Dear Dan, Omari, and Diana,
For a writer who repeatedly claims that he doesn't care about food, Knausgaard describes a lot of meals. Like a teenage anorexic, he is both fixated on and repulsed by food. It seems to me that we are eating every ten or so pages in My Struggle. I applaud Knaus's commitment to gastronomy. It's as sexy as he gets. And it seems like one of the best demonstrations of his effort to "get as close as possible to life" (582). After finishing these first two books, I could probably compile enough recipes for a whole volume of "Cooking with Knausgaard," so detailed are his passages about meal preparation.
So, as I sip a plastic cup of room temperature "cold brew," I offer you a humble list of my favorite food scenes in volume 2.
- The Swedish Birthday Party: Irritatingly Healthy Meals
As Sarah Chihaya commented on a walk with me yesterday, Knausgaard has the same opinion of Sweden that Americans have of all of Scandinavia. We think of a whole region of order, cleanliness, money, and health. Not so, according to Knaus.
Norway is in fact a backwater of friendly laxity, where people chitchat with strangers and eat a lot of gas station hot dogs. Sweden, conversely, is where Scandinavian stereotypes are made. Everyone is obsessed with health. Rules are never broken. No one shares feelings. Everyone is rich. AND THERE ARE IKEA BAGS EVERYWHERE. It's enough to make a totally relaxed—and definitely not at all controlling—Norwegian really angry. My favorite passage in the whole Struggle might be:
Sweden hasn't had a war on its soil since the seventeenth century and how often did it cross my mind that someone ought to invade Sweden, bomb its buildings, starve its country, shoot down its men, rape its women, and then have some faraway country, Chile or Bolivia, for example, embrace its refugees with kindness, tell them they love Scandinavia, and dump them in in a ghetto outside one of the cities there. Just to see what they would say. (384)
Knausgaard's vituperation is inspired by the tyranny of having to make a reservation to use his apartment's laundry machine. Knaus, who otherwise shows a 19th century colonialist's appreciation for non-Europeans, assumes such requirements have been erected to ostracize refugees living in Sweden. He may be right. Swedish rules certainly rankle Norwegian expats.
And so we come to the Swedish birthday party, where 6 year-old Stella—a friend of Knaus's daughter—is fêted with the worst snacks ever. Cucumbers and carrots with dip. (I italicize because the presence of dip seems to particularly irritate Knaus.) Couscous. Chickpeas. (Whatever solidarity Knaus might profess to feel for immigrants, he really hates their food.) And a cake made without enough sugar and too much fruit.
"Why," asks Knaus, "couldn't they have given them sausages, ice cream, and soda? Lollipops? Jell-O? Chocolate pudding" (28).
I think Knaus would love America (though his recent New York Times travel piece suggests otherwise), a place that he never mentions, which is surprising given his professed (and realized) literary ambition. All the writers he discusses are either dead or Scandinavian. For Knausgaard, contemporary world lit doesn't exist, even though his books are a real-life triumph of the international book market. One of the most interesting aspects of My Struggle is that we enter into a weird (weird to this chauvinistic American) world where Scandinavian literature reigns supreme. And where Norway is somehow the Jell-O to Sweden's crudités. Norway's extremely high per capita income is not wasted on dip.
- Lobster and Crab: Knaus's Fine Dining
What to do we know about Knausgaard after reading almost 1,000 pages of him? He loves shrimp—it's his favorite. He also loves crab—it's his favorite. And lobster. And really good steak. Let's compare a description of Knausgaard eating crab to Knausgaard impregnating his wife:
The crabmeat on the bread was smoother and uneven, reddish brown like the leaves on the field, and the salty, almost bitter taste of sea, softened by the sweetness of the mayonnaise, yet sharpened by the lemon juice, overtook all my senses for a few seconds. (247)
I stroked her back, she held me tight, almost clung to me, I laid her down, kissed her neck, cheek, mouth, rested my head on her bosom, heard her heart pounding, removed her soft jogging pants, kissed her stomach, her thighs...She looked at me with her dark gaze, with her beautiful eyes, which closed as I penetrated her. We don't have any protection, she whispered. Do you want me to get it? No, I said. No. And when I came, I came inside her.
Afterward we lay close to each other for a long time without speaking.
"Now we'll have another child," I said at length. "Are you ready for that?"
"Yes," she said. "Oh, yes. I am." (370)
The most notable thing about this appalling sex scene is the ellipses. Not getting "as close as possible to life" (582) are you, Karl Ove?
I'm also intrigued by the "soft jogging pants," which, other than the clichéd "dark gaze" and "beautiful eyes," are the only item in this scene awarded an adjective. Soft jogging pants. Has Linda traded the leather jackets of her youth for comfy and serviceable mom attire? Or are these "soft jogging pants" stylish? Is she, in other words, wearing sweatpants or joggers? Also, note that he didn't remove Linda's underwear. Was she not wearing any? We expect more from a writer who offers us meticulous descriptions of just about everything else.
I know I would much rather be eating that crab—even "reddish brown like leaves on the field" crab—then subjected to Knausgaard's version of "should we have a second child?" The most sensuous moments in Book 2 are gustatory. That lobster at New Year's. The entrecote he cooks for Linda. The hot blackberries and ice cream he serves to his guests. Ingrid's meat broth. More broth, fewer bosoms—that is my hope for Book 3.
- Meals that Signal "I'm Writing a Very Realistic Novel/Autobiography"
My favorite meals in My Struggle are the ones where Knausgaard seems to most sublimely signal "I am describing reality." For instance, this passage, which I had flagged in my notes as "memoir meatballs":
I forked the last bit of potato, yellow against the white plate, and raised it to my mouth. While I was chewing I gathered the remaining pieces of meat on my plate, loaded them onto my fork with the knife, together with some onion from the salad, swallowed, and lifted the rest to my mouth. (392)
Sometimes, I think Knausgaard is writing a field guide for non-humans. How do you eat meatballs? Well, you have to raise the fork to your mouth. And then you put a bit more meat and onion on your fork, and you raise it again. Don't forget to swallow. I actually love this about My Struggle: it's a time capsule for a non-meatball eating future.
I have other categories for you all: (4) Meals Eaten while one's Wife gives Birth and (5) Vanja's Meals and (6) the Meals of Male Conversation. I won't go into these now. I'll just quickly note that Knausgaard's experience of Linda's labor might have redeemed the whole Struggle for me. I'm not sure I've ever read a birth scene so patiently and tenderly described. One would almost expect Linda to birth a sweet platter of crab.
And now, I sign off, raising my plastic straw to my lips, taking a sip of coffee, and swallowing.
ALSO IN THIS SERIES:
My Struggle, vol. 1: Cecily, June 6
My Struggle, vol. 1: Diana, June 9
My Struggle, vol. 1: Omari, June 14
My Struggle, vol. 2: Dan, June 17
My Struggle, vol. 2: Omari, June 24
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