Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland–Sarah Moss (2012)

Sometimes you come across a book that seems as tailor-made for you as the gate is for the man from the country in Kafka’s little marvel “Before the Law.” Such is the case for me with Sarah Moss’s travel memoir Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland (2012). (For this analogy to really work, though, you couldn’t know beforehand that it’s made for you; you’d have to think it was for everyone and wonder why no one else ever came along.) Moss is a British novelist whose had more success in the UK than here (though she does have a US publisher); her new novel is just out over there and her publisher, at least, thinks it will be her break out. When I learned that she had written a book about the year she spent in Iceland, I immediately reserved it at the library. (Central Arkansas Library System, I sing your praises now and forever!)

I think most of us have dreamed of returning to live in a place we’ve only visited. The appeal of those dreams, for me at least, is the belief that everything that’s difficult or tedious about my current life would vanish in the move. There’s the thrill, too, of starting over again, learning how another place works, imagining ourselves as insiders in the place where as tourists we are outsiders. These dreams, at least for me, are as frightening as they are enticing. Starting over again, learning how another place works—what could be more daunting? And how could this new place not bring its own difficulties and tediousness? Even the same difficulties and tediousness. After all, I’d still be me, even in a different place.

Of all the places I’ve visited, Iceland is where I’ve most indulged these dreams. Something about that place gets me thinking long and hard about picking up everything. So when I first heard about Moss’s book, I felt intrigued and envious in equal measures. Moss, a professor of creative writing, left her job at the University of Kent to take up a visiting teaching position in Iceland. As a professor of literature—that is, as someone the world in its current formation has decided it really does not need—I spend a lot of psychic energy bemoaning how rooted, even stuck, I am in the position I know I am lucky to hold. My professional life is governed above all by the idea (so far borne out in reality) that I am not portable. So how could this person, I asked myself indignantly, simply up and move to the place I want to move to, without having to give anything up? One answer is: she is more famous than me. Another answer is: of course she had to give things up. One of the things her excellent book is about is what one gives up and what one gains in moving to a foreign country.

I can’t quite remember how my wife and I got so obsessed about Iceland. I think it started when we lived in Berlin and M read the first Arnaldur Indridason crime novels in German translation. (You know about Indridason, right? You have to read him. The Erlendur series in particular is amazing. Each outing is different, none a standard procedural. He’s a cut above almost every other Scandinavian crime writer.) We first visited Iceland in May 2009 and returned for a shorter but even more memorable trip this February. And we will definitely be back. The climate (those endless days in summer, the long dark of winter), the geology (you really feel the earth to be a changeable, tangible, almost living thing in Iceland, with all the bubbling and steaming and flowing of ice and ash and lava), the location (at the edge of Europe but at the center of a North Atlantic realm stretching from Newfoundland, even Nova Scotia all the way to Finland)—all these things fascinated us. People buy more books in Iceland than almost anywhere else. They sit in hot pools as much as possible. How could we not be smitten?

Above all, we’re fascinated by the North, as much by the idea as the reality. That’s where Moss starts, too, before describing her first trip to Iceland, as a nineteen-year-old university student in the summer of 1995, when she and a girlfriend travelled the ring road (the highway that encircles the island and is pretty much the only one in the country), camping rough and scraping by on the most meager of budgets.

Like most travelogues Names for the Sea is structured roughly chronologically, describing the year Moss and her family (husband and two small boys, Max, 7, and Tobias, 3) spent in Iceland and then, in an important coda, a three-week visit in the summer of the following year. Along the way, Moss touches on some of things you might expect if you know anything about Iceland: the role of the “hidden people” (elves, trolls, and other spirits who have an active role in Icelandic life; famously roads are constructed with their living places in mind, explaining some of their particularly tortuous and otherwise nonsensical bends); the dramatic change in lifestyle and life expectancy from the middle of the twentieth century onward, changes primarily related to Iceland’s role as a military base (first British then American) in WWII and beyond; the relation of climate and geology to everyday life; and, especially, the political, economic, and psychological effects of the kreppa, the economic collapse of 2008 brought on by the unregulated banking and financial excesses of the early 2000s.

The book held my interest from the start, though I was initially underwhelmed by the prose, which seemed undistinguished if never actually awkward or bad. But as I continued to read I was more and more caught up in the book, to the point that I stayed up until two in the morning reading the second half in one glorious session.

The kreppa is Moss’s great subject. In her discussion it’s at least as much psychological as economic. Icelanders keep telling her that the national psyche, going back to the time of the Vikings, values aggression and risk taking. The economies of fishing and farming, for centuries the only industries at all, are so fickle, so dependent on outside forces that Icelanders have developed a remarkably stoic, even dangerously casual attitude to the idea of risk, change, and sudden reversals of fortune. Moss speculates these attitudes explain the lack of apocalyptic rhetoric in Iceland, whether about the kreppa or the volcanic ash that shut down European air space for weeks in 2010.

Moss helped me understand something that had puzzled us back in the summer of 2009, nearly the worst moment of the crisis: if you didn’t know the economy had just collapsed you would never have guessed it. There were a few empty storefronts, but no homeless people on the streets, no panhandlers, no signs of desperation overt enough for preoccupied tourists to note, at any rate. There weren’t any political protests, either (that had happened a few months earlier, the so called pots and pan revolutions that chased out the government so closely tied to the bankers). Moss discovers in many aspects of Icelandic daily life a peculiar relation between effacement and aggrandizement, shame and pride.

This dynamic plays out in the most unlikely ways, such as the almost complete absence of a secondary market for consumer goods. (All the more remarkable in a country where almost everything is imported.) Moss, who arrives with only a handful of suitcases, can’t find second-hand furniture or clothes or bicycles or even cars. Colleagues help her out by borrowing things from family members or friends. Passing on goods from one family member to another is (barely) permissible. But buying something from a stranger (itself a strange concept in a country of 300,000, where everyone really does know everyone) is not. Moss is startled when an acquaintance describes how she destroyed an old sideboard before taking it to the dump, because she wanted her decision to be rid of the item really to be her own, that is, to be final.

This background informs the best, most fraught chapter in the book, in which Moss, reluctantly playing investigative reporter, visits a surreptitious charity in Reykjavik that runs a weekly food bank. At first, the organization wants nothing to do with her; she gets access only when a friend of a friend speaks to the director. The director tells the staff they should speak freely to Moss, but they are reluctant to do so, though not as reluctant as the recipients of the charity. In many ways, the latter’s responses (or lack thereof) are perfectly understandable. But the open hostility Moss is met with surprises her, and shocks Einar, the Icelandic friend she has brought along to translate. His reaction is the most powerful thing in the book: he is shocked to the core of his being by the very existence of the food bank, which contrasts with his most fundamental belief in Icelandic exceptionalism: here everyone is equal and no one goes without. Moss is at her most nuanced in describing her reaction to his reaction:

I’m shocked by his shock, struggling to understand why Iceland should imagine itself exempt from the economic inequality that characterizes every other capitalist society. We all knew, I thought, we all accepted a deal, that there is poverty for some and wealth for others.

‘Not in Iceland,’ says Einar…. ‘Not in my country. I had never imagined it, it had never crossed my mind, that there were hungry families in Iceland. Not people needing help from strangers.’

Young Icelanders keep telling me that there’s no class system in Iceland, that inequality is a foreign phenomenon, but the fact of many students’ alienation from poverty seems to prove Icelandic social inequality. I remember a colleague in Sociology telling e that not only is there a difference between the middle class and the poor, but the difference is so great that the existence of the poor is news to some of the middle class. Einar starts his car. ‘I did not know,’ he says. ‘That is the worst thing. I did not know’

Maybe, I think. Or maybe the worst thing is that I’ve known about poverty all my life and I’m not shocked.

Einar’s response helped me think about my own decision to become an American citizen. Canada isn’t Iceland, but it’s also a country filled with a remarkable degree of certainty about its own righteousness. (Moss says the idea of being unpatriotic is entirely foreign to Icelanders. Interestingly, overt displays of patriotism have become much more prevalent in Canada during my life time.) There’s something not just naïve about being shocked that one’s homeland isn’t as good as one had been led to believe, but also, worse, clumsy and dangerous. (Even as Moss is quite right to observe the complacency that can arise from the surety that one isn’t good.)

We learn plenty of other fascinating things in Names for the Sea (the title is from a lovely poem by Auden, who visited in the 1930s, that Moss reads intelligently). We learn a lot about food (how hard it is to get in Iceland, where it comes from, what it says about a person who despairs because she can’t get all the spices and produce she wants, cheaply, whenever she wants them). We learn lots about knitting and its role in shaping how Icelanders think about themselves, especially their ideas of time. We learn lots about driving and car culture and the ambivalent relation to nature felt by anyone that lives in an extreme climate. We learn lots about Icelandic ideas of family and childcare, especially an alarming but popular theory of child education that separates boys from girls in daycare so that the boys’ innate aggression won’t harm the girls’ delicacy.

All this detail means that other things get left out. Most of those things concern Moss and her personal and professional life. We only get a glimpse of Moss’s teaching, for example. Most readers probably won’t be as disappointed in that as I was, but they might share my surprise at the elusiveness of Moss’s family in this story. I can understand why she’d not want to make them the focus, but her effacement of her husband, in particular, is surprising, even weird. He seems to have been at home all the time, surely difficult, though we don’t know enough about him to tell whether he was stuck there. Only occasionally can we see his frustration; we don’t get a sense of what he’s like, or what the two of them are like together. (The boys are much more vividly presented.)

We know more about Moss herself, but less than you’d expect in a travel memoir. I wish she’d told us more about the anxieties that drive much of her experience of the world: profound shyness, even diffidence, fear of opening herself up to the scrutiny of others that she always seems to assume will involve ridicule. Moss has a lot to say about the idea of foreignness, both as she experienced it and as Icelanders seem to conceive of it. I can’t decide whether her reticence to show us more of herself and her family is a failure to take up that concept of foreignness or a brilliant performance of it. (For she certainly remains foreign to us.) At any rate, she avoids the most unseemly tendencies of professional travelers, the tendency towards self-aggrandizement or ingratiation in their self-presentation to readers.

Moss’s discussion of foreignness is something that even readers who don’t love Iceland the way I do will enjoy. That abiding interest in the foreign is something Moss shares with someone otherwise remote from her English Romantic sensibilities, I mean that master of estrangement and defamiliarization with which I began this review, a person who didn’t need to leave home to tell us about what it means to be foreign, Franz Kafka. Surprised that no one else has ever arrived at the gate that has held his avid attention for decades, Kafka’s man from the country asks why no one else has ever shared his preoccupation. He is told that the gate has been made only for him, and that now it will be shut. I want you to read Names for the Sea, but some part of me thinks it has really been written only for me.

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The Books I Bought in Montreal

The Pegnitz Junction—Mavis Gallant (hometown gal)

A Fairly Good Time—Mavis Gallant (her only novel, I think, in a nice hardcover)

Romola—George Eliot (one of the old orange spine Penguins)

Zuleika Dobson—Max Beerbohm (delightful Penguin pocket book)

Gaudy Night—Dorothy L. Sayers (last person on the planet yet to read this)

Natural Causes—James Oswald (UK crime, worth a flutter)

In Pursuit of the English—Doris Lessing (wonderful opening sentence, been meaning to read this for years)

The Crime at Black Dudley—Margery Allingham (curious: haven’t read Allingham before)

Pretty good haul, considering I had seven dozen bagels to bring home, too.

Miscellany

Some thoughts on recent reading, mostly crime fiction related:

Some Die Eloquent—Catherine Aird (1979)

Discovered Aird thanks to Steve at Stevereads (how does he read all those books?). Some Die Eloquent must come midway through the Sloan & Crosby series, but I don’t think it matters much where you start. Aird is clearly a genius in her way and I wonder why she’s not better known. Wonderful dialogue (witty but not snappy: dry), very funny, keen eye for the way institutions work (here medicine, especially hospitals). And a decent plot in less than 200 pages. Take that, bloated 400-pp crime novels! More Aird is definitely in my future.

 

Several books by Karin Fossum (translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson, Charlotte Barslun, and others)

I read Fossum’s Inspector Sejer books when they first started appearing in English translation, about ten years ago. I liked them well enough, but suddenly there were more and more and they just didn’t grab my attention enough to continue. I returned to her this year thanks to the English-language publication of the first in the series. (Eva’s Eye in the US, In the Darkness in the UK—both quintessentially lame crime fiction titles.) Despite what I just said above about length—the book is 400 pp—I thought this an auspicious start to the series.

Ruth Rendell claims to like these books, and it’s easy to see why. Like Rendell, Fossum is primarily interested in motivation—most of her books aren’t that suspenseful. Rather, the suspense comes from seeing how the perpetrator’s actions come undone. Fossum is better than most crime writers at characterization: her best feat comes in The Indian Bride, where she manages to make plausible and sympathetic an aging Norwegian bachelor who goes to India to meet a woman after falling in love with a picture in a National Geographic book. Eva’s Eye is good in this regard, too, giving us a desperate, haughty, and clueless artist.

What I particularly like about the first book is its balance between criminal and detective. Sejer is a bit in the sensitive mold I’ve decried before, but his triumphs are more muted and thus more palatable. In later books, Fossum seems unable to decide what she wants to do with Sejer. Sometimes he’s important, sometimes barely present. It’s as if she’s experimenting with crime novels that would have no detective or inspector, and only accidental perpetrators. I guess I like my procedurals more conventional. Still, I read four of these in a row, and have now read almost everything that’s in English, and I’ll likely pick up the latest translation when it’s out this summer.

 

Red Road—Denise Mina (2013)

Mina’s a superior crime writer, one of the few I’ll drop everything for. Her previous books have come in trilogies; I was glad to see that Red Road is the fourth in the Alex Morrow series. Morrow is a great character: smart, a bit stroppy, unable to let things go. Halfway through the book a body is found in an apartment high rise that’s being demolished. Morrow’s unwilling trip to the scene of the crime is a brilliant, frightening set piece. I don’t think Red Road is as good as either the second or third in the series, but it’s totally worth your time.

 

Life After Life—Kate Atkinson (2013)

Some of the people whose reading taste I respect most really love this book. I liked it, too, even quite a lot at times. But I didn’t fall under its spell the way they did. Strange, that: the book ought to be right up my alley, being set in the historical periods (Edwardian England through WII Germany) I’m most invested in.

Ursula Todd, the protagonist, lives many lives in the book, eventually learning to avoid the causes of death and unhappiness (influenza, rape, sexual abuse) that befall her in some versions of the story. At some point, Todd, struggling through a series of vividly depicted second world wars (though I prefer Sarah Waters, or, you know, Henry Green, on the Blitz), both in London and Berlin, decides she must assassinate Hitler to stop the bad things of the twentieth century happening. This view of history is less juvenile than Quentin Tarantino’s, say, but still pretty naïve.

Atkinson, never much of a stylist, does better with England than Germany (despite the irritating, anachronistic “parade of historical ideas” quality, evident, for example, when Todd is sent to a Harley Street psychoanalyst quite unlikely to have present in the early 1920s of historical London). Atkinson did a lot of research for the book, and it shows, mostly in the laboured scenes set in Germany. There’s a whole dull little biography of Eva Braun waiting to be excised from this book.

The book’s merits are two-fold. The first is in its play with our attachment to Ursula. We do get attached to her, despite or perhaps because she keeps dying on us. Each death comes as a bit of a shock, a disturbance anyway, even though we know she will begin life again on the next page. Atkinson makes us care about Ursula and her family a lot. I think the book’s structure is key to that feeling, but I’m not sure how exactly. Anyone have any ideas?

The second is its steadfast refusal of romantic love for Ursula. She has a few relationships, even in one life a (disastrous) marriage, but none of them are ever important. As the lives pile up and she starts to “learn” from earlier ones, she avoids sexual and romantic intimacy more and more. One reason for that is a traumatic early experience, important in a book that believes events have resonances not just over the course of a life but across many lives. Another, more interesting, reason is that there are already lots of intense relationships in the book—they just happen to be between siblings. Interestingly, the Todd children aren’t orphans, in the way they might have been in the Edwardian children’s book that lurks in the unspoken background to Life after Life. What this means is that the book doesn’t feel the need to undo the parent-child relationship altogether to present the one between siblings as the most meaningful one a person can have.

Still, I wanted the book to do more with these things. I wanted it to be smarter. But I can understand why many smart readers are excited about it. For a particularly compelling view, read Derek Jenkins’s Goodreads review—it is better than the book itself, and, at moments seems to be a brilliant riposte to, for example, Adam Mars-Jones’s surprisingly brittle and hostile review in the LRB: “When someone complains about the slack internal logic of Todd’s eternal recurrence, they aren’t exactly missing the point, but they are evidently missing some of the pleasure.” Wonderful!

 

Several books by Benjamin Black

When it first came out I eagerly read Christine Falls, the Irish novelist John Banville’s pseudonymous effort at crime fiction, set in 1950s Dublin and starring a pathologist named Quirke. In the meantime, Black has published a number of sequels, which have accumulated on my shelves on the hopeful assumption that I would like the others as much as I did the first. I’ve read the next three now, and they’re entirely satisfying, although sometimes a bit workmanlike. Black is better on atmosphere—he sure gets the fug of provincial cities right—than on plotting, and the general trajectory of the books (Quirke stumbles upon wrong-doing at the highest echelons of the young Republic’s oligarchy and is unable to do much about it) gets repetitive. But he’s a good writer, and he comes by his genre interest legitimately: as a reviewer of his recent Marlowe novel put it, the best part of Banville’s work already involved secrets and investigations of one sort or another.

He can do you a fancy, (almost) overripe sentence:

Strange, how for him all the uncertainty and doubt, all that feeling of adolescent fumbling, how it was all gone, rid of in an instant, replaced by something deeper, darker, of far more weight, as if that kiss had been the culmination of a ceremony he had not been aware of as it unfolded, and that had ended by their sealing, there by the cold hearth, a solemn pact of dependence and fraught collaboration, and it was not the nearness of the fireplace, he knew, that was giving to his mouth a bitter taste of ashes. (A Death in Summer, 2011

And he can do you a marvelously efficient one:

All institutional buildings made Quirke, the orphan, shudder. (The Silver Swan, 2008)

That’s how you do exposition!

My Struggle: Volume 1 (A Death in the Family)–Karl Ove Knausgaard (2009, 2012 English translation by Don Bartlett)

Say what you will about air travel these days, but it has for me one great virtue: it’s great for reading. In fact, planes are some of the only places I ever see anyone reading anymore. I should say, though, that since moving to Arkansas I hardly ever spend any time in public space anymore. If I lived somewhere else, somewhere where I wasn’t in the car all the time, I might find that reading hasn’t quite shriveled away entirely.

Distractions are fewer in the quasi-public space of the plane. And by “distractions” I mean phone and email. That’s all changing, alas, but for now I relish the sustained reading time I sometimes get on a long plane ride.

That deeply immersive reading experience gives me some of the same satisfactions of a long run, that same mile-eating, page-turning lope. Of course, immersive reading can happen at other times and in other places. And our life situations have everything to do with whether it does. Children sure make it hard. (Everything I’ve said about reading on planes refers to flying without children.) But when immersive reading happens, it’s quite memorable. I remember a particularly snowy January in Halifax, my Sophomore year of college, reading Absalom, Absalom! and S/Z in long bouts on my futon on the floor. (Every time I looked up it seemed to be snowing some more.) I remember reading Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost late, late into the night in our tiny bedroom in our tiny dormer apartment in Haverford, PA. (I love to read when everyone else is asleep). And I suspect I’ll long remember reading the last two-thirds of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family on the plane back from a vacation in Iceland last month.

If I were Knausgaard, I’d tell you everything possible about that reading experience: the glimmer of seatback screens all around me, the increasingly drunk and loud elderly Icelanders in the rows just ahead of me, the delicious and laughably expensive Icelandic beer I’d just finished myself, as accompaniment to the delicious and even more laughably expensive mango curried chicken I’d purchased for dinner. I’d need to lull you into a pleasant stupor that is almost boredom, to send you into a readerly slipstream in which sentences and pages follow one another easily. Then I’d segue from this mass of material detail—often banal, often about consumption—into more abstract meditations, always based on autobiographical experience, meditations on grander concepts, the grandest in fact, the most provocative, the most important, the most open to bombast and bluster: sex, money, work, family, and death, death especially. Some of these conclusions would be a bit superficial, betraying what Knausgaard, at least the Knausgaard who narrates this text, would be the first to say is a haphazard reading of the European philosophical and literary tradition. But most of these meditations would in fact turn out to be shrewd and thought provoking, even beautiful. And you would keep turning the pages, you would completely under my spell, and you wouldn’t care about whether what I had to say was original or subtle or intellectually formidable. You would just want more.

We could compare my imagined Knausgaardian description of a place ride with the one that actually appears in his book. He gives plenty of detail, including a long paragraph, more than half a page, describing just the events of boarding the plane, walking down the jet bridge and finding his seat. But the narrator’s plane ride is different from most, different certainly from the one I took home from Iceland. It’s taken neither for pleasure nor for business. It’s taken because of death, the death in the family referred to in the book’s title, the death of the narrator’s father.

The narrator spends much of the flight weeping openly—to his shame but also, interestingly, to his delight. The lengthy descriptions of his emotional state and its discomfiting effect on his fellow passengers lead to a meditation on an unusual and fruitful topic: the things the people we know well don’t do, the activities they avoid, the predilections they express negatively. The narrator’s father never went to the barber; he cut his own hair. He never traveled by bus. He never shopped at local shops where he might have to talk to someone. He never attended any of the narrator’s soccer games—except once, and then, the narrator heartbreakingly relates, only to berate his son for missing a scoring chance, knowing neither the final score of the game nor that the narrator scored two goals, including the winner. The zig-zags of this section—from the description of minutiae to an abstraction born of them and back to the personal anecdote—are typical of the book.

 

A Death in the Family is the first volume of a six-volume autobiographical series—published to acclaim in Norway and throughout Europe, and now making its way into English translation—a series provocatively named Min Kamp. The echo of Hitler’s autobiographical screed Mein Kampf is surely deliberate, but I’m not sure to what end. Maybe that will become clearer in later volumes. Be that as it may, it is already clear that the title allows for considerable irony. Knausgaard ironizes the very of idea of comparing his comfortable bourgeois social-democratic life to Hitler and the project of National Socialism. He ironizes the very idea of being daring enough to do so, as if he were aging enfant terrible. He also ironizes Hitler, specifically his megalomania in making himself exemplary, of making (overstated) autobiographical struggles the basis for a (distorted) political world-view.

We might say that Knausgaard wants to take the idea of struggle back from Hitler. Yes, he seems to be saying, there is something embarrassing and false about calling a middle-class comfortable life a struggle, but there is something true about it too. And in reminding us that the struggle of life ends in death, Knausgaard offers us a politics based entirely in reality, and thus miles away from Hitler’s.

Here I am writing about Hitler—hardly what I’d intended. But in making this digression perhaps I’m more like Knausgaard than I’d dared hope. For the structure of his writing, at least in this volume—apparently he wrote two novels before the series; they seem, rather drearily, to be about angels and metaphysics—can seem wayward and formless. Not disorganized, but also not organized. This of course is an illusion, one that Knausgaard points to, both overtly, in his repeated fascination with what art means for contemporary artists, and obliquely, in the practicing of his craft, that is, in his struggle with form.

The result is a book that has plenty of shape despite seeming rather shapeless. I’m not entirely sure how that works, but my sense is that it has to do with the tropes I keep turning to in writing about him: immersion, hypnosis, submergence. This book casts a spell. It seems appropriate that these are all ambivalent terms, states we are drawn to but suspicious and even frightened of. I’m not sure I’d call Knausgaard a nice writer.

Just as the hypnotist needs some time to murmur soothing words to us before we go under (you are getting sleepy, very sleepy), so too does Knausgaard need time to cast his particular spell. And time, in reading, is connected to length. Page numbers translate into minutes, hours, weeks, even years of our lives. Immersion takes time, and takes time away. Something I hope to figure out as I read the rest of these volumes (the second and third are now in English with the rest to follow) is whether Knausgaard’s use of scale—of time-consuming length—is different from other writers’. After all, the premise of My Struggle is hardly original. A six volume, nearly 3000 page autobiographical novel that tells the story of how a sensitive boy became the writer of the text at hand: sound familiar? In case it doesn’t Knausgaard lards the opening volume with references to Proust. A long meditation on the persistence of things, even or especially things we’ve lost, could with only a few changes come straight from the Recherche:

The smell of short, freshly watered grass when you are sitting on a soccer field one summer afternoon after training, the long shadows of motionless trees, the screams and laughter of children swimming in the lake on the other side of the road, the sharp yet sweet taste of the energy drink XL-1. … You could still buy Slazenger tennis rackets, Tretorn balls, and Rossignol skis, Tyrolia bindings and Koflach boots. The houses where we lived were still standing, all of them. The sole difference, which is the difference between a child’s reality and an adult’s was that they were no longer laden with meaning. A pair of Le Coq soccer boots was just a pair of soccer boots. If I felt anything when I held a pair in my hands now it was only a hangover from my childhood, nothing else, nothing in itself. … The world was the same, yet it wasn’t, for its meaning had been displaced, approaching closer and closer to meaninglessness.

There is surely a socio-political dimension to this passage that regrettably I don’t know enough about to comment on usefully. (What I know about Norway comes from crime novels. Possibly not entirely reliable sources.) It does strike me, though, that the notion of permanence presented here must have something to do with Norway’s social and economic stability and prosperity. (Not everyone’s childhood memories will be so connected to sporting equipment; not every place has all its houses still standing).

But there is also a literary-historical component to the passage that I do know something about, specifically in its relation to Proust. Knausgaard is working over similar topics, especially about the relation of the past to the present. But the sentiments aren’t quite the same. Proust would agree that the adult world is no longer meaningful in the same way as the child’s. But he would emphasize the connections between the two worlds. Proust’s famous “involuntary memory”—the experience buried in things, waiting to be ambush us in chance moments of sudden recovery—isn’t Knausgaard’s interest here. Rather he is concerned, as in the passage’s final turn, with the idea of loss, disenchantment, even meaninglessness. Given later events in the book, specifically the death of the father and the meditations on mortality it provokes, I think meaninglessness here means something like the primordial inertia Freud imagines in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. But Knausgaard shares Proust’s emphasis on the experiencing subject. Proust makes clear that as long as the experiencing subject is present, the world remains meaningful. And Knausgaard implicitly agrees, since that’s what the book is—hundreds of pages of the narrator’s subject experiencing… well, the stuff of experience.

One last comparison to Proust: Knausgaard is less coy than Proust about the identity of his narrator. The shadowy Marcel (mostly he is known only as “I”) of the Recherche is replaced here with the undisguised Karl Ove. Although first person narrators—even ones that have the same name and biography as their authors—are never the same as their authors, Knausgaard makes no attempt to confuse the issue. (No dizzying Philip Roth games here.) The book could be a memoir, I suppose, but it’s clearly not, it’s clearly fictional, even though it doesn’t seem concerned to be so. I’m not sure why this is, and if anyone has any ideas I’d like to hear them.

Like Knausgaard, Karl Ove is born in the late 60s, and grows up in southwestern Norway in the 70s and 80s. His father is a teacher, his mother a nurse. Like the mother in Proust, she is the boy’s nurturing parent. The father is stern, rigid, a little frightening, abusive in an undramatic but effective way. Karl Ove is a little afraid of him but at the same time wants desperately to be recognized by him. His mother is often away for work. For a time Karl Ove lives almost by himself in his grandparents’ house. Eventually the parents divorce, the father remarries, seems transformed, open, warm, generous, but it’s all too much, his newfound conviviality is really only a function of drink. What is first confined to boozy weekends begins, in the way of all addictions, to motivate everything in the father’s life, and it’s not long before he’s a full-fledged alcoholic who, after leaving the second wife, moves into his mother’s house and steadily, sordidly drinks himself to death.

The father’s demise happens later in Karl Ove’s life, he’s already a teenager when his parents divorce. Before that, despite whatever is unusual in the family situation, Karl Ove has an ordinary middle-class Norwegian childhood: school, sports, books, girls. He has an older brother, Yngve, who won’t have much to do with Karl Ove at first and is then away at school later on, returning only to bring Karl Ove word of new music and movies, inspiring Karl Ove to take up music (there’s a funny and painful scene describing the band’s only gig, at the opening of a shopping mall, where what could only with great charity be called their DIY punk aesthetic is an ignominious failure). Later, though, Karl Ove and Yngve become much closer, especially when Karl Ove follows his older brother to university in Bergen.

The first half of the book is episodic, skipping over many things, but giving us certain scenes from Karl Ove’s childhood in detail, such as his dogged determination to buy some beer to take to a New Year’s party that he trudges miles through the snow to reach, mostly because there’s a girl there he likes, a girl who, predictably, barely knows who he is. So far, so conventional, and the least likeable parts of the book, for me, were these laddish ones, always teetering on the verge of the misogynistic.

But the book’s narrative structure makes things interesting. It doesn’t just give us the conventional Bildungsroman trajectory of sensitive soul trying to find his way in the world (will a girl love him, will he be able to create art of any kind that’s any good?). Instead it takes us always back to the scene of the writing of the book, the older Karl Ove’s daily life with wife and three small children, and the never-ending, thoroughly banal but all-encompassing and (at least to its participants) engrossing contortions of daily life in a family with working parents and small children. Knausgaard is great on the sticky overlap of love and resentment that makes up parenting. He also gives us a brief overview of the dramatic story behind this marriage—out of nowhere one day Karl Ove decides to leave his first, Norwegian wife, moves to Stockholm, and, before long, falls in love with the Swedish woman he is married to in the novel’s present. Unfortunately, neither of these women is presented in any depth. Surely there will be much more of them in the later volumes.

The first half is fine, occasionally much better than fine. The set piece with the New Year’s party is pretty great, for example, and Knausgaard is good on relentless northern winters and the miracle of their ending. But the second half is extraordinary. Karl Ove, only recently married to his first wife, has had his first novel accepted for publication. One day, when he is avoiding working on the revisions, his brother calls to say that their father has died. The brothers travel to their grandmother’s home to make arrangements for the funeral, which is where they discover the full extent of the father’s depravity in his final years. It turns out that he and his mother—their grandmother, a fleeting but appealing character in the first part of the book, a resonant and pitiable one in the second—have been living in a spiraling descent of mutual alcoholism. The last third or so of the book tells the detailed story of how the brothers, together with an uncle, prepare for the funeral—mostly by tackling the accumulated filth in the old house.

There’s so much to take in in this book, some of it a bit banal, even risible, but much of it remarkable. And actually, thinking about it now, what I find really remarkable is how the remarkable is the twin of the banal. It’s hard to quote just little bits of Knausgaard. Here’s an example from that last third or so. The narrator and his brother tackle the rooms of the grandmother’s house in turn, each grimmer than the last. Shit, vomit, piss, mold, dust, grime, decay, rust: the house is a ruin that two desperate people have drifted through for years, like sullen, separate castaways in a flimsy boat. The narrator’s task is to clean the stairway:

I filled the bucket with water, took a bottle of Klorin, a bottle of green soap and a bottle of Jif scouring cream and started on the banisters, which could not have been washed for a good five years. There were all sorts of filth between the stair-rods, disintegrated leaves, pebbles, dried-up insects, old spiderwebs. The banisters themselves were dark, in some places almost completely black, here and there, sticky. I sprayed Jif, wrung the cloth and scrubbed every centimeter thoroughly. Once a section was clean and had regained something of its old, dark golden color, I dunked another cloth in Klorin and kept scrubbing. The smell of Klorin and the sight of the blue bottle took me back to the 1970s, to be more precise, to the cupboard under the kitchen sink where the detergents were kept. Jif didn’t exist then. Ajax washing powder did though, in a cardboard container: red, white, and blue. It was a green soap. Klorin did too; the design of the blue plastic bottle with the fluted, childproof top had not changed since then. There was also a brand called OMO. And there was a packet of washing powder with a picture of a child holding the identical packet, and on that, of course, there was a picture of the same boy holding the same packet, and so on, and so on. Was it called Blenda? Whatever it was called, I often racked my brains over mise en abyme, which in principle of course was endless and also existed elsewhere, such as in the bathroom mirror by holding a mirror behind your head so that images of the mirrors were projected to and fro while going farther and farther back and becoming smaller and smaller as far as the eye could see. But what happened behind what the eye could see? Did the images carry on getting smaller and smaller?

Do you see what I mean about how a fascinating but also numbing accretion of banal details (every kind of cleaning supply, everything he does with them) becomes a more abstract meditation (here on the idea of recursion, an important idea in this book which, like Proust’s always reminds us of the process of its being made)?

It is true that I have an inordinate fondness for at least the idea of cleaning, of decay being overturned. (As a child, I thrilled to the section in Dr. Doolittle where the animals are taken to a lovingly scrubbed farm.) Maybe this sort of thing isn’t for everyone. Knausgaard tells us about every trip to the corner store for cigarettes and coke, every little detail that a more conventional narrative would skip unless it saw them as symbolic, or put them in service of some dramatic plot point. For whatever reason, though, I find this recitation riveting, maybe because Knausgaard convinces me that there is an important connection between prosaic materiality and abstract reflection.

One payoff of all this detail is that we really feel the labour of cleaning the house. (What is more boring and exhausting and time-consuming than cleaning, especially when we know things are just going to get dirty again?) Taking a break on the deck one morning, Karl Ove has a vision of the house’s rebirth, symbolized by a glamorous and joyful wake they will hold there after the funeral. He becomes obsessed with the idea, and we thrill to it, even as we also know it’s an impossible fantasy. After all, when this house is scrubbed and made inhabitable again, it is still shabby at best.

But I guess what I enjoyed most about this book was the feeling that Knausgaard ends up earning his poetic, resonant conclusions, his little arias of analysis, not least in the passage that concludes the first volume, when Karl Ove returns to the chapel where the body of his father awaits burial:

Now I saw his lifeless state. And that there was no longer any difference between what had once been my father and the table he was lying on, or the floor on which the table stood, or the wall socket beneath the window, or the cable running to the lamp beside him. For humans are merely one form among many, which the world produces over and over again, not only in everything that lives but also in everything that does not live, drawn in sand, stone, and water. And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor.

That last line, especially, reminds me of the “Time Passes” section in To the Lighthouse, where Virginia Woolf supplants the death of her human characters with the decay of inanimate objects. Not having the book at hand, I can’t check to see if she includes a leaky pipe, but I know she mentions ominous branches and clothes that slip off their hooks. I’m reminded, too, by the most aphoristic line here—the one that begins “For humans are merely one form among many…”—of W. G. Sebald’s invocation in The Emigrants of the dead and how they are ever returning to us.

These allusions—intended or not—suggest that My Struggle isn’t unlike anything you’ve read before. But it has a unique power nonetheless, in the way relentless description of minutiae (Knausgaard gives us not just the table but also the floor, the wall-socket, the cable, and the lamp, too) abuts abstract, high-flown (not yet sententious) commentary.

 

I can’t wait to see what Knausgaard does in the rest of the series. The next volume, I see, is about love. Where does love fit into the philosophy of evanescence expressed here? The book’s on my nightstand, ready for my next flight.