Memoirrheoa? My Struggle, Part 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Bought at full-price from Waterstones in Falkirk in the absence of forthcoming secondhand copies. Grrr!

Bought at full-price from Waterstones in Falkirk in the absence of forthcoming secondhand copies. Grrr!

I keep telling people that I’ve nearly finished this book. I also tell them about the trouble I have with reviving my motivation to do so. This should be surprising for the first in a series of autobiographical novels that have taken Europe by storm. Yet if some people’s reactions are anything to go by, then, oh, [yawn] where was I?

Earlier this year I discovered this book through a newspaper interview that accompanied the translation of the second volume into English. The idea appealed to me. They are billed as novels that challenge our notion of what a novel is because they are written as slightly fictionalised but otherwise ultra-detailed autobiographical chapters in the unremarkable life of their literary author. I was interested through having published (and, mercifully, unpublished) a similar thing myself; the key differences were that my effort documented the 1980s video games industry, in which I worked, while Knausgaard documented the everyday mundanities of his life. Somehow he seemed to make his less promising material interesting to people. This, along with the a polarity in the reception of the first volume, had a hook in me.

The polarised reception suggested that there are many purchasers out there who will sell their copy to a secondhand dealer or donate it to a charity shop. Curiously, I’ve yet to see a secondhand copy. Does this mean that those complaining about their boredom are hanging on to their copies in the hope that a re-read will help?

The content could be described in this dual way. In between some of the mundane scenes that are written functionally are some passages that take the mundanity into abstractions that work really well. This, it seems to me, is how thinking itself often works. Something innocuous happens in your life, then your mind wanders into bigger and related topics in the process of reasoning through what has just happened.

The trouble for me was twofold. Firstly, these occasional ruminations seemed to be a scant reward for ploughing through so much mundanity. Secondly, the observations quickly fizzled out instead of connecting with each other into something greater. Why should a reader care about almost-thoughts?

So the book leaves me almost wondering about what happens in the next volume, but not nearly almost enough to have a look. There’s stronger competition for my reading time. Although I appreciate the use of that ‘Eastern’ / self-helpy concept supposedly called ‘the moment’, I wanted some sustained insight over and above mere description of somebody else’s everyday because, for me, somebody else’s everyday needs to differ from my own enough to justify suspending my own to read about theirs. This book is worth a look to know what the fuss is all about, but only if you find a cheaper than full-price copy.

The above review came about partly from discussions with:

Stefanie at So Many Books and Julia at The Card Catalog.

Extract from p.347/8:

The sportily dressed shop assistant from the previous day had been replaced by a girl in her early twenties. She was plump with black hair, and from her facial features, about which there was something Persian, I guessed she came from Iran or Iraq. Despite the round cheeks and full figure, she was attractive. She didn’t so much as give me a glance. Her attention was held by a magazine on the counter in front of her. I slid open the fridge door and took out three half-litre bottles of Sprite, scanned the shelves for crisps, found them, grabbed two bags and put them on the counter.

‘And a pouch of Tiedemanns Gul with papers,’ I said.

She turned and reached down the tobacco from the shelf behind her.

‘Rizla?’ she enquired, still without meeting my eyes. ‘Yes, please,’ I answered.

She put the orange cigarette papers under the fold of the yellow tobacco pouch and put it all on the counter while entering the prices on the till with her other hand.

‘One hundred and fifty-seven kroner fifty,’ she said in broad Kristiansand dialect.

I passed her two hundred-notes. She entered the amount, and selected the change from the drawer that slid out. Even though I had my hand outstretched she placed it on the counter.

Why? Was there something about me, something she had noticed and didn’t like? Or was she just slow on the uptake? It is quite usual for shop assistants to register eye contact at some point during a transaction, isn’t it? And if you have your hand outstretched, surely it is bordering on an insult to put the money anywhere else? At least demonstratively.

I looked at her.

‘Could I have a bag as well?’

‘Of course,’ she said, crouching down and pulling a white plastic bag from under the counter.

‘Here you are.’

‘Thank you,’ I said, gathering the items and leaving. The desire to sleep with her, which manifested itself more as a kind of physical openness and gentleness than lust’s more usual form, which of course is rougher, more acute, a kind of contraction of the senses, lasted all the way back to the house, but it was not in complete control because grief lay all around it, with its hazy grey sky, which I suspected might overwhelm me again at any moment.

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11 Responses to Memoirrheoa? My Struggle, Part 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

  1. Ste J says:

    The book doesn’t grab me but your 80’s video game industry effort does interest me, do tell!


    • Jeff says:

      Hi Ste J. I gave an interview for an online Commodore retro computing mag a while ago, and I did mention the passing of the book, but it doesn’t look like the interview’s going to be published. Perhaps the mag anticipated that the retro computing community would be as interested in the interview as the novel! What’s your interest in 80’s gaming then?


      • Ste J says:

        I had a Vic 20 and an Amstrad 464 and I love those games still, my interest recently took a new twist when I picked up Retro Gamer magazine and became enamoured by the image of the actual coders and creators of the games. It seemed such a blast compared to how the industry is now. I have plenty of old Amstrad and Amiga magazines as well which always feed my enjoyment, when I haven’t time to get on DOSbox.


        • Jeff says:

          You might be interested in my review of Robinson Mason’s eBook on the early Commodore machines from a user’s point of view.

          I supplied some pictures for the article on CRL in issue 97 of Retro Gamer. In lieu of my book, I can recommend Graeme Mason’s full size interviews with us all, which are probably still on his blog (he goes by the name jdanddiet, I think). We made games for the Amstrad machines among other formats.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Ste J says:

            Thanks for the reference points, I shall dig out that copy of Retro Gamer, it has been a while since I delved into the recent past of the not so recent past. I shall check them out over the coming days.


  2. Stefanie says:

    You finished it! Should I congratulate you on your perseverance and fortitude? 🙂 I hope you have since moved on to something extra enjoyable!


    • Jeff says:

      Did I say in the review that I’d actually finished it?! Sorry if I misled. Or does the book engender a wishful thinking that people finish it? I still have a few pages left, can you believe? I’m also currently battling through De Quincey’s opium eating. His book is also hard to finish, but because it’s difficult stuff; not that ease is wrong, but in Knausgaard’s case, the ease contributes to the feeling of pointlessness in carrying on with the reading. Thanks for dropping by!


  3. Graeme says:

    Hi Jeff, hope you are well, my blog has moved to my own website now, where I have transferred all those lovely interviews. There’s a link at the bottom to my email, drop me a line when you have a moment. Cheers Graeme


  4. Lucy says:

    I read the first one, and have bought the second one, but am kind of steeling myself before wading back into such a slow pace. I like the style of writing, but he, as a man, annoys me. The opening section about why we feel the need the have funeral directors and morgues at ground level to hide death low down, and not halfway up a skyscraper caused me to go into a huge rant in a Guardian comments section. As an embalmer, I can list countless reasons why good sewerage, floors strong enough for freezers, chemical storage and possible lift problems was why no one in their right mind would put a mortuary on the 12th floor, and if anything people cry most when a body is lowered, we put it off if rather than hurry it. If I ever meet Karl Ove Knausgaard I can’t promise I won’t unleash some kind of opinion-kraken.


    • Jeff says:

      I admire the simplicity and audacity in what he’s done, though I don’t think he could have anticipated the level of interest in his life. Please accept my commiserations in your having already committed yourself financially to the second book. Then again, have you got an open fire or a door that needs wedging open?


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