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 I was interested through having published (and, mercifully, unpublished) a similar thing myself; the key differences were that my effort documented the 1980s video games industry, in which I worked, while Knausgaard documented the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:
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.