It’s no masterpiece, but these confessional tales of a flawed Narcissus are the literary equivalent of Coronation Street or EastEnders
Some Rain Must Fall: My Struggle Book 5 by Karl Ove Knausgaard | Vintage, 665pp. £17.99
Knausgaard’s Struggle, volume five: what’s the attraction of the three thousand or so pages (thus far) of the Norwegian writer’s record of his life from day to day? A lot happens to him, little of it dramatic. In this book he tracks back to early manhood when at the age of 20 he moves to Bergen to study at the Writers’ Academy. Not a lot happens to him that mightn’t have happened to any student, whether he had literary ambitions or not. This is part of the attraction. Knausgaard is fascinated by himself, but that Self might be anyone or Everyman. “Knausgaard allows us to see ourselves,” declares Blake Morrison. So what we have, according to the novelist and Guardian reviewer Rachel Cusk, is “perhaps the most significant literary enterprise of our times.” I like that “perhaps” by the way, and wonder if she inserted it as an afterthought, being worried that without the qualification she risked looking like an idiot.
“Significant”? Perhaps (again). But of what? Well, page 562, Knausgaard has come to England: “When the boat docked I got on one of the double-decker buses going to the town centre. The cries of newspaper vendors met me first as I alighted. The air was noticeably much warmer than it had been in Bergen. I was in another country again, everything was slightly unfamiliar. I walked to the train station and bought a ticket to Norwich, waited in a café there for a couple of hours and boarded the train.”
This is a typical passage, chosen almost at random .Could anything be more banal? He got on “one” of the double-decker buses, not two at the same time. The air was “noticeably” warmer than in Bergen. What need for the adverb? He was “in another country again”. Well, thanks for telling us, might never have guessed it otherwise. As for the”cries of newspaper vendors” being the first thing to meet him, that’s a stock sentence from a lazily-written novel.
Of course, you may object, it’s easy to take a paragraph at random and make fun of it. So indeed it is. But this would be unfair only if there weren’t comparable passages on almost every page, passages which are sloppily written and of no particular interest. They give the impression of having been written without effort, and they demand no effort from the reader.
Yet Knausgaard’s rambling exercise in memory – though one wonders how much is invented rather than recollected – has become an international bestseller, and has also, as I have indicated, been hailed by good writers and critics as a masterpiece, comparable perhaps to the Confessions of St Augustine or Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps even Zadie Smith is right when she tells us “I need the next volume like crack. It’s completely blown my mind.”
Actually, though reading Knausgaard is, happily, unlikely to be as damaging as addiction to crack cocaine, her chosen form of praise does go some way to explaining his extraordinary success. His shameless self-revelation – shameless even when he proclaims himself ashamed of certain actions – can evidently be addictive. My Struggle is addictive the way that Coronation Street or EastEnders or Neighbours may be addictive. There are intelligent people whose day is disturbed if they miss an episode of their favourite soap. The heroine of Angus Wilson’s novel, Late Call, finds herself engaging more intensely with the characters in a TV soap than with the members of her own family; it offers an alternative, agreeably painless reality, and I think this is Knausgaard’s attraction too. He invites you to share his life, and its very ordinariness is comforting. He is fascinated by himself. He is like Narcissus gazing admiringly at his reflection, while at the same time cunningly displaying his faults and failures. He invites the reader to be his admiring and sympathetic friend, and it’s an invitation which many are happy to accept. This is reality, he says, the real Me, stripped naked before you, and it’s a reality that many are happy to escape into. It’s a phenomenon, but not one that should surprise readers of this newspaper who delight daily in the pleasant alternative reality of Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street and need each morning’s instalment, if not like crack, then like a good espresso.