Bring back that first-person narrator
I fell in love with 53-year-old Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard after stumbling over his masterpiece, The Struggle, which was a 3600-page work broken into six volumes. It shattered my heart. The books chronicle his day-to-day experiences as the primary caretaker of his four small children as they go about the mostly banal experiences of growing up. There were birthday parties, daily drives to school and back, sporting events, nighttime rituals, and preparing the endless round of sandwiches and snacks the children would need for lunch. Yet there was something so raw and engrossing about Knausgaard’s intense first-person voice. It seemed to shatter sound barriers we didn’t realize were before us.
His long sentences would grow in force, as would his revelations and digressions about matters of importance to him. We buckled in and stayed with him for the entire ride. From the first volume, Knausgaard had us wrapped around him, much like the children were, since their mother was often unavailable to them because of the ravages of her mental illness. It was obvious Knausgaard was madly in love with his kids, and that he took the concerns of children seriously. It was a beautiful thing to witness, particularly in a man. Knausgaard was no saint. He drank and smoked too much, and occasionally lost his temper and shook whatever child who was driving him batty, but for the most part, he was a reliable trusted presence for all of them.
Knausgaard was never dishonest about his ambivalences about parenting. The endeavor made him feel feminized, and it also humiliated him. He writes about how awkward he felt as he was “trundling my child around like one of those many fathers who had evidently put fatherhood before all else. The slight disdain I felt for men pushing strollers was, to put it mildly, a double-edged sword as for the most part I had one in front of me when I saw them.” He confessed he found his responsibilities frustrating: “Every day life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or that made me happy. I always longed to be away from it. So the life I led was not my own.”
Yet despite his edginess he seemed to have had a knack for the job. He listened to what his kids said and offered thoughtful replies, took great joy in watching them as they played with one another at the park with some of their friends, taught them to enjoy his love of nature and to share his infatuation with sunlight and the way it dances around us as nightfall approaches, and shared with them his tenderness for small animals. Often, he’d just sit quietly while they went about their business, allowing his thoughts to wander backwards in time.
It occurred to him one day to get up earlier than his kids and start to write about his life freestyle; keeping his inner censor at bay. The pages began flowing out of him and his best friend, whom he trusted, confirmed he was on to something. His wife was part of the book, but not really. We sensed she was a peripheral figure, to his ‘real’ life with the children. Even when the medications seemed to steady her, she was at best an absent presence. She’d retreat to her studio and various photography and art projects.
When the kids pressed him regarding her distant strangeness, he would always try to comfort them, and explain that mommy would soon be much better. But his patience with her was growing thin. He wrote in The Struggle how he was growing tired of their constant bickering about housework and childcare. He claimed “She always wanted something else, never did anything to improve things, just moaned, moaned, moaned.” When he finally finished this massive work, he promised he wouldn’t write any more, and had said all he wanted to. He was an international sensation.
But he was soon writing again, mostly impressionistic short pieces on the seasons or other commentary about the absurdities of our modern world. Critics applauded these works, but the public forgot them quickly. It seemed impossible to follow-up to The Struggle, unless it was to be a work on his continuing struggles.
His marriage ended in 2016, and he took his children to London, and shortly married a pretty younger woman and had a new baby. His ex-wife, Linda Bostrom, spent the next four years in and out of institutions, where she received electroshock therapy, and other treatments. She’s written her own memoir, The October Child, about her version of the end of her marriage where she tries to explain her feelings about how Karl Ove never really understood her, and how painful it was to read some of his reflections about her.
In his new work, The Morning Star, he seems to be trying to return to familiar ground in a slightly varied form. He offers us several chapters about a group of loosely related people who are at a resort in Sorlandet during the month of August. He begins each chapter simply by writing in small font the name of the person who is speaking to us.
The first chapter, “Arne,” sounds like the man we remember from The Struggle who’s still drinking and smoking too much. He’s a literature professor and his artist wife Tove has been behaving more strangely than she usually does. Her face bloats from the many medications she takes. She comes upon him while he is outside their vacation cabin and tells him excitedly about a new project she conceived on her walk, and how she wants to start on it immediately. He gently reminds her she needs her sleep, but she turns and leaves reminding him he must take full care of the children.
He watches her walk away, crestfallen at how deteriorated her condition has made her, allowing her to “sit on the toilet and leave the door open, or turn up the radio extremely loud without a thought for anyone else, and if she made dinner, the kitchen would be left like a bombsite.” When he checks on her the following day, he finds a note on her desk where she’s written about her sexual desire for his friend Egil. He hides the note so the kids won’t find it.
Although upset with his wife, he’s able to find feelings of joy thinking about how his children are “asleep inside the house behind me while the darkness descended on the sea was so pleasant and peaceful that I wouldn’t release it when it came, but tried to sustain it and pin down what was so good about it.” He loved looking around at the “lights that glowed from the holiday homes which he watched while drinking wine always worried that there was too little left in the bottle to sustain him.”
He can’t get enough of the outside air, which seems to lift his spirits. Only when he goes inside and catches a glimpse of his reflection in the mirror does he cringe at the sight of the extra weight that seems to have suddenly appeared on his usually trim frame. He puts on Pink Floyd’s The Wall and plays air drums doing his best to drive out the thoughts of all there is to take care of. And just as we are getting familiar with the inner workings of his thoughts, he bounces us into another life abruptly, leaving us longing for his return as he gazes upon an enormous red star that seems to be falling out of the sky.
Other characters come and go, but it’s difficult to become truly emotionally caught up in any of their lives. The red star that seems to hang over them seems threatening, but no one is sure precisely what is happening. I found myself waiting for Knausgaard to reappear, understanding he’s renamed himself “Arne.”
Some of Knausgaard’s most creative ruminations on everything from the ancient world to the state of the Jews, or the allure of Christianity compared to rational thought, or even the writings of Plato and Aristotle, seem to be randomly pasted into the mouths of his characters who don’t seem to be the sort to have such reckonings. Instead of coming at us through the solidified and unified voice of Karl Ove Knausgaard, as he did in The Struggle, they seem scattershot, flimsy, and occasionally artificial. We get the sense Knausgaard is straining to go beyond the “I” that dominated The Struggle, and puncture the inner reality of other people’s worlds. The sad thing is, we realize this isn’t his strong suit. His narrative lens is at its sharpest when he places himself dead center. It’s his natural orientation.
After The Struggle, Knausgaard moved on to a new life and it is this we want to hear about. His new marriage and baby. How his other children are faring. Where his old friends are. How getting older is changing him. We want to hear his unadorned voice; uninterrupted by falling stars.