Karl with the good hair – reading Knuasgaard in 2016

karl

Where does Karl Ove Knuagaard’s cultural cachet stand after the publication of the fifth instalment in his six volume opus, titled Some Rain Must Fall? It is now over five years since Norway went crazy for the confessional series. However, on publication of the latest novel (as Knausgaard has always insisted on referring to these books) is it still accurate to use the phrase ‘literary sensation’ outside of his native lands?

The answer is probably not. While Some Rain Must Fall was reviewed in all the usual places, the book appeared without much fuss at the beginning of March and appears in none of the bestseller charts. The initial excitement and accolades has certainly died down of late. Back in 2014, Zadie Smith was helping to promote the books by declaring that she needed the next instalment “like crack.” A couple of months ago, however, Roxane Gay, discussing Beyoncé’s Lemonade in a well-received TED talk complained that “When white men write about themselves, people are like, oh my god that’s groundbreaking, like Knausgaard. When a women does it it’s self-indulgent.” Too true. But the question is does Knausgaard still write about himself better than anyone else. While in 2016 we may be more interested in the identity of Becky with the Good Hair than Knausgaard’s infidelities and indiscretions, what literary delights are to be found in Some Rain Must Fall’s 600 plus pages?

Fans will, of course, be compelled to read it; if you’ve got this far, you’re in it for the long haul. The small clutch of Amazon customer reviews give it an average of 4.7 of of 5 and frequently refer to the addictive nature of his writing. Readers “love the immersive experience of the series”, another is “sucked into the world of Karl Ove”, someone describes the books as, surprise surprise, “completely addictive”, and another mourns that they will be sad when they eventually get to read book six. So certainly for some of his dedicated readers’ book five hasn’t disappointed. It has all the Knausgaard hallmarks; long, descriptive prose chronicling every detail of the young Karl Ove’s days reading, smoking, wandering and drinking, and the recording of his innermost feelings, often of disgust, shame and inadequacy. The recurrent themes of black-out inducing alcohol binges, infidelity and his struggle to write anything of substance are all here.

However, it is the weakest volume so far without doubt. Now with five books published, a step can be taken back to view the books as separate entities, and to evaluate them on their own merits. While each of the preceding novels has distinct themes, atmospheres and conflicts, Some Rain Must Fall is more of a sprawling meander. This is partly because the writer finds his twenties, like many people, largely directionless, depressing and repetitive.

Book one and two are still vastly superior to what has come after, in that they did something fairly unusual in current popular literature. By employing a mixture of intensely detailed experience, reflection from the present day and grappling with key struggles such as his love/hate for his father and his complicated relationship with being a husband and father himself, Knausgaard created a style all of his own.

Volume one enthralled with its description of a dead alcoholic’s house, with all the sadness and depravity that comes with that, while volume two made readers gasp in shock and/or delight at Knaugaard’s confession that he couldn’t bear looking after his children most of the time. Volume three is the traditional childhood memoir, told purely through the eyes of a young Karl Ove. Dancing in the Dark was the teen years, but in mainly focusing on his time spent on a small, dark island, had a particular atmosphere and focus. Volume five, in comparison, just goes on and on. If there is a key issue in this book (in volume four it was his struggle to lose his virginity) then it is his struggle to write anything of substance.

So Some Rain Must Fall is about that most tedious of things, a writer who cannot write. The descriptions of his creative writing course, and the egos and characters that he finds there, are as honest a portrayal as he is capable of, revealing his own and other’s joyless pretentions. He struggles with the constant criticism, is judgemental of his classmates, and the prose is full of bitch and bite as usual.

“The dark haired one might be forty. She dressed like a forty-year-old anyway, wide sleeves and big earrings. But tight trousers. Meticulously drawn eyebrows. And thick lipstick on her narrow lips. What the hell could she write?”

Anyone who has spent a decent proportion of their youth in hedonistic pursuit will recognise his descriptions of blackouts and hangover dread. By now, his drunken behaviour is catching up with him and others are concerned. He vandalises property, starts fights, and cheats on his girlfriend. As always, Knausgaard describes his shame and regret in painfully acute detail:

“This was the pattern for the end of the autumn, I tagged along with Yngve and his friends, was silent and shy but polite and affable for the first few hours until alcohol had me in its grip and then anything could pass my lips, anything could happen with my hands, until I woke up in an internal darkness the next day, when image and image of what I had done and said was hurled back at me, and I could only get myself going with a huge effort of will, drag myself back to normality, which then slowly took over.”

As the paragraph above demonstrates, the writing in Some Rain Must Fall is just as good as always in describing human experience. However, by this point, after hundreds and hundreds of pages of minute detail over five separate volumes, it is easy to be as fed up with Knausgaard as he is with himself. While the series has been hailed a modern literary masterpiece, a significant part of the appeal is our basic curiosity in the juice bits of other’s lives. In Volume Five we finally get the recollection of how he met and fell in love with his now ex-wife, Tonje, which is only ever briefly alluded to in the previous books:

“Occasionally she flashed me a little glance and a smile, sending shivers right through me. The thought of her was light, it arched like a sky over everything, but the thought of approaching her was heavy. What if I was wrong? What if she said no? What if she laughed at me? What has gotten into you? Who do you think you are? Do you imagine I would go out with you? You’re just a miserable wimp!

But tonight I would have to!

Tonight I had to”

As the paragraph above demonstrates, Knausgaard does shame and self-disgust better than romantic tension. The satisfaction in finally finding out what happened in his first marriage is not dissimilar to discovering who is getting off with who in a favourite television drama. However, his reminisces of his life in his twenties are not nearly as interesting and absorbing as the writing in volumes one and two, which move back and forth between the writer’s past and present.

It is rumoured that Volume Six, due to be published next year, changes course completely. It has been reported to include a lengthy mediation on Hitler, his feelings on the 2011 Anders Breikvik attacks in Oslo, and a description of the mental breakdown his wife Linda Bostrom-Knausgaard suffered after the publication of the series in Norway. This is good news. After making our way through Some Rain Must Fall, fans will hopefully be rewarded with something more satisfying from the last instalment of this fascinating enterprise.

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