described were triggering for me and brought back some parts of my childhood and made me angry. At one point Knausgaard’s dad moves away from home for a year to pursue further studies at university, and after dropping him at the airport, Knausgaard’s mom comes back home and asks him, “Would you like to help me bake some bread?“, after which Knausgaard the narrator tells us, the readers, “That might have been the year dad lost his grip on us.” My heart leaped with joy when I read that.

Knausgaard’s grandmothers on both sides are so charming and affectionate and I loved the parts where they make an appearance in the story. This was one of my favourite passages about one of Knausgaard’s grandmothers.

“I never quite understood what the power relationship was between grandma and grandad. On the one hand, she always served him food, cooked all the meals, did all the washing-up and the housework as though she were his servant; on the other hand, she was often angry or irritated with him, and then she gave him a mouthful or made a fool of him, she was sharp and not infrequently sarcastic, while he said very little, preferring not to respond. Was it because he didn’t need to? Because nothing of what she said altered anything important? Or because he couldn’t? If Yngve and I would be present during such sparring, grandma would wink at us as if to say this wasn’t serious, or use us in her sally against him by saying things as ‘Grandad can’t even change a lightbulb properly’, while grandad, for his part, would look at us, smile and shake his head at grandma’s antics. I never saw any form of intimacy between them, other than in their verbal exchanges or the closeness that was evident when she served him.”

There is lots of other stuff in the book – friendship, football, comics, books, music, first teachers at school, first crush, the adventures that kids have. I won’t tell you more. You should read the book for yourself and find out. I will just say one thing. I was so happy that Knausgaard mentioned my favourite Western comic hero, Tex Willer, a couple of times. This is the first time I’m seeing Tex Willer mentioned in a book.

Boyhood Island‘ is an interesting book on childhood, on coming-of-age. It made me think about other famous childhood and coming-of-age stories, like J.M.Coetzee’sBoyhood‘, R.K.Narayan’sSwami and Friends‘, Stephen King’sStand By Me‘, and my favourite, Marlen Haushofer’sNowhere Ending Sky‘. I enjoyed reading it.

Well, that is nearly 1600 pages of ‘My Struggle’ done 😁 2400 more pages of ‘My Struggle’ left 😁

Have you read ‘Boyhood Island‘? What do you think about it?

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I was flitting from one book to another in the last few days of June, without settling on one book. Then I picked Knausgaard’sA Man in Love‘ and the days of flitting were over.

In ‘A Man in Love‘, Knausgaard continues the story he told in the first part, ‘A Death in the Family‘. I won’t bore you with the plot outline – the book is 664 pages long, and I won’t be able to do justice to it. I will just say that most of the book is about how Knausgaard met his wife Linda, how they fell in love, and started a family, and how each of their three children bring a lot of joy and test their patience everyday. So the book is about love, family, children, being parents. The book is also about books, literature, reading, writing.

There is one thing about Knausgaard’s prose that I noticed while reading this book. The book fluctuates between two styles. The first is the regular storytelling where there are events which move the story and there is a lot of dialogue. The second is where Knausgaard takes a topic or a theme and runs with it for many pages. The first aspect of the book was good. But my favourite was the second one. That was where Knausgaard took a pause from the story and wrote most of my favourite passages. Sometimes I highlighted whole pages continuously, that it became too much. Later, I just marked the top of the page to indicate that the whole page has been highlighted. I have heard readers say that they liked this part more than the first part of the series. But I think I liked the first part more. I think that is probably because the first part had more of those contemplative passages than the second part. Or maybe I was just new to Knausgaard’s style and so the first part left a bigger impact.

As the book is about family, and as Knausgaard is famous for his unflinching close observations, the story is not always pleasant. It might sometimes feel uncomfortably too close to home. So, read at your own risk.

I’ll leave you with two of my favourite passages from the book.

“When I think of my three children, it is not only their distinctive faces which appear before me, but also the quite distinct feeling they radiate. This feeling, which is constant, is what they ‘are’ for me. And what they ‘are’ has been present in them ever since the first day I saw them. At that time they could barely do anything, and the little bit they could do, like sucking on a breast, raising their arms as reflex actions, looking at their surroundings, imitating, they could all do that, thus what they ‘are’ has nothing to do with qualities, has nothing to do with what they can or can’t do but is more a kind of light that shines within them. Their character traits, which slowly began to reveal themselves after only a few weeks, have never changed either, and so different are they inside each of them that it is difficult to imagine the conditions we provide for them, through our behaviour and ways of being, have any decisive significance.”

“What had started out as a long essay slowly but surely was growing into a novel, it soon reached a point where it was everything, and writing was all I did. I moved into the office, wrote day and night, sleeping an hour here and there. I was filled with an absolutely fantastic feeling, a kind of light burned within me, not hot and consuming but cold and clear and shining. At night I took a cup of coffee with me and sat down on the bench outside the hospital to smoke, the streets around me were quiet, and I could hardly sit still, so great was my happiness. Everything was possible, everything made sense. At two places in the novel I had soared higher than I had thought possible, and those two places alone, which I could not believe I had written, and no one else has noticed or said anything about, made the preceding five years of failed writing worth all the effort. They are two of the best moments in my life. By which I mean my whole life. The happiness that filled me and the feeling of invincibility they gave me I have searched for ever since, in vain.”

Have you read ‘A Man in Love‘? What do you think about it?

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I finally dipped into the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic ‘My Struggle‘. The English translation of the first volume is called ‘A Death in the Family‘. I have been reading it for the past twelve days and finally finished reading it yesterday.

My Struggle‘ is probably classified as auto-fiction. So the story and the events described in it are probably all inspired by what actually happened. So the narrator in the book is Karl Ove Knausgaard himself, his wife is called Linda and the characters appearing in the book are all probably real people. I didn’t do my research to find out whether there are any imaginary characters in the book. So why call it fiction? Why not call it a memoir or an autobiography? The only reason I can think of is that the author wanted to embellish some events with his own imagination, and also wanted to avoid being sued, if a real person making an appearance in the book took offence. Calling a book ‘fiction’ and putting a disclaimer on the first page takes care of all that.

The book starts with a long meditation on death, which is quite insightful and beautiful. Then the story starts when Karl Ove was a boy and then it moves back and forth and flits through multiple time periods. In many places, Knausgaard talks about one thing, and then goes back into the past to describe a related thing, and before we can blink, we have entered a rabbit hole, and we are immersed in the past, and when we come up for a breath of fresh air, we discover that thirty pages have gone and we are still in the past, and we wonder what happened to the present event he was describing, and before we know the story flits back seamlessly into the present. It is quite fascinating. I loved these digressions. However, it is not everyone’s cup of tea.

The book alternates between long contemplative passages and pages, and moving the story forward with events and dialogue. The concentration of the contemplative passages is more in the first half of the book, and the second part has more dialogue and events. I liked both aspects of the book, but I liked the contemplative parts more. I read many of those contemplative passages and passages many times, and at times I didn’t want to move forward and kept reading those pages again and again. They were beautiful and insightful and thought-provoking and delightful to read. Knausgaard talks about every kind of topic under the sun – art, books, music, football and an infinite variety of other things – and there is something in these pages for every kind of reader.

What about the story itself? The story is interesting and the narrator talks about every kind of close relationship we have with our family members. The narrator’s views and insights are honest and frank and unflinching and sometimes we might even find them uncomfortable. But they are always deep and thought-provoking. The characters are complex and well-developed and real. I loved the characters of his mother, grandmother, and the brother Yngve, but there are lots of characters, they are all fascinating.

Knausgaard’s book was highly acclaimed when it first came out. Zadie Smith said, “It’s completely blown my mind.” Another reviewer said that it “has strong claim to be the great literary event of the twenty-first century.” But there are other fascinating, insightful thoughts too. For example, you can find Lisa’s (from ‘ANZ Litlovers’) review here and Jacqui’s review here. You can also find Melissa’s (from The Book Binder’s Daughter) thoughts on auto-fiction here, which compares Knausgaard’s book with others.

From my perspective, I loved the first part of ‘My Struggle’. I loved reading those contemplative passages many times. Some readers feel that the second part is even better than the first part. I can’t wait to get into it.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“When I was at home on my own every room had its own character, and though not directly hostile to me they were not exactly welcoming, either. It was more as if they did not want to subordinate themselves to me, but wanted to exist in their own right, with their own individual walls, floors, ceilings, skirting boards, yawning windows. I was aware of a deadness about the rooms – that was what made me uncomfortable – by which I mean not dead in the sense of life having ceased, but rather life being absent, the way that life is absent from a rock, a glass of water, a book. The presence of our cat, Mefisto, was not strong enough to dispel this, I just saw the cat in the yawning room; however, were a person to come in, even if it were only a small baby, the yawning room was gone. My father filled the rooms with disquiet, my mother filled them with gentleness, patience, melancholy, and on occasion, if she came home from work and was tired, also with a faint yet noticeable undercurrent of irritability. Per, who never ventured further than the front hall, filled it with happiness, expectation and submission. Jan Vidar, who was so far the only person outside my family to have been in my room, filled it with obstinacy, ambition and friendliness. It was interesting when several people were present because there wasn’t any space for the sway of more than one, at top two wills in a room, and it was not always the strongest that was the most obvious.”

Have you read the first part of Knausgaard’sMy Struggle‘? What do you think about it?

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I can’t remember when exactly I discovered Karl Ove Knausgaard. But I can remember exactly the time when he started to persistently demand my attention. That was when I read an article about books which were too big to be carried around and read in the subway or in any other form of public transport. One of the books on the list was Knausgaard’s ‘The End‘ which was the last volume of his 6-volume epic, ‘My Struggle‘. I added it to my list of ‘Epic chunksters which I hope to read, but probably won’t‘. I have been tempted many times since, to get that epic. I have always talked myself out of it, telling myself that ‘I will never read it, it is too big‘, ‘I got Proust’sIn Search of Lost Time‘ ten years back and I haven’t read it yet, the same fate will befall this‘, and ‘I have too many unread books on my shelf, I need to read them first.’ I thought I had come out of this unscathed, and I was happy about it, but then recently I saw the first two volumes of ‘My Struggle‘ in my friend’s shelfie, and it was the last straw on the camel’s back. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I went and got it.

So my friends, may I present the epic mother-of-all-chunksters, the one which will give Proust a run for his money, Karl Ove Knausgaard’sMy Struggle‘ 🙂 (Who calls their lifetime epic literary work ‘My Struggle’? Why???)

I think there should be a word for an epic chunkster which runs to thousands of pages (the edition I have runs to 4008 pages), which is highly recommended but rarely read, which looks like a novel, but which in reality is a veiled memoir of the author. I think that word could be ‘Knausgaardian‘. ‘Proustian‘, you have been around for nearly a century now, and we love you, but it is time for you to step aside now, because the new kid-off-the-block has arrived, he is your 21st century version, and his name is ‘Knausgaardian‘.

One of my friends says that she reads a chunkster every summer. I loved that idea. So thought I’ll try to read Knausgaard’s epic, this summer. Atleast dip my toes into it. Then I read the great Yoshida Kenko saying in his book ‘Essays in Idleness‘ –

“Those who feel the impulse to pursue the path of enlightenment should immediately take the step, and not defer it while they attend to all the other things on their mind. If you say to yourself, ‘Let’s just wait until after this is over,’ or ‘While I’m at it I’ll just see to that,’ or ‘People will criticize me about such-and-such so I should make sure it’s all dealt with and causes no problem later,’ or ‘There’s been time enough so far, after all, and it won’t take long just to wait a little longer while I do this. Let’s not rush into things,’ one imperative thing after another will occur to detain you. There will be no end to it all, and the day of decision will never come. In general, I find that reasonably sensitive and intelligent people will pass their whole life without taking the step they know they should. Would anyone with a fire close behind them choose to pause before fleeing? In a matter of life and death, one casts aside shame, abandons riches and runs.”

Kenko was a Zen monk from the medieval ages, and he was talking about taking the path to enlightenment, but it is easy to take what he said and apply it to another suitable context. So, when I remembered Kenko’s words, I thought, ‘If I can read this in summer, I can read this in spring‘ and then ‘If I can read this in spring, I can read this today‘, and then, ‘If I can read this today, I can read this now.’ This is how the human mind works.

I have read the first few pages of the first volume, and it looks very beautiful. I have a poor record with respect to chunksters – I get started with enthusiasm, and then I get distracted after a hundred or two hundred or a few hundred pages, because real world tasks which I have kept pushing below the carpet, suddenly burst out and start demanding attention, or sometimes another book uses all its wiles to distract me. So I don’t know what is going to happen here. I have dipped my toe into the Knausgaardian ocean now, and I am waiting to see where it takes me. Please wish me well.

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