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AppreciationApril 15, 2016

Book of the Week: Charlotte Grimshaw on volume five of the epic self-portrait by Norwegian genius Karl Ove Knausgaard


 Charlotte Grimshaw reviews Some Rain Must Fall: My Struggle, Volume 5 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

There was no plot, I wanted to entwine the internal with the external, the neural pathways in the brain with the fishing smacks in the harbour… – Karl Ove Knausgaard

If you’ve ploughed through Volumes One to Four of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s giant self-portrait, My Struggle, then Volume Five, Some Rain Must Fall, is a rich experience, representing as it does an accumulation of knowledge – of the writer’s fantastically original project, and of the vast amount of detail he has already provided about his life.

It’s a narrative of cold expanses, of blackness and blackouts, of glittering icy Norwegian nights, and mornings spent wondering what happened in the blotted-out hours of the night before. If lack of love is the abyss, and if Karl Ove’s emotional self can’t quite confront it, his artistic self faces it square on. It is the most complex work of the My Struggle series yet translated into English, and all because of what it doesn’t expressly say.

It’s about what is conveyed obliquely, both from a literary fictional standpoint, and from a psychological one. This book, even more than the earlier ones, is a fascinating demonstration of the processes of memory and creative expression, and of a kind of dualism in the working mind of the writer.

You could say Some Rain Must Fall gives us a sense of two Karl Oves, two selves operating on different levels: first an emotional self, that makes judgments and choices based on psychological need. To give one example of this, the emotional Karl Ove has seemed, in earlier books, to hold a fairly lenient view of his mother. He loves her and, having faced up to the cruelty of his father, probably wants to preserve a belief in the goodness of at least one parent, because if there’s no love at all, then he faces the abyss. But meanwhile, another self, the artist, records every act of maternal negligence, thereby allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

These two selves, the emotional self and the cold-eyed artist, are represented by two voices. The emotional self will describe Karl Ove’s mother in sympathetic terms, yet the artistic self will spare no detail, there will be no blurring of the facts. It’s never clear how conscious the writer is of this divide, or in which self his consciousness most permanently resides.

In an earlier volume, the young Karl Ove needs a mandatory bathing cap for school swimming. He has been bullied and mocked by his father for being an effeminate and timid little boy. In an act that seems insensitive beyond belief, his mother “absent-mindedly”, as Knausgaard puts it, comes home having bought him a woman’s bathing cap decorated with protruding plastic flowers, and Karl Ove is forced to wear it in front of his mocking schoolmates. Elsewhere, the mother’s leaving of Karl Ove and his brother permanently with their abusive father is portrayed entirely without comment.

By Volume Five, Karl Ove is a student living alone in Bergen, and enrolled in a creative writing class. It’s considered a high achievement to be admitted to the course, and he’s the youngest member. He struggles, and is effectively at the bottom of the class. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the real talent is ignored in favour of the witty, the cute, the mediocre, and those who will never amount to anything. (Of course, given his phenomenal international success, the joke is now on those who disregarded him.)

He tries to write, he fails, he makes no headway. A champion of low self- esteem, he is hypersensitive, paralysed by shyness, and dogged by the sense that he’s boring company.

Karl Ove’s brother Yngve is also a student living in Bergen, and the connection between the brothers is central, as Knausgaard expands his exploration of love and ferocity. The fraternal relationship is where he comes close to looking straight into the abyss.

From previous descriptions, we know the brutality their father inflicted on the brothers. We know that Karl Ove has always been grateful for his elder brother’s protection and kindness. Yet the treatment they received as children has left its mark, on Karl Ove’s psyche but also, it transpires, on Yngve. They love each other, but the novel is riveting for the violence they perpetrate on each other.

There are small and large acts of malice. When Karl Ove falls passionately in love with a girl, and succeeds, despite his awkwardness, in getting her to be his girlfriend (a triumph) the elder brother promptly seduces her. Karl Ove receives this betrayal as a crushing blow, but doesn’t outwardly react, only describes his devastation in a characteristically subtle and evocative passage:

I walked to the end of the valley, to where the waterfall plunged down the mountainside and the river flowed beneath the road, saw the faint glint of water as it hit the rocks and the pool at the bottom, it seemed almost obscene, water in the water, in the pouring rain…

Here he “combines the external with the internal”, erasing the divide between himself and the landscape he inhabits. Because his perception is coloured by his brother’s sexual betrayal, the water becomes “obscene,” water in water in the rain comes to represent the terrible mingling of himself and Yngve. He is the land and the land is him; the neural pathways in his brain are entwined with the world around him. The self-portrait becomes a portrait of the landscape, his physical as well as his emotional environment.

He accepts Yngve’s treachery without much comment, but when the girl eventually pays Karl Ove a visit, there’s an interesting encounter. She is nervous. He is cordial. He ushers her in, and offers tea. She refuses; he presses her. Then he tells her he’ll read her a poem, and as she sits there, he calmly reads aloud “Death Fugue” by Paul Celan, one of the blackest, most menacing poems written about the Holocaust. It’s a powerful scene, the young Karl Ove so polite and calm, and yet implicitly as baleful as the poem, the reading of which conveys to the young woman not only what you have done to me is an atrocity, but I am a person of vastly greater significance than you think, and I will be back. And when I do, my power will be the power of the artist. It’s a scene of assertiveness and potency, a glimpse of what everyone – Yngve (who is much less clever and talented) future girlfriends and wives, his family, the world – is actually dealing with: a genius who will remember everything, who has been hurt and damaged yet kept his utterly merciless talent intact, who will be back. It’s a scene that says Watch out.

This happens fairly early on in the book, and by this time, it’s impossible not to be hooked. Karl Ove just gets more remarkable. There’s black comedy in his chaos, and authority implicit even in his vulnerability. And yet, and meanwhile, despite his enormous latent talent, he is a complete and utter mess.

He’s a nervous wreck, so shy he can’t speak. He has more or less permanent writer’s block. He fails repeatedly in the creative writing class, and is snubbed by the teachers, who even reject his submission to a class anthology. He’s socially inept and hopeless in bed. And he has a terrible problem with alcohol, which he uses to block out his problems. He starts to suffer blackouts, during which he commits petty crime, and earns an embarrassing reputation as a creep and troublemaker. He is desperately lonely, unhappy, disastrously unsmooth, seemingly a loser at everything.

The alcoholic amnesia terrifies him, but he’s unwilling to stop drinking. In the worst of his booze-fuelled disasters, he comes to, slumped on the floor of an unfamiliar building. He is arrested, and misses the final party for his class, confirming his reputation as a failure. And it’s only much later in the day that he’s confronted with the fact that, while blacked out, he’s committed an appalling act of physical violence against Yngve.

Two brothers: they’re close, but they were hurt as children, and so they injure each other. They understand, they partake of, the currency of violence. In one particularly harsh scene Yngve, although he’s ostensibly forgiven Karl Ove for his alcoholic assault, starts to behave cruelly, and Karl Ove, instead of taking action by retaliating or leaving, punishes himself by going to the bathroom and cutting his own face. He has slashed his face before, in earlier books; it’s the reaction of the emotional self when forced to confront the abyss.

It’s an undeniable fact, much explored by Knausgaard, that the perception of being completely unloved causes existential panic and despair, and that the automatic reaction is self-harm. Perhaps it’s atavistic. We are biologically programmed to be a member of a group; cast out, the reaction is symbolic, if not actual, suicide.

He harms himself, punishes himself, blames himself. But he is indomitable. There’s something admirably relentless about Karl Ove Knausgaard. He suffers, but the art he’s made from the suffering is savagely fascinating. He is permanently confused and an emotional disaster, yet his artistic self is unerringly in command. He damages himself, yet produces out of the damage writing that’s rational, sophisticated and unsentimental. He uses himself up, yet remains intact. He takes himself apart and recreates himself. He was so emotionally scarred that he repeatedly slashed his own face; now the large photograph of his face is on the front cover of every one of his books. He is avoidant, spent years as an outcast, yet never relinquished his interest in human beings.

Some Rain Must Fall stands alone as a deeply compelling novel, all blackness, balefulness, Scandinavian snows, dark fjords, violence, love, booze, brotherly brawling and of course, pop music. It’s a grandly affirming epic of failure, bad behaviour and male shame. It’s a love letter to Bergen, to lost youth and to the landscape of Norway. It’s a study of loneliness: there’s always the poignant, solitary figure of Karl Ove, making his way through the rainy streets to his bedsit. As Volume Five in the series of English translations, the novel marks a progression, a new stage in the venture. It’s a commentary on the earlier works and on the project as a whole, and it’s Knausgaard’s most satisfying and intense outing yet.

Some Rain Must Fall: My Struggle, Volume 5 by Karl Ove Knausgaard is available at Unity Books.

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