FICTION A Man in Love Karl Ove Knausgaard Harvill Secker, $32.95
”What is the work of art if not the gaze of another person? Not directed above us, nor beneath us, but at the same height as our own gaze.” The line comes towards the end of this long novel, the second volume in Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s best-selling, prize-winning My Struggle sequence, and follows on from a passage in which he has declared he is no longer interested in fiction, in made-up stuff.
These autobiographical fictions aspire to meet our gaze; they also, to shift the figure, function like virtual reality helmets, in which we see and feel and think what Knausgaard does, often in real time and with an unstaunched mundanity of detail.
That the books come so close to eliciting outright boredom is part of their fascination; that they cleave so diligently to ordinary, uneventful life is just what makes them so monstrous.
Of course, the sense books give of unfiltered experience is a literary effect like any other. Knausgaard mentions in both volumes how poor his memory is, and even a good memory couldn’t be this lucid, so invention has stealthily played its part. In any case, although the writing might present as aimless, there is non-linear tectonic movement beneath, careful in the selection and placement of its random-seeming material.
The first volume, A Death in the Family, dealt with Knausgaard’s teenage years and the death of his difficult, self-destructive father. The second volume finds him living in Sweden, making a name for himself as a writer and starting a family with his new partner, Linda. The conflict between these two projects gives the book one of its prominent themes: although Knausgaard has sampled post-structuralism, he is a romantic, a believer in transcendence and the asociality of the artist, and he thinks he wants his writing to come before his wife and children. Linda has other ideas.
Knausgaard’s grumbles, to us if not to Linda, about the feminisation of the Scandinavian male also show the book’s ruminative side, which waxes curmudgeonly about the mediocrity of modern life and the inferiority of Sweden to Norway, the temptation of being a media whore and the lure of reclusiveness. Like any good introvert, Knausgaard tells us his real life is in his head; these abrasive, hypnotic books project that life into our heads. Four more volumes to go.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.