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Posts Tagged ‘Norwegian Literature’

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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After reading ‘Out Stealing Horses’ by Per Petterson, I thought I will read ‘To Siberia’ written by him, which I had got along with ‘Out Stealing Horses’. I finished reading most of the book yesterday – and if some sudden things hadn’t cropped up, I would have finished the book yesterday itself, which rarely happens for me, because I am a slow reader – and finished reading the last few chapters today. Here is what I think.

What I think

 

‘To Siberia’ is about a sister and brother growing up during the Second World War in Denmark, when the Germans occupy Denmark. The sister is the narrator of the story, and her name is unknown. The brother is called Jesper. The first part of the book is about the sister and brother growing up in a small town in Denmark and the adventures they have together and the happy and sad moments that they experience. Then the German soldiers come into Denmark and things change. Jesper works with the resistance group against the Nazis and has to leave the country at some point of time. The war ends but for some reason the sister leaves the country. She works in different places – the telephone exchange, a glass blowing factory – and finally ends up as a waitress in a café. Then she has a brief affair with a customer who frequents the café and gets pregnant. She decides to go home and spend time with her parents while she is expecting, but when she lands up at home, she discovers that her brother has died. Her mother refuses to take her in because her mother is a very strict Christian and the narrator is pregnant without being married. So, our heroine, the narrator, decides to spend her time with an acquaintance in their sheep farm taking care of the ewes that are going to lamb soon, while she herself is expecting to give birth to a baby. The story ends with this. It is not very clear what happens next – whether the narrator gave birth to a baby, what happened after that, did she fall in love, did she get married, did she finally manage to travel to Siberia.

 

‘To Siberia’ had what I have come to expect out of a Per Petterson book now – long and beautiful sentences. However, in this book, the focus was more on the plot rather than on the sentences and the language. I somehow felt that this was one of his early works and Petterson’s prose was still getting finetuned and it all came together gloriously in ‘Out Stealing Horses’. I liked ‘To Siberia’ – not as much as ‘Out Stealing Horses’, but I still liked it. It is a story of growing up, of the love between brothers and sisters, of how the Second World War affected people.

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

 

And then it began to rain. It came from all directions at full speed and not on us, but against us with the wind right in our faces; we tried to turn away, walk sideways so as not to drown and Jesper gave up and ran out into the middle of the road and began to dance with his arms in the air.

 

When they have gone away they leave a dusty emptiness behind them, the air is stuffy and lifeless like the bottom of a purse, and my father gets to work on the cupboard or the chest and shapes up and remakes and polishes and rubs until the surfaces shine with the glow that is at the heart of all wood, shining without any varnish and with handles of finely carved bone. After a few days they come to fetch it, and then the piece stands there in the centre of the floor as good as new, better than new, and I have searched for the word year after year, looked it up in books and thought and pondered and found substance. They bring a wreck and leave with substance, and they see it and look dumbfounded and praise my father until his ears flame. When they have gone he has charged them the same amount as last year and the year before that and the year before that again.

 

      “I thought you were an angel,” he mumbled.

      “Angels have fair hair. Besides, they don’t exist.”

      “Mine do, and they have dark hair.”

 

      “You can learn a lot about human beings by studying insects,” he says, “their world is like ours in miniature, they just have a far better distribution of work.” There may be clarity and contrasts in Lone’s family, but I don’t care for insects. Insects scratch and tickle, they creep up under your dress and sting you.

 

      I usually sit listening, and a lot of what was said was meant for me. I was a woman and young, and they grew red in the face and excited, with their hands in the air competing for who would come out with the most brilliant riposte. Those elderly men infected me with their enthusiasm, they did not speak in one voice, they interrupted each other and dressed up history in words and flickering yellow-brown pictures until it felt like a home, and I was the guest of honour.

 

Have you read ‘To Siberia’? What do you think about it?

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A few days back I thought that I will take out some books from my bookshelf which I have always wanted to read (they pulled me strongly and that is why I bought them), but for some reason or other, I have never got around to reading. The first one I took out was ‘Out Stealing Horses’ by Per Petterson. I did a readathon yesterday evening and finished it. Here is what I think.

What I think

 

‘Out Stealing Horses’ is about a man called Trond Sander who lives in Norway at the turn of the millennium – the most recent one. He lives in a house alone in the countryside which is surrounded by a forest. He has a neighbour nearby called Lars who also lives in the same way. Trond doesn’t have a telephone or a television. He keeps in touch with the outside world through his radio. He has an old car using which he goes out sometimes for grocery shopping or for getting tools and other stuff for his house. Trond narrates his life as it is now and also talks about his dog Lyra, his neighbour Lars, his car mechanic and a few other people whom he meets once in a while. While describing his current life, his mind goes back to his childhood, when he used to spend his summers in the countryside with his father chopping wood and playing with one of the boys who lived nearby. Trond goes back in time and describes his relationship with his father and the one last summer that he spent in the countryside. During the course of that time he discovered secrets about his father, about what his father did during the second world war, which surprised him. The whole book continues like this with different strands of the story set during different times. How the different strands come together in the end form the rest of the book.

 

The first thing I have to say about ‘Out Stealing Horses’ is Petterson’s prose. It is simple, lyrical, has beautiful thoughts and flows like a river. It was a pleasure to read every page, every sentence. I didn’t want the book to end, just for this. I also like the way Petterson moves the plot forward. Instead of just writing pages and pages of monologues with beautiful prose and ideas, he also pushes the story forward with transition between the two strands of the story happening seamlessly. And the third thing – the beautiful prose and thoughts. There were pages and pages of them and they challenged the capabilities of my overworked but untiring highlighting pen. The evocation of life in the countryside – in both strands of the story – is very delightful to read. It takes one to Norway and one can smell the wood and the forest and the grass and the cows and the hay and hear the swans and feel the heat of the woodstove and feel the cold of the snow and hear the ripple of the river. The beginning of the story was beautiful – there is even a reference to cricket in the second page (cricket in a Norwegian novel – imagine!) – and the ending was sad. Not tragic but sad in a beautiful way. The fourth thing about the story were the long sentences – sometimes these sentences went on for half a page and sometimes, even upto a page, almost Proustian. But they didn’t tax the brain as long sentences usually do – they evoked a series of images and the mind moved smoothly taking in each of them. I don’t remember the last time I felt so comfortable with so long sentences.

 

‘Out Stealing Horses’ was in the top-10 lists a few years back. I now know why. What I don’t know is why I waited for so long to read it. Life is too short and I rarely re-read novels these days, but I hope I get to read this one again.

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book, some of them with long sentences.

 

People like it when you tell them things, in suitable portions, in a modest, intimate tone, and they think they know you, but they do not, they know about you, for what they are let in on are facts, not feelings, not what your opinion is about anything at all, not how what has happened to you and how all the decisions you have made have turned you into who you are. What they do is they fill in with their own feelings and opinions and assumptions, and they compose a new life which has precious little to do with yours, and that lets you off the hook. No-one can touch you unless you yourself want them to. You only have to be polite and smile and keep paranoid thoughts at bay…

 

He compresses his mouth into a thin line and squeezes his eyes tightly together, then he twists his whole face forty-five degrees to the right and down past his ear, or at least that’s what it looks like and the features I have barely become familiar with shrink into wrinkles, and he freezes it in that position for a while before opening his eyes and letting each part of his face fall back into place while the smoke goes on seeping out past his lips, and I do not have the slightest idea what kind of performance I have just witnessed.

 

…I really wanted to be alone. To solve my problems alone, one at a time, with clear thinking and good tools, like my father probably did those times at the cabin, took on one task after another, assessing it and putting out the tools he needed in a calculated order starting at one end and working his way through to the other, thinking and using his hands and enjoying what he did, in the same way I want to enjoy what I do, to solve the daily challenges that may be tricky enough, but within clear limits, with beginnings and ends to them that I can foresee, and then be tired in the evening but not exhausted, and wake up all rested in the morning, brew my coffee and light the stove and look out at the light that comes pink over the forest towards the lake and get dressed and walk the paths with Lyra, and then get on with the tasks I have decided shall fill that day. That is what I want, and I know I can do it, that I have it in me, the ability to be alone, and there is nothing to be afraid of.

 

…I shut my eyes into a squint and looked across the water flowing past below the window, shining and glittering like a thousand stars, like the Milky Way could sometimes do in the autumn rushing foamingly on and winding through the night in an endless stream, and you could lie out there beside the fjord at home in the vast darkness with your back against the hard sloping rock gazing up until your eyes hurt, feeling the weight of the universe in all its immensity press down on your chest until you could scarcely breathe or on the contrary be lifted up and simply float away like a mere speck of human flesh in a limitless vacuum, never to return. Just thinking about it could make you vanish a little.

 

Have you read ‘Out Stealing Horses’? What do you think about it?

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