The third volumethe book that made Knausgaard a phenomenon in the United Statesin the addictive New York Times bestselling series
A family of fourmother, father, and two boysmove to the south coast of Norway, to a new house on a newly developed site. It is the early 1970s and the family's trajectory is upwardly mobile: the future seems limitless. In painstaking, sometimes self-lacerating detail, Karl Ove Knausgaard paints a world familiar to anyone who can recall the intensity and novelty of childhood experience, one in which children and adults lead parallel lives that never meet. Perhaps the most Proustian in the series, My Struggle: Book 3 gives us Knausgaard's vivid, technicolor recollections of childhood, his emerging self-understanding, and the multilayered nature of time's passing, memory, and existence.
About the Author
Karl Ove Knausgaard was born in Norway in 1968. My Struggle has won countless international literary awards and has been translated into at least fifteen languages. Knausgaard lives in Sweden with his wife and four children.
Don Bartlett has translated dozens of books of various genres, including several novels and short story collections by Jo Nesbø and It's Fine by Me by Per Petterson. He lives in Norfolk, England.
Read an Excerpt
Book Three: Boyhood
By Karl Ove Knausgaard, Don Bartlett
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2009 Karl Ove Knausgaard
All rights reserved.
One mild, overcast day in August 1969, a bus came winding its way along a narrow road at the far end of an island in southern Norway, between gardens and rocks, meadows and woods, up and down dale, around sharp bends, sometimes with trees on both sides, as if through a tunnel, sometimes with the sea straight ahead. It belonged to the Arendal Steamship Company and was, like all its buses, painted in two-tone-light and dark-brown livery. It drove over a bridge, along a bay, signaled right, and drew to a halt. The door opened and out stepped a little family. The father, a tall, slim man in a white shirt and light polyester trousers, was carrying two suitcases. The mother, wearing a beige coat and with a light-blue kerchief covering her long hair, was clutching a stroller in one hand and holding the hand of a small boy in the other. The oily, gray exhaust fumes from the bus hung in the air for a moment as it receded into the distance.
"It's quite a way to walk," the father said.
"Can you manage, Yngve?" the mother said, looking down at the boy, who nodded.
"Course I can."
He was four and a half years old and had fair, almost white hair and tanned skin after a long summer in the sun. His brother, barely eight months old, lay in the stroller staring up at the sky, oblivious to where they were or where they were going.
Slowly they began to walk uphill. It was a gravel road, covered with puddles of varying sizes after a downpour. There were fields on both sides. At the end of a flat stretch, perhaps some five hundred meters in length, there was a forest that sloped down to pebbled beaches; the trees weren't tall, as though they had been flattened by the wind blowing off the sea.
On the right, there was a newly built house. Otherwise there were no buildings to be seen. The large springs on the stroller creaked. Soon the baby closed his eyes, lulled to sleep by the wonderful rocking motion. The father, who had short, dark hair and a thick, black beard, put down one suitcase to wipe the sweat from his brow.
"My God, it's humid," he said.
"Yes," she replied. "But it might be cooler nearer the sea."
"Let's hope so," he said, grabbing the suitcase again.
This altogether ordinary family, with young parents, as indeed almost all parents were in those days, and two children, as indeed almost every family had in those days, had moved from Oslo, where they had lived in Thereses gate close to Bislett Stadium for five years, to the island of Tromøya, where a new house was being built for them on an estate. While they were waiting for the house to be completed, they would rent an old property in Hove Holiday Center. In Oslo he had studied English and Norwegian during the day and worked as a nightwatchman, while she attended Ullevål Nursing College. Even though he hadn't finished the course, he had applied – and had been accepted – for a middle-school teaching job at Roligheden Skole while she was to work at Kokkeplassen Psychiatric Clinic. They had met in Kristiansand when they were seventeen, she had become pregnant when they were nineteen, and they had married when they were twenty, on the Vestland smallholding where she had grown up. No one from his family went to the wedding, and even though he is smiling in all the photos there is an aura of loneliness around him, you can see he doesn't quite belong among all her brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, male and female cousins.
Now they're twenty-four and their real lives lie before them. Jobs of their own, a house of their own, children of their own. There are the two of them, and the future they are moving into is theirs, too.
Or is it?
They were born in the same year, 1944, and were part of the first postwar generation, which in many ways represented something new, not least by dint of their being the first people in this country to live in a society that was, to a major degree, planned. The 1950s were the time for the growth of systems – the school system, the health system, the social system, the transport system – and public departments and services, too, in a large-scale centralization that in the course of a surprisingly short period would transform the way lives were led. Her father, born at the beginning of the twentieth century, was raised on the farm where she grew up, in Sørbøvåg in the district of Ytre Sogn, and had no education. Her grandfather came from one of the outlying islands off the coast, as his father, and his before him, probably had. Her mother came from a farm in Jølster, a hundred kilometers away, she hadn't had any education either, and her family there could be traced back to the sixteenth century. As regards his family, it was higher up the social scale, inasmuch as both his father and his uncles on his father's side had received higher education. But they, too, lived in the same place as their parents, Kristiansand, that is. His mother, who was uneducated, came from Åsgårdstrand, her father was a ship's pilot, and there were also police officers in her family. When she met her husband she moved with him to his hometown. That was the custom. The change that took place in the 1950s and 1960s was a revolution, only without the usual violence and irrationality of revolutions. Not only did children of fishermen and smallholders, factory workers and shop assistants start at university and train to become teachers and psychologists, historians and social workers, but many of them settled in places far from the areas where their families lived. That they did all this as a matter of course says something about the strength of the zeitgeist. Zeitgeist comes from the outside, but works on the inside. It affects everyone, but not everyone is affected in the same way. For the young 1960s mother, it would have been an absurd thought to marry a man from one of the neighboring farms and spend the rest of her life there. She wanted to get out! She wanted to have her own life. The same was true for her brothers and sisters, and that was how it was in families countrywide. But why did they want to do that? Where did this strong desire come from? Indeed, where did these new ideas come from? In her family there was no tradition of anything of this kind: the only person who had left the area was her uncle Magnus, and he had gone to America because of the poverty in Norway, and the life he had there was for many years hardly distinguishable from the life he'd had in Vestland. For the young 1960s father, things were different: in his family you were expected to have an education, though perhaps not to marry a Vestland farmer's daughter and settle on an estate near a small Sørland town.
But there they were, walking on this hot, overcast day in August 1969, on their way to their new home, him lugging two heavy suitcases stuffed with 1960s clothes, her pushing a 1960s stroller with a baby dressed in 1960s baby togs, white with lace trim everywhere, and between them, tripping from side to side, happy and curious, excited and expectant, was their elder son, Yngve. Across the flat stretch they went, through the thin strip of forest, to the gate that was open and into the large holiday center. To the right there was a garage owned by someone called Vraaldsen; to the left large red chalets around an open gravel area and, beyond, pine forest.
A kilometer to the east stood Tromøya Church, built in 1150 of stone, but some parts were older and it was probably one of the oldest churches in the country. It stood on a small mound and had been used from time immemorial as a landmark by passing ships and charted on all nautical maps. On Mærdø, a little island in the archipelago off the coast, there was an old skip-pergård, a residence testifying to the locality's golden age, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when trade with the rest of the world, particularly in timber, flourished. On school trips to the Aust-Agder Museum classes were shown old Dutch and Chinese artifacts going back to that time and even further. On Tromøya there were rare and exotic plants that had come with ships discharging their ballast water, and you learned at school that it was on Tromøya that potatoes were first grown in Norway. In Snorri's Norwegian king sagas the island was mentioned several times; under the ground in the meadows and fields lay arrowheads from the Stone Age and you could find fossils among the round stones on the long, pebbled beaches.
However, as the incoming nuclear family slowly walked through the open countryside with all their bags and baggage it wasn't the tenth or the thirteenth, the seventeenth or the nineteenth centuries that had left their marks on the surroundings. It was the Second World War. This region had been used by German forces; they had built the barracks and many of the houses. In the forest there were low-lying brick bunkers, completely intact, and on top of the slopes above the beaches several artillery emplacements. There was even an old German airfield in the vicinity.
The house where they were going to live during the coming year was a solitary construction in the middle of the forest. It was red with white window frames. From the sea, which could not be seen, though only a few hundred meters down the slope, came a regular crashing of waves. There was a smell of forest and salt water.
The father put down his suitcases, took out the key, and unlocked the door. Inside, there was a hall, a kitchen, a living room with a wood burner, a combined bath and washroom, and on the first floor, three bedrooms. The walls weren't insulated; the kitchen was equipped with the minimum. No telephone, no dishwasher, no washing machine, no TV.
"Well, here we are," the father said, carrying their suitcases into the bedroom while Yngve ran from window to window peering out and the mother stood the stroller with the sleeping baby on the doorstep.
Of course, I don't remember any of this time. It is absolutely impossible to identify with the infant my parents photographed, indeed so impossible that it seems wrong to use the word "me" to describe what is lying on the changing table, for example, with unusually red skin, arms and legs spread, and a face distorted into a scream, the cause of which no one can remember, or on a sheepskin rug on the floor, wearing white pajamas, still red-faced, with large, dark eyes squinting slightly. Is this creature the same person as the one sitting here in Malmö writing? And will the forty-year-old creature who is sitting in Malmö writing this one overcast September day in a room filled with the drone of the traffic outside and the autumn wind howling through the old-fashioned ventilation system be the same as the gray, hunched geriatric who in forty years from now might be sitting dribbling and trembling in an old people's home somewhere in the Swedish woods? Not to mention the corpse that at some point will be laid out on a bench in a morgue? Still known as Karl Ove. And isn't it actually unbelievable that one simple name encompasses all of this? The fetus in the belly, the infant on the changing table, the forty-year-old in front of the computer, the old man in the chair, the corpse on the bench? Wouldn't it be more natural to operate with several names since their identities and self-perceptions are so very different? Such that the fetus might be called Jens Ove, for example, and the infant Nils Ove, and the five- to ten-year-old Per Ove, the ten- to twelve-year-old Geir Ove, the twelve- to seventeen-year-old Kurt Ove, the seventeen- to twenty-three-year-old John Ove, the twenty-three- to thirty-two-year-old Tor Ove, the thirty-two- to forty-six-year-old Karl Ove – and so on and so forth? Then the first name would represent the distinctiveness of the age range, the middle name would represent continuity, and the last, family affiliation.
No, I don't remember any of this, I don't even know which house we lived in, even though Dad pointed it out to me once. All I know about that time I have been told by my parents or have gleaned from photos. That winter the snow was several meters high, the way it can be in Sørland, and the road to the house was like a narrow ravine. There Yngve is, pulling a cart with me in the back, there he is, with his short skis on, smiling at the photographer. Inside the house, he is pointing at me and laughing, or I am standing on my own holding on to the cot. I called him "Aua"; that was my first word. He was also the only person who understood what I said, according to what I have been told, and he translated it for Mom and Dad. I also know that Yngve went around ringing doorbells and asking if there were any children living there. Grandma always used to tell that story. "Are there any children living here?" she would say in a child's voice and laugh. And I know I fell down the stairs, and suffered some kind of shock, I stopped breathing, went blue in the face, and had convulsions, Mom ran to the nearest house with a telephone, clutching me to her breast. She thought it was epilepsy, but it wasn't, it was nothing. And I know that Dad thrived in the classroom, he was a good teacher, and that during one of these years he went on a trip into the mountains with his class. There are some photos from then, he looks young and happy in all of them, surrounded by teenagers dressed in the casual way that was characteristic of the early 1970s. Woolen sweaters, flared trousers, rubber boots. Their hair was big, not big and piled-up as in the sixties, but big and soft, and it hung over their soft teenage faces. Mom once said perhaps he had never been as happy as he was during those years. And then there are photos of Grandma on Dad's side, Yngve, and me – two taken in front of a frozen lake, both Yngve and I were clad in large woolen jackets, knitted by Grandma, mine mustard yellow and brown – and two taken on the veranda of their house in Kristiansand, in one she has her cheek against mine, it is autumn, the sky is blue, the sun low, we are gazing across the town, I suppose I must have been two or three years old.
One might imagine that these photos represent some kind of memory, that they are reminiscences, except that the "me" reminiscences usually rely on is not there, and the question is then of course what meaning they actually have. I have seen countless photos from the same period of friends' and girlfriends' families, and they are virtually indistinguishable. The same colors, the same clothes, the same rooms, the same activities. But I don't attach any significance to these photos, in a certain sense they are meaningless, and this aspect becomes even more marked when I see photos of previous generations, it is just a collection of people, dressed in exotic clothes, doing something that to me is unfathomable. It is the era that we take photos of, not the people in it, they can't be captured. Not even the people in my immediate circle can. Who was the woman posing in front of the stove in the flat in Thereses gate, wearing a light-blue dress, one knee resting against the other, calves apart, in this typical 1960s posture? The one with the bob? The blue eyes and the gentle smile that was so gentle it barely even registered as a smile? The one holding the handle of the shiny coffee pot with the red lid? Yes, that was my mother, my very own mom, but who was she? What was she thinking? How did she see her life, the one she had lived so far and the one awaiting her? Only she knows, and the photo tells you nothing. An unknown woman in an unknown room, that is all. And the man who, ten years later, is sitting on a mountainside drinking coffee from the same red thermos top, as he forgot to pack any cups before leaving, who was he? The one with the well-groomed black beard and the thick black hair? The one with the sensitive lips and the amused eyes? Yes, of course, that was my father, my very own dad. But who he was to himself at this moment, or at any other, nobody knows. And so it is with all these photos, even the ones of me. They are voids; the only meaning that can be derived from them is that which time has added. Nonetheless, these photos are a part of me and my most intimate history, as others' photos are part of theirs. Meaningful, meaningless, meaningful, meaningless, this is the wave that washes through our lives and creates its inherent tension. I draw on everything I remember from the first six years of my life, and all that exists in terms of photos and objects from that period, they constitute an important part of my identity, filling the otherwise empty and memoryless periphery of this "me" with meaning and continuity. From all these bits and pieces I have built myself a Karl Ove, an Yngve, a mom and dad, a house in Hove and a house in Tybakken, a grandmother and grandfather on my dad's side, and a grandmother and grandfather on my mom's side, a neighborhood and a multitude of kids.
This ghetto-like state of incompleteness is what I call my childhood.
Excerpted from My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard, Don Bartlett. Copyright © 2009 Karl Ove Knausgaard. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
My Struggle: Book 3,
Reading Group Guide
1. At the beginning of Book 3, Knausgaard thinks all the way back to his very first memories. He covers everything he can remember from the first six years of his life in just one paragraph. What are your earliest memories? Why do you think Knausgaard waited until Book 3 to go back to the very beginning of his life?
2. Early on in this volume, Knausgaard writes that "memory is pragmatic, it is sly and artful, but not in any hostile or malicious way; on the contrary, it does everything it can to keep its host satisfied." What do you think Knausgaard means by memory's "host"? How might memory be "sly" and "artful" (but not "malicious")? How do you feel that Knausgaard's experiences writing a gigantic six-volume book about his life affected his relationship to his own memories?
3. Knausgaard fills Book 3 with incidents that paint his father as a tyrantfor instance, the time when Karl Ove is afraid to tell his father that the milk on his cereal has gone sour. Or when Karl Ove is terrified of revealing to his father that he lost a sock during swim practice. Why is he so terrified of upsetting his father in any way? Why does his father demand such obedience? How do you see this childhood trauma manifesting itself in Karl Ove's relationships and behaviors as an adult in Books 1 and 2?
4. Think of all the little details Knausgaard describes in this book: for instance, the poster of the Kawasaki 750 motorcycle on the wall in his friend's room, going to the Fina station to buy Fox and Nox, the music Karl Ove plays, the things he is given as gifts, the clothes he and his family wear. How do all these details work to build a portrait of middle-class Norwegian life in the 1970s? What sort of childhood is Knausgaard trying to present by painting his world this way?
5. The scene in which Karl Ove must wear a girl's swimming cap to swim lessons is among many scenes in Book 3 that paint him as an effeminate boy. They also form part of a larger theme in all three volumes, wherein Knausgaard repeatedly brings up ways in which he feels that he has been feminized by the modern world. Do you find that these admissions contradict the "bad boy" image that he at other times paints of himself? Do you find that these scenes add another layer of complexity to his character, and that they make him seem more vulnerable and sympathetic as a person? And how are Karl Ove's father's reactions to these feminine tendencies yet another source of stress for their relationship?
6. In many ways, Karl Ove's childhood is reminiscent of virtually anyone's: for instance, in Book 3 he describes things like the first day of school, car trips to see his relatives, the first girl he has a crush on, and being grounded. Why is it important that Knausgaard describe experiences that will be familiar to most of his readers? And how does he talk about these memories so that they are recognizably his own, despite being common parts of a middle-class childhood?
7. Book 3 contains lengthy descriptions of Karl Ove and his friend Geir defecating in the woods. Such in-depth descriptions of bowel movements have long been taboo for novelists, and they were in fact long considered too controversial to publish at all. Why do you think descriptions of our feces have proven so distressing to the guardians of society's morals, and why do you think Knausgaard chose to break this taboo? How might such a subject be appropriate to a book that largely deals with the innocence and experiences of childhood?
8. As a child, Karl Ove tends to imagine scenarios where people who have angered him get their just deserts. He even goes so far as to imagine his own death, which he says "was generally a sweet thought at that time" because people like his father would feel regret for hurting him. Do you think of young Karl Ove as the kind of child who would have these feelings? Do you find that he still thinks like this as an adult? Do you think it's possible that writing My Struggle is a way of dealing with these feelings of resentment toward people who have wronged him?
9. During his description of his first crush, on Anne Lisbet, Knausgaard tries to convey the feeling of youthful discovery by writing that "everything was happening for the first time." What do you think he means by this? In what ways is childhood special because everything feels new? How does this compare with Knausgaard's depiction of adulthood? What new feelings do we experience as adults that we don't know about as children?
10. What sorts of activities and relationships dominate Knausgaard's childhood? What things do you remember best about your childhood? Are they similar to or different from Knausgaard's? Why do you think that is?
11. Even though My Struggle is the story of Knausgaard's life, he has chosen to call these books "novels." This makes sense, because nobody could possibly remember all the childhood details that Knausgaard presents in Book 3, so he's obviously fictionalizing to an extent. How do you feel about the fact that Knausgaard is probably inventing a lot of the childhood details in Book 3? Do you think we all do this when remembering our childhoods? Does an author have license to invent in this way from time to time? How would things be different if someone who was a child nowwith all our recording deviceschose to write his or her childhood story forty years from now?
12. Describing trips to his grandparents' house, Knausgaard writes, "history didn't exist for me when I went there as a child." What do you think he means by this? What things do you think young Karl Ove's grandparents represented for him? In what ways would his grandparents' home be very different from his own home with his parents on the island? Did you feel like this when you visited your relatives?
13. Knausgaard describes multiple trips with Geir to the trash dump, where they have strange encounters unlike any others in the book. For instance, one time they come upon some men shooting rats; another time they go in search of pornography and end up trying to stick their penises into old glass bottles. How is the dump different from any of the other places Karl Ove regularly goes as a child? Why do you think he and Geir like to go there? What sort of different rules does the dump have from the rest of their lives? Is it important to have places like this to go as a child? Do children have places like this nowadays?
14. It's quite clear that Karl Ove's relationship with his mother is very different from the one he has with his father. What is your image of his mother? Do you think his mother and his father are well suited to each other? Why do you think they married?
15. Throughout Book 3, Knausgaard paints a very negative portrait of his father. Did you find that he portrayed anything admirable about him? Do you feel that Karl Ove's father was happy with his lifehis marriage, his job, his children, his achievements? How might this relate to Knausgaard's own determination to succeed as an adult?
16. Knausgaard lists many of the books he read as a child; it's a remarkably long list, and it seems like he just read and read, regardless of subject matter or genre. Why do you think he read so compulsively? What did the books offer him that he didn't get at home? Do you think all this reading was indicative of the gift for language that he would nurture later in life? What role did books play in your own childhood?
17. How does Karl Ove's life change when he moves on to secondary school? In what ways is this the beginning of the end of his childhood? Do you think major changeslike a change in school, or job, or residencetend to occur in sync with the beginnings and ends of major periods in your own life story? Why or why not?
18. Book 3 covers a lot of similar material to that of the other books: Karl Ove's relationship with his father, romantic encounters with the opposite sex, his experiences with his friend Geir and his brother Ygnve. How are these themes different, given that Book 3 is about Karl Ove's childhood? Did you find Karl Ove's story more interesting as a child or as an adult? Did you find that Knausgaard's method of storytelling was different in this book? Did he use different words? Different structures? A different perspective?
19. At the end of Book 3, what parts of Karl Ove's life remain to be told? What particular struggles do you think he has yet to face? At this point, what part of Karl Ove's life has been the most difficult? The happiest? The most meaningful?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Like chocolate, Knausgaard's My Struggle stories are too addicting. I run the battery down on my Nook whenever I read him. His style, completely different than any other writer's, amazes me that it keeps my rapt attention and eagerly waiting for the next book. And I wouldn't bet against the chance of others copying it now. Almost having finished reading Book 3, am hugely disappointed Book 4 isn't available yet for the ereader!