Posts Tagged ‘Norwegian Writers’

[This text is the original but too long for posting to other book sites.]

 

One must wonder—tongue in cheek—how KOK finds the time to live a life to write about. His detail is so fine and often so mundane as noticing suddenly that the sun is setting and lighting up the sky over the five story apartment building going up across one arm of Lake Merritt. Yet once launched into the story as he tells it, you’re nearly shedding tears of thanks to him, letting you into his life, his pains, his loves, his hates, his fears, artistic musings, and philosophical flourishes. This book and the five of the same name that follow if are not for the faint-hearted, must-have-page-turner American reader. Since the translations run apace, though, there must be a market here and in Britain and in the English reading world as a whole.

It is a little early for me to prognosticate, but I see a big prize at the end of this tunnel, one with an N on its snout.

Want to get to know someone perhaps better than your best friend? No, perhaps better than a spouse, or maybe better than you know yourself? Well, dig in and be patient. You will get to know Karl Ove Knausgaard well, very well.

Book 1 of My Struggle focuses on KOK’s father: how he feared and hated him in adolescence. How he evaded and avoided dad, usually without much success since KOK carried dad with him everywhere he went and in every enterprise he attempted. That’s not unusual for a son, or for a son with a dominant father and absent or semi-absent mother such as KOK seems—so he indicates—to have had. She was nice, loving, but not around a great deal.

As he grows older, KOK declares more independence and eventually after high school leaves town to return only for his father’s funeral. Often the narrative is intense and interesting: KOK spends 35 pages getting ready to drink to drunkenness on his 14th new years eve; he spills ink over five pages of discussion of the role science has played in our conception and expectations of art, painting mostly, and a full third of the book relates the preparations Ingve, KOK’s brother and sometime hero and nemesis, and he perform in advance of the funeral. And, hey, we never (at least in Book 1) get to the funeral, or near the funeral, or getting ready for the actual funeral, for, first, the brothers must clean the house of their deceased, alcoholic, secretive father and who commandeered his own mother’s house (it isn’t even his) in which to devolve, disintegrate, and die. KOK’s grandmother is in the sorriest state of affairs. That is what must be dealt with.

Oh, what a mess. Oh, what a tragedy. And through it all the author is open, plain spoken, truthful, and compelling without pulling sentimental punches or taking unfair advantage.

Knausgaard earns his reader’s respect, wins it fairly with Norwegian hard work and a keen eye for minutae which tells the story so well. It is as if he continuously tells us—were he Californian or American—where he was, what he was doing, who he was with, and what he was thinking when Oakland burned, when the Bay Bridge collapsed, or when the Trade Towers fell. Knausgaard’s fire, earthquake, and terror attack are personal, but that does not mean that we, all of us, haven’t suffered the same.

And that commonality is what Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle exalts.

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One must wonder how Karl Ove Knausgaard finds the time to live a life to write about. His detail is so fine and so often mundane as noticing suddenly that the sun is setting and lighting up the sky over the fjord. Yet launching into the story as he tells it, you’re nearly shedding tears of thanks to him, letting you into his life, his pains, his fears, artistic musings, and philosophical flourishes. This book and the five that follow it are not for the faint-hearted reader.

It is early for me to prognosticate, but I see a big prize at the end of this tunnel, one with an N on its snout.

Want to get to know someone perhaps better than your best friend? No, perhaps better than a spouse, or maybe better than you know yourself? Well, dig in and be patient. You will get to know Karl Ove Knausgaard well, very well.

Book 1 of My Struggle focuses on KOK’s father: how he feared and hated him in adolescence. How he evaded dad usually without success since KOK carried dad with him everywhere in every enterprise he attempted. That’s not unusual for a son, or for a son with a dominant father and absent or semi-absent mother such as KOK seems to have had. She was nice, but not around a great deal.

As he grows older, KOK declares more independence and after high school leaves town to return only for his father’s funeral. Often the narrative is intense: KOK spends 35 pages getting ready to drink to drunkenness on his 14th New Year’s Eve; he spills ink over five pages discussing the role science has played in our conception and expectations of art, and writes a third of the book on preparations Ingve, KOK’s brother, and he perform in advance of the funeral. And, hey, we never (at least in Book 1) get to the funeral, or ready for the funeral, for, first, the brothers must clean the house of their secretive, alcoholic, and now deceased father who commandeered his own mother’s house in which to devolve, disintegrate, and die. KOK’s grandmother is left in the sorriest state of affairs. That is what we must deal with.

What a mess. What a tragedy. And through it all, the author is open, plain-spoken, truthful, and compelling without pulling sentimental punches or taking unfair advantage.

Knausgaard earns his reader’s respect, wins it fairly with Norwegian hard work and a keen eye for minutiae which tell the story so well. It is as if he continuously tells us—were he Californian or American—where he was, what he was doing, who he was with, and what he was thinking when Oakland burned, when the Bay Bridge collapsed, or when the Trade Towers fell. Knausgaard’s fire, earthquake, and terror attack are personal, but that does not mean that all of us haven’t suffered the same.

And that commonality is what Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle exalts.

I have been thinking about Lars and Trond, the neighbors in Out Stealing Horses. Do we get to see enough of their relationship to think about what might happen later, after the book ends? Maybe.  Here is what I think is so:

The two have common history rooted in the same place.

They enjoy the physical work of life.

They have lost a huge part of that they once thought their lives included: a father for Trond, a farm for Lars.

Neither went back.

They are over sixty and live within sight of each other.

I think this is a recipe for friendship, at least I would like to think so. Lars seems, to me and to Trond, like a decent fellow, careful, deliberate, thoughtful.

Each could use the other’s companionship even though neither moved there to be near. So, each could use the other’s forbearance too. On that, I think, they could count. I can see them doing some fishing together, working projects that are too hard for one man, keeping an eye out for each other. Cooking for two might be something Trond is willing to do, maybe even twice a week and on special occasions.

Well, we don’t get to see much of that. So, I wonder, what is Lars doing in that story? He intensifies Trond’s loss of a father. Yes, it is a greater loss when your dad fathers another man’s son even if just for a while. It raises our curiosity about the father’s life after Trond returns to Oslo.  If Jon had returned to find Trond’s father still there (his mother was, we know), I don’t think it would make sense for him to demand the farm. Are we, then, to think that he had died? Left? Or was he just living up stream still? (In that case, would he have been a father to Lars? Lars calls him “my stepfather” during the account of the dog shooting). I am not sure which is most likely.  We don’t really have to know.

But Lars is doing something else here. If it were just Trond who was suffering a loss – even though he was the boy in the golden trousers and lived a full live, albeit not without tragedy – alone, the story would be about an individual. More about him, less about us.

But there Lars is. He lived a life parallel to Trond in loss and suffering. He was booted out, young. He did not return. He also lost a father and, like Trond, a sibling (twice).  This makes the book more a tale of two men whose lives intertwined briefly but significantly.

If this is so, would Trond be the Sydney Carton who loses a father that another man might have one? The allusion strengthens the argument that Lars’ presence adds a universal scope to the theme. We have to see life as loss. How much it hurts will be up to us.

 

 

I reread Out Stealing Horses for some tutelage, to discover more of what made it so good, why it moved me.  Mostly, during the second reading, it just blew me away again. Instead of taking it apart to inspect it, the story was invading me, yet again, and carrying me down its river to foreign parts. I suppose that is what wonderful writing does.

I said I wasn’t going to catalog the instances of irony in the book, but I just have to add one more:

Dad and Trond are out riding horses.  It is their last outing together (perhaps for the summer, perhaps forever). For Trond it is the chance to be with his father, to see him in the glow of the embers of their campfire. What the trip is for the father is a little more complicated.  He is tracking his lumber shipment which we know went down a low level river to the Swedish sawmill.  If the lumber makes it down river, father’s plan for his future will work.  If it doesn’t, well, he might complete his plan anyway, but it seems much less certain.  Why would he otherwise be so tense about it?

The man has scruples that demand or at least lead him to do the right thing if it can be done. (I am dancing around here surpressing “spoilers” but if you have finished the book – which means you have started it – you will likely recognize clearly what I mean.  If you haven’t finished the book – which means you don’t have a copy yet – you should get an inkling about this irony). In any case, they come upon a huge log jam.  If they are able to release the jam, father will begin a new life; if the jam holds, it is more likely that father will return to Oslo to his, and Trond’s, family life.

The irony? Trond leaps at the chance to break the jam. He plies the water and tangled tree trunks like a skilled lumberjack and works a solution – what, to the jam, to the father’s dilemma, to living life? – to the problem.  Will it work? If it does, he loses his father, though he does not know it. If it does not, he fails in front of dad and gains, perhaps, a forever unhappy parent. This ironic knot is tied tighter than the logs are jammed into the rocks in the middle of the river, and despite the fact that the book continues into Part III, this is really the climax of the story, the supreme irony.

After reading through twice, I still wonder how the reader, or Trond, can forgive what has to happen in this story.  How can a father even think of leaving a son he so clearly loves? How can a son continue on if he is abandoned by that father? And why?

I suppose the answers are found in the imprints of war, in the accidents of love, in the strength of filial affection. The antidote to the pain of any life is the resonance of father’s wisdom gained by careful thought and experience: “We decide for ourselves when it will hurt.”

tj

 

 

 

I taught English for seventeen years. That is not a confession.  One thing we worked on when I taught seniors was irony.  I suppose seniors in high school are ripe for it since they are all focused on leaving the place that they most do not want to leave.

We rehearsed the normal definitions of the concept, dividing them into verbal, situational and dramatic irony.  All seniors love Oedipus the King. The ironies of all kinds are rife (let me paraphrase here): Oedipus – “I am going to hunt down the king’s murderer and seek vengeance;”  Oedipus, again – “I left my father and mother to avoid killing one and marrying the other;” the Audience, Greek or modern – “OMG, don’t you see? You are the culprit.” And on and on and on.

The ironic would have gone the way of metonymy if life itself were not so full of it.  And if a book is as full of ironies, chances are that it is a fair picture of life.  Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses is both full of irony and truth about living and observing life.  It is widely agreed that it meets the test. The truth that it would NOT make a good read for seniors anxious to live life rather than examine it is all to its credit. Besides, the tripartite definition of the concept is far too clumsy to describe what goes on in Petterson’s book.

Start with the title, Out Stealing Horses. It is a password of sorts, used during the resistance to Nazi occupation in the war. As such, it is both symbolic and ironic. It symbolizes the danger involved – the consequence is well-known, even to Jon and Trond – and the verbal irony is clear.  No, in neither instance, the war or the episode with Barkald’s horses, was stealing involved. It is further ironic in the way Jon uses it.  He uses the phrase literally, but at the same time we know – at least later on – that he used it to cover a far more serious happening of his life, one so serious that only a password with a history could convey enough significance.  When Trond tells his father that he and Jon were “out stealing horses” his father’s reaction is ironic.  Immediately, he might think his cover has been blown, that his son knows a truth that he has not revealed, one that he may not yet know himself. There are secrets here, just as in Oedipus, that when revealed will render life long and life changing irony. Some of it may become clear when Trond hears the same words from Franz as the World War II stories of his father are passed along.

An irony that is more pronounced at the time it is read is Trond’s assertion, “I trusted my father.” When I read these words, I flushed with gratitude that there were fathers who could be trusted.  Mine could not. But within a second, the thought came, “If he has to say it so flatly, it will turn out not to be true.” More succinctly, “Fat chance.”  No father can be trusted, at least no more fully than any man, and should not be trusted in the way a young son does. The boy must say it if we are to know he believes it. If a grown man were to say it, we would be immediately convinced he was eulogizing or outright lying. Of course, one beauty of the narrative is that the reader gets to know as does the boy, little by little, what the grown-old narrator has already found out. The trust of boys, of sons carries its own risks.

I am certainly not going to catalog each irony that appears in Out Stealing Horses but permit me one more, so emotionally evocative that it is perhaps the best example of how very good Petterson can be, and that is very, very good: Trond is leaving the village by the river where he spent the summer with his father. He will return to Oslo now.  The irony is verbal and dramatic. It is also neither of those.  Verbal irony unfolds when the reader hears a character say something he clearly believes is true but is in fact opposed to what is known to be so.  In this section, Trond is forced to say he understands and that it is OK. But he tells us he is not sure he understands and that it is definitely not OK.  The reader knows that Trond does not understand and easily agrees that it is not OK.  The reader also knows that it is less OK than even that, thus, dramatic irony.  This scene would work without ironic twists, but it would then only be sentimental, something the older Trond guards against.  As it is, the reader sees a father bidding his son farewell, not for a week or two nor for a month or two, but for much, much longer than that.  We are aghast – we scream out at Oedipus, “It’s is you; you are your father’s killer.” – we cannot understand, like Trond, how a man, even a man who barehanded pulls up nettles, can do this without tearing out his own eyes.