The laws of memory are subject to the more general laws of habit. Habit is a compromise effected between the individual and his environment, or between the individual and his own organic eccentricities, the guarantee of a dull inviolability, the lightning-conductor of his existence. Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit. Breathing is habit. Life is habit. Or rather life is a succession of habits, since the individual is a succession of individuals . . .
Samuel Beckett, Proust
The mental process for which the term “remember” serves as shorthand is something that in everyday life remains necessarily unexamined; a process, like breathing or the act of falling asleep, that becomes problematic as soon as it is exposed to conscious thought. We realize as soon as we attempt to isolate the act of remembering that it is drastically partial and fragmentary, an act of brazen improvisation. Attempting to recall even a simple sequence of events in detail confronts us with a set of narrative problems: we can visualize a series of static images, but animating them into continuous motion—compelling a mnemonic self to walk across a room or sustain a conversation—is a surprisingly difficult act to accomplish.
It is something of a critical cliché to point out, following Proust, that all memory is fictional. Yet the acuity of this insight does not absolve those who use it from applying the relevant considerations of scale. If it were literally the case, we would all be afflicted with the tragicomic amnesia of Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, or would exist in a void like the narrator of The Unnameable, forced by some obscure inner compulsion to go on narrating ourselves into existence, if only in order to ward off the darkness and silence of non-being.
Perhaps what memory involves more specifically is a transaction, or even a struggle, between the general and the particular; the reflex of habit and the residue of authentic experience. Images can be stored in the memory, photocopied and filed away for future use; a framework of relevant facts can be established; reserves of intuition can be haphazardly and involuntarily accessed. But we combine these constituent parts into a sequential recollection through a mixture of imagination and habit. We use imagination to flesh out data and intuition, with the ballast of habit always on hand to seal them into rigid form.
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s now-infamous six-volume memoir, of which the third volume has just been published in English, as Boyhood Island in the UK and simply as “Volume 3” in the US, is the monument to his personal struggle with this set of Proustian problematics. Readers of volume one may recall that Knausgaard’s autobiographic odyssey was prompted by his own madeleine moment. In late 2003, the grown-up Knausgaard, then the author of one novel and the beginnings of what would become a strange book about angels, A Time for Everything, is sitting in his office in front of a blank screen. Scanning absently around the room, his eyes half-consciously register a pattern on the parquet floor, which forms “an image of Christ wearing a crown of thorns.” Getting up to make a coffee, he is overcome by a sudden access of involuntary memory, conjuring a long-forgotten scene from his childhood: the narrative beginning of My Struggle. In this vision, while watching a news report about a shipwreck one evening, the young Karl Ove is haunted by the momentary vision of a human face formed by the ripples on the surface of the sea:
In the second it took to fill the pot, I saw our living room before me, the teak television cabinet, the shimmer of isolated snowflakes against the darkening hillside outside the window, the sea on the screen, the face that appeared in it. With the images came the atmosphere from that time, of spring, of the housing estate, of the seventies, of family life as it was then. And with the atmosphere, an almost uncontrollable longing.
The uncontrollable longing that underpins the enterprise that Knausgaard subsequently undertakes—an obsessive reconstruction of his life, spanning some 3,600 pages—is manifested, paradoxically, through the suppression of the literary device through which such an emotion would traditionally be harnessed: style. Yet this is not the agonized precision of Beckett—whose switch from English to French was in part an attempt to escape from the affliction of style—or the writing degree zero objectivity of the nouveau roman (the idea of Beckett or Robbe-Grillet bashing out a three-thousand-page memoir is laughable). For the most part Knausgaard’s writing is off-hand and perfunctory, deliberately and provocatively underwhelming. Knausgaard has repeatedly spoken in interviews of how My Struggle was written “as quickly as possible,” in a manner antithetical to our consecrated image of the serious author—from Virgil to Flaubert, Nabokov to William H. Gass—who agonizes over every word, and whose masterworks require the intermediary expertise of professional “close readers” in order to fully yield their mysteries.
As many critics have noted, whether with approval, condemnation, or bemusement, My Struggle is characterized by its excessive attention to the banal details of Knausgaard’s phenomenal environment, a kind of Homeric cataloguing of the quotidian. Yet while many critics have noticed this flatness and stubborn attentiveness to the everyday, few have said much about why it is so central to Knausgaard’s project. This is stated quite explicitly later on in the same passage from which the above quote came:
Apart from one or two isolated events that Yngve and I had talked about so often they almost assumed biblical proportions, I remembered hardly anything from my childhood. That is, I remembered hardly any of the events in it. But I did remember the rooms where they took place. I could remember all the places I had been, all the rooms I had been in. Just not what happened there.
In his emphasis on everyday objects, Knausgaard is like a man in the dark fumbling around for physical reference points as he tries to find his way to the light switch. The flatness of his style is paradoxically infused with the very “uncontrollable longing” for the past that compels the undertaking, present in its very absence. Given the impossibility of reliable recollection, the listing of physical coordinates—kitchen utensils and clothing, the innumerable family meals whose constituent parts are so pedantically itemized—is a way of anchoring his writing in the real, minimizing the inevitable distortions and transfigurations of literary style. Yet rather than a naïve quest for transparency, the underlying premise of this approach seems to be a deep mistrust, perhaps even a sense of shame towards writing. Like ripping off a band-aid, Knausgaard approaches narrative writing as a necessary evil, the more tolerable if performed quickly and unceremoniously.
The result can be off-putting to some readers in that it often neglects to provide the kind of localized aesthetic pleasure that constitutes one of our traditional reasons for reading. Yet at the price of this loss Knausgaard’s writing gains a certain openness to the world and to experience. Whereas in his painstaking stylistic exactitude a writer such as Nabokov exercises a form of tyranny over the world he describes, in Knausgaard’s writing language is once again contractual, an impassioned attempt to communicate rather than to create a self-sufficient aesthetic monument for our disinterested contemplation. In describing his memories in terms that are primarily denotative, Knausgaard invites us to reimagine them for ourselves, to inhabit his text in a way that we could never inhabit the closed edifice of Speak, Memory. We imaginatively infuse the text with our own specificity, making the process of reading My Struggle a kind of collective exercise in remembering. Perhaps this accounts in part for its improbable crossover popularity.
Whereas the previous volume, titled A Man in Love in the UK, deals with the period in the adult Knausgaard’s life during which My Struggle was conceived, Boyhood Island is a prequel concerning the early period during which he saw the mysterious face in the sea—a time of which, as he admits in the opening pages, his memories are now almost non-existent (“All I know about that time I have been told by my parents or have gleaned from photos”). For readers familiar with the opening two volumes, this infuses our perception of its events with a continuous undercurrent of foreboding. The tension that holds this book of semi-fictional reminiscences together is Knausgaard’s fraught relationship with his father, a cold and aloof disciplinarian whom the young Karl Ove regards with a primal fear and loathing. Yet the unspoken subtext to every scene is our foreknowledge of his father’s fate—the alcoholic dissipation and death whose aftermath is described in such unsparing detail in A Death in the Family. Our foreknowledge of these events suspends us in a state of simultaneous empathy and necessary distance in relation to Knausgaard’s youthful persona.
Yet if this dramatic irony provides the narrative with much of its tension, Boyhood Island is in another sense a tonal departure from its predecessors in that for much of it Knausgaard abandons himself to unashamed nostalgia. Just as Knausgaard’s style is predicated upon a fascination with what lies beyond the reach of words—in opposition to the classical conception of literary style as the enactment or embodiment of meaning—he is also fascinated with the domains of experience that precede or evade rational knowledge. For this reason childhood is a natural subject matter for him, a return to a world of enchantment, mystery and discovery. The young Karl Ove is scared of “the spirits of the dead” that haunt the woods near his house; he holds deep sea diving “in greater esteem than anything else,” reflecting his fascination with the murky, unknown depths concealed beneath the surface of water. The bucolic surroundings of his home on a small island in southern Norway give many of his experiences a kind of timelessness, accentuating the youthful state of gradual awakening to history. Experience is incompletely rationalized and hence alive with imaginative possibilities; for an artist of such Romantic proclivities as Knausgaard this is rich material, and in the rapt simplicity of his prose his yearning for the past is sometimes overwhelming.
Boyhood Island contains far fewer of the extended philosophical and aesthetic ruminations that punctuate A Death in the Family and A Man in Love. It instead consists mostly of episodic narrative: the adventures and discoveries of a young Karl Ove and his best friend Geir; squabbles and reconciliations with his older brother Yngve; the frequent eruptions of his volatile and domineering father; and later on, Karl Ove’s nascent coming into awareness of his own sexuality, with all its attendant crudity, exhilaration, embarrassment and self-consciousness. Yet Boyhood Island’s more straightforward formal design does not mean that the narrative lacks a thematic framework. Knausgaard’s ambivalence towards rational knowledge, one of the philosophical underpinnings of the entire undertaking, emerges in Boyhood Island as an aspect of his relationship with his father. Rationality is associated with the authoritarian paternal principle, a thematic adversary to the imaginative and intuitive maternal principle. His father, we are told, “tried to purge our lives of anything that had no direct relevance to the situation in which we found ourselves: we ate food because it was a necessity, and the time we spent eating had no value in itself.” The very process of disenchantment and destruction of innocence that characterizes the journey from childhood to adulthood seems to operate in complicity with all that his father imaginatively represents.
Yet if the opposing thematic strands of youthful imagination and patriarchal rationality form a respective major and minor key between which the narrative modulates, the note on which Knausgaard leaves us is perhaps uncharacteristically uplifting. Though it shares the previous volumes’ underlying sense of the pathos of our inevitable separation from the past, Boyhood Island evinces a more palpable sense of the mitigating joy of imaginative recreation. The passages concerning his youthful love affairs are written with a kind of breathless ardor, and we devour them with shameless impatience. Somehow within this gossamer of half-truths, artistic license, archaeological reconstruction and speculative fancy, Knausgaard manages to recreate a kernel of experiential truth, defying the loss of faith in writing that anchors the entire undertaking. Knausgaard begins Boyhood Island by insisting upon his utter alienation from the past, stating that “It is absolutely impossible to identify with the infant my parents photographed, indeed so impossible that it seems wrong to use the word ‘me.’” Yet by the closing sentence he seems to have written himself into a state of imaginative unity, ending on an expression of exultant reconciliation with his childhood self:
Little did I know then that every detail of this landscape, and every single person living in it, would forever be lodged in my memory with a ring as true as perfect pitch.
Somehow the knowledge that Knausgaard’s fleeting victory over the ravages of time exists purely in his imagination does nothing to prevent us from sharing in its poignancy.
As English-language readers we are still only at the halfway point of Knausgaard’s epic, rendering overarching critical assessments necessarily provisional and problematic. The form of the whole remains obscure, and as we move through the sequence each book complicates our relationship with its predecessors; our knowledge of Knausgaard’s boyhood is refracted back onto the adult portrayed in volumes one and two, while our view of the youthful Karl Ove comes ready-charged with the pathos of our knowledge of his future. The remaining three volumes were written against the backdrop of the growing furor caused by their predecessors’ publication in Norway, charging the relationship between past and present with a further layer of self-consciousness.
If this third volume represents My Struggle at its most straightforward and direct, it is also the volume of the novel so far in which the clunking utilitarianism of Knausgaard’s style is left most exposed, unrelieved by the frequent philosophical mini-essays that punctuate the previous two volumes. While Knausgaard’s apparent indifference to style on one level feels like a kind of liberation, bypassing the lyrical posturing of the “well-made” literary novel, it is nonetheless undeniable that his writing can also lapse into infelicity and cliché. What keeps us compelled and makes us willing to forgive Knausgaard these cardinal sins may be related to the universality of his project. As well as the taboo of exposing the intimate details of the private life of his family to the public gaze, in a more fundamental sense Knausgaard is exposing the alienation from our past that is a fact of all of our lives, though one that remains suppressed by force of habit. Knausgaard is far from being the first novelist to take this as his theme, but he does so with a maniacal intensity that makes such mechanical considerations as style and technique seem superfluous.
Danny Byrne is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY. He studied literature at Oxford and UCL.