The narrator of the third volume of Knausgaard’s epic of the everyday recalls the frustrations and curious joys of boyhood.
It’s common to see My Struggle, Knausgaard’s six-volume set of heavily autobiographical novels, compared to Proust. With some reason: Both books are bulky, highly personal and unearth deep insights from humdrum acts. But where Proust is philosophical, Knausgaard is more plainly descriptive, and part of his books’ magic is how they gather strength, snowballing small detail upon small detail until he’s captured life’s fullness in a way traditional storytelling arcs fail to. This volume centers on Karl Ove roughly from the ages of 6 to 12, and it’s masterful on a number of fronts. Most prominently, it gets at the roots of the dysfunctional relationship with his father that Knausgaard detailed in the previous two books. Karl Ove was a sensitive boy who could do little to please dad, an emotionally closed-off teacher, and though the boy was rarely physically abused (My Struggle’s provocative title has always been a touch satirical), Karl Ove’s evolution from eager to please to contemptuous feels justified, exact and natural. Knausgaard reimagines boyhood in general with similar precision; at the time, his family lived in a remote Norwegian town, and the book is filled with forest treks, games, squabbles with friends and an overall sense of an identity coming together. That’s particularly acute in the closing pages, as puberty strikes and Karl Ove fumblingly tries to understand girls. (One early victim is subject to his insistence that they break a 15-minute kissing record, and he’s befuddled when she breaks things off soon after.) Candor and fearlessness are the hallmarks of the books: Knausgaard will share anything, not for shock value or self-indulgence, but to show that plainspoken honesty gets to the heart of the human condition.
Halfway through, this series is starting to look like an early-21st-century masterpiece.