Dear Dan, Diana, and Omari,
I spend the majority of my daylight hours sitting in an antique, wing-backed armchair that used to be in my mother's office. It's not very comfortable, but it provides good support for nursing my six-week old baby girl, Viola, who eats as often as Knausgaard, in Vol. 1 of My Struggle, proclaims, "Dad is Dead."
I read Vol. 1 exclusively in this chair, with Viola on my lap, and usually without the use of one of my hands. To write this post, I had my husband push the armchair to the dining room table—and by "dining room" I also mean "living room" and "kitchen," as ours is a very small apartment. I figured out how to prop up Viola in such a way that I could type with her on my lap, though occasionally I had to type one-handed, which is a lot harder than reading one-handed. She only cried a couple times, most notably when I scooted the armchair too close to the table, and she bumped her head. I'll give her some author credit for all my posts this summer. Her version of K's novel would be titled My Snuggle.
Because of these interesting constrictions—and I do mean interesting, as anything that changes your habits is probably good for you—I was rankled by the reflections on parenthood that open Knausgaard's Struggle. In these first pages, K muses on how his domestic life informs his sense of what it means to be a writer. He observes:
When I look at a beautiful painting I have tears in my eyes, but not when I look at my children. That does not mean I do not love them because I do, with all my heart, it simply means that the meaning they produce is not sufficient to fulfill a whole life. Not mine, at any rate. (36)
I found this comment profoundly irritating, mostly because of the implicit suggestion that women would feel otherwise—that for them, children produce sufficient meaning to fulfill a whole life. Not so male artists like Knausgaard, who are modern enough to push strollers but not so feminized as to hold their children above art.
Most of us, I think, would eschew either position here, being capable of placing children and art in such different categories that K's hierarchy feels absurd. I have yet to contemplate how my experiences of Viola compare to my experiences at MoMA. And I can't think of anything that produces sufficient meaning to fulfill a whole life. Moreover, as my ability to read and write with a baby on my lap has shown me, parenthood isn't always in fraught conflict with one's other vocations.
I know no one who would find my thoughts here revolutionary. But Knausgaard—who obsesses over his relationship to his classically Bad Dad while taking for granted his kind, thoughtful, and completely peripheral mother—often makes basic feminism feel in need of restatement. His ideas about art, children, and fathers seemed so dated to me. A man might endure a few diaper changes, but oh! The sacrifice!
In Vol. 1, Knausgaard never explicitly returns to the perspective of the present-day author who opens the novel. Instead, we cycle through formative moments in K's youth. It's a long, sometimes delightful amble through an alternately lonely and socially ambitious adolescence that includes marvelous moments, my favorite being Knausgaard's struggle to buy, transport, open, and drink beer on New Year's Eve. Like Diana, I was entertained by Knausgaard's inability to open his beers with a lighter, and the ensuing blow to his masculinity this failure produces, which he tries to compensate for by opening his beer with his teeth. Having once tried to master the lighter trick, but without any sense of chagrin when I didn't, I wondered if this is a standard issue test of young manhood. Apparently, after conducting a very small—and admittedly non-Norwegian—household survey, the answer is "no." Men of Midwestern Jewish stock are very happy to politely ask for a bottle opener.
The beer episode works particularly well because Knausgaard interweaves the ordeal of getting drunk with other reminiscences—about playing in a terrible band, earlier drunken escapades, and seducing girls—dilating it across 100 pages. (I'm borrowing "dilate" from Dan's introduction, as it so perfectly captures K's tendencies. I will add, as someone who just gave birth, we should entertain all meanings and somatic associations of this word while reading Knausgaard). By stretching out the (failed) effort to make ten beers turn a dismal New Year's Eve into a socially and sexually successful one, Knausgaard both captures a teenager's proclivity for aggrandizing social encounters and injects self-conscious humor into the adolescent (male) preoccupations that infuse the overweening project that is My Struggle.
I wasn't always so sure that K was indeed being self-conscious or funny about his novel's phallic obsessions. Vol. 1 is loosely bookended by reflections on death: it opens with general philosophizing on why society does not allows us to linger over dead bodies in their full putrescence and it ends with one such dead body—Knausgaard's father, who died bloodied and broken by alcoholism when Knausgaard was 30. It is the story of a writer—an Artist—who is fully born once his father dies—the tale of a son freeing himself from paternal authority in order to fully realize his individuality and creativity. This is a well-worn trope, which leaves little room for the consideration of other parental legacies. (K's mother seems ambitious—off earning degrees and working hard—but what exactly does she do? And why does K keep forgetting to call her when he learns that "Dad is dead"?)
"Dad is dead." Over and over again. Ever notice how DEAD has the word DAD in it? This is the sort of (not)thinking that I imagined flickering through Knausgaard's mind. (I know, I know, My Struggle is a translation, but you get what I mean). "The real is unreal" / "Art does not know a beyond" / "I was slim, supple, and as handsome as a god." Perhaps Knausgaard mocks the staleness of his overblown symbolic register through deliberate bathos—his novel's alternation between the realms of Death, Art, and Manhood and the realm of the Trivial, as most hilariously captured by K's thorough description of the sound of a video rewinding: "The tape began to whir backwards with ever-increasing speed and volume until it came to a stop well before the end, whereafter the last part rotated extremely slowly, in a manner reminiscent of a plane."
Such passages, in which Knausgaard elevates the whirs of the everyday, make me smile. With—not at—Knausgaard. I think. I'd probably feel more confident that Knausgaard is being playful when he juxtaposes the trivial and the bombastic if I had had time to fully understand the ideas of the writer-father whose voice begins the novel. Because he doesn't return to this exasperating perspective, I was unsure how to assimilate it within the broader preoccupations of the novel.
I've written nothing about Knausgaard's description of his work as an "autobiographical novel," and I meant to. But my baby is crying, and the meaning of her cries is sufficient to fill a whole apartment building...
With excitement as we embark on our Knausgaard endeavor together,
ALSO IN THIS SERIES:
My Struggle, vol. 1: Diana, June 9
My Struggle, vol. 1: Omari, June 14
My Struggle, vol. 1: Dan, June 17
My Struggle, vol. 2: Omari, June 24
My Struggle, vol. 2: Cecily, July 1
My Struggle, vol. 2: Sarah Chihaya, July 5
My Struggle, vol. 2: Dan, July 12
My Struggle, vol. 2: Jess Arndt, July 18
My Struggle, vol. 3: Omari, July 25
My Struggle, vol. 3: Marissa Brostoff, August 1
My Struggle, vol. 2: Dan, August 4
My Struggle, vol. 3: Jacob Brogan, August 8
My Struggle, vol. 3: Diana, August 12
My Struggle, vol. 4: Omari, September 1
My Struggle, vol. 4: Dan, September 2
My Struggle, vol. 4: Diana, September 15
My Struggle, vol. 5: Omari, September 27