For the past four years, the big literary release (for me) has been the continuing publication of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s massive Min Kamp (My Struggle). This six-volume epic of self-evaluation passed its centre point* with the publication last week of its fourth volume, Dancing in the Dark.
I took the book with me yesterday on a daytrip, where I accidentally set out on a five hour clifftop walk about sixty minutes before sunset. The walk would probably have been much quicker (and thus safer) if I hadn’t repeatedly stopped to read about Karl’s teenage years as I strolled atop massive chalk walls overlooking the English Channel.
Dancing in the Dark is all about sex and drinking, in the way that A Man In Love (Book Two) is all about love and A Death in the Family (Book One) is all about alcoholism. The antagonist of the series – Knausgaard’s father – is depicted in this book at a nasty stage between the decline of his first marriage and the appalling state he is in by the time he dies.** Here, he no longer has physical superiority over Karl and his brother, Yngve, but the residual fear of childhood still pervades, though it is gradually diminished by geographic distance and the clear evidence of their father’s self-destructive drinking.
In a book that largely deals with teenage kicks, with boozing and lusting and failing to fuck and a little bit of marijuana use, it seems odd, perhaps, that I am drawn to the narrative of the middle-aged man developing an addiction that will kill him. It is the narrative, though, of the Malcolm Lowry novels I love, it is the narrative too of all the tragic dramas I enjoyed when younger, it is the narrative of a tragic flaw gradually destroying an individual.
My Struggle isn’t a tragedy – if Knausgaard’s adult life were to fall apart in the last two volumes as a direct result of his candid exploration of those around him***, then that would be tragic. If the openness and assumed honesty with which Knausgaard narrates this version of his own life were to prove to be the cause of marital decline, financial destruction due to being successfully sued for slander, or the loss of his literary reputation for, I don’t know, something or other, then the books would be a tragedy. But they’re not – Knausgaard published the final volume of My Struggle right the way back in 2011 and is now a globally successful brand. Though, a few years ago, I was the only person I knew who’d read the books and loved them, now, years on, other people recommend them to me. Granted, when they do so, there’s often with a pre-emptive, ‘You might’ve already read this because it seems exactly like your kind of thing…’
What I love about Knausgaard’s writing is the sense of candidness. This volume, all about drinking too much, trying and failing to have sex – failing both because of rejection and failing because of ejaculating in his pants before anything actually happens – is very funny, I laughed a lot. It is bawdy and embarrassing and (I believe the term is) ‘cringey’. Knausgaard is a charming teenager, but never goes ‘all the way’. Knausgaard, as a temporary teacher when eighteen, is attracted to pupils too young for him to guiltlessly be attracted to, but manages to resist these urges. His first novel, not yet available in English and not stocked in any of the Oslo bookstores I trawled in February****, is apparently a fictionalisation of this lust, and in Dancing in the Dark Knausgaard discusses this, particularly in regards to an episode where he reconnects years later with two of the schoolgirls he lusted. They are adults, his novel about lusting schoolgirls has been published, and they are aware of the similarities between themselves and certain characters. The 40 year old Knausgaard seems to reprimand his younger self for not trying to fuck either of them, but nothing like that occurred.
Dancing in the Dark, thankfully, plays with time far more than Boyhood Island (Book Three) did, which was too linear for my taste. As well as leaping backwards from Knausgaard’s year as a teacher to the last year or two of school, it also moves forward to the present when he is writing (25th November, 2009 or 10, I can’t remember the year), and into associated events in the years in between. What is significant in the present, though, is the recent discovery of his father’s diaries from the 1980s, something I don’t recall being present in A Death in the Family.***** With these handwritten books in front of him, Knausgaard is afforded a different perspective of his father’s decline – one that was self-aware, one that was troubling and depressing, one than was cyclical and expanding and impossible to prevent. Not just the angry, violent man descending into depression because his lifelong anger had left him alone, but one who couldn’t express his regret and shame without being drunk, yet these platitudes were met with disgust and scorn because they were delivered in the midst of thick inebriation. The powerlessness of the alcoholic, something I love to read. And not in a glamorous way, I don’t think it’s glamorous to physically decline due to substance abuse, I just… err… like reading about it.
But, to start summing up, Dancing in the Dark is great. The rounding of Knausgaard’s father through the latterly discovered notebooks, a passage detailing K’s development as a writer (concertinaed into an afternoon, with a conclusion far before the point he is at with the surrounding paragraphs), and a gloriously bawdy final paragraph all combine to make this a very entertaining read.
There’s also a lot about ageing – the approaching death of his grandparents, for example – and a lot about differences between rural and urban communities – between priorities and aims of life. In fact, this text could be seen to be a little patronising towards those from the countryside, judging the inhabitants of the village where Knausgaard teaches as somehow less developed, less adult than the people he knew before and after. They are more friendly, he writes, but there is almost the implication that friendliness and trust of strangers is a sign of weakness, of low intellect – the wider mind seeks solace in the arts, rather than in socialising, sex and booze. These are the urges of the teenage Knausgaard, but he moves onwards and upwards in order to develop more as a writer, whereas the fishermen of the fjordal village up in the North will always stay the same. Knausgaard, as an adult, will be plagued by over-whelming love rather than lust, he will live for poetry and win prizes and acclaim and international attention. He will succeed, he will follow and fulfil the hopes he has as a teenager. And he’d already started to do so long before he’d reached the age that I am.
So, with these thoughts in mind as I trod a clifftop path towards Beachy Head, an infamous suicide hotspot, I scrawled in a cheap notebook a lot of self-hating and overwhelmingly negative comments. At one point the cliffs descended down to the sea, and I had to wade across an estuary to continue my walk. After sprawling onto painful pebbles the other side, my toes too swollen from the cold to put my shoes back on, I realised that I’d lost the notebook. I worried for a while that someone might find it and presume it to be a genuine suicide note, rather than an attempt to remove negative thoughts by writing them down. I then worried more when I remembered I’d put my name on the front. Hopefully it fell into the river and was swept out to sea, or was blown by the wind into the mere overnight. Like Knausgaard, I think I’d be happy for thousands of people to read my embarrassing thoughts and memories, but the idea of a provincial policeman being handed it as a suicide note, searching my name on the internet and tweeting at me to find out if I’d deliberately tried to fake my death or not… I don’t really want that.
As I waded the estuary, I was thinking to myself that there was no point in killing myself, though if I’d put my trashy first novel onto the crowd-funding publishing site, Unbound, as I’d planned to do over the weekend, then there would’ve been. Think of the publicity…
Dancing in the Dark, though, to focus, plays around with narrative structure, is moving in places and very funny throughout. Finally, I’m starting to see My Struggle as a single work – this volume can’t really be read without a lot of prior knowledge of Knausgaard’s life – and that’s good, that’s fine. But this one wouldn’t work on its own. If it’s not meant to, that’s not an issue. But if it is… You see my point.
Not the dizzying heights of the first two, but a great read, nonetheless, steaming towards the much-heralded final volume. I can’t wait for that giant essay on Hitler!!!
* The centre-point of the whole project was not, as may have been expected, the end of book three, but is more accurately about halfway through this one. I know this because I went to Norway in February and trawled several Oslo bookstores until I found a full collection of Min Kamp texts (though didn’t buy any) and was very pleased to see that Book Six is twice as big as all the others. That means that there’s essentially THREE more Knausgaard books to come out in English, rather than just two. Though now I’m terrified that Dan Bartlett will translate it in two halves and make me wait even longer. Nooooooooooooooooo.
**His is the eponymous death of the first book.
*** There was a very clear moment in this one that I could believe easily resulted in a lawsuit. One of Knausgaard’s colleagues has to run to a toilet and masturbate after being aroused by gazing at a woman’s breasts…
**** See footnote one.
***** Please correct me if I’m wrong – I did read it three years ago…