In the second installment of Karl Ove Knausgaard's monumental six-volume masterpiece, the character Karl Ove Knausgaard moves to Stockholm, where, having left his wife, he leads a solitary existence. He strikes up a deep friendship with another exiled Norwegian, a Nietzschean intellectual and boxing fanatic named Geir. He also tracks down Linda, whom he met at a writers' workshop a few years earlier and who fascinated him deeply.
My Struggle: Book 2 is at heart a love storythe story of Karl Ove falling in love with his second wife. But the novel also tells other stories: of becoming a father, of the turbulence of family life, of outrageously unsuccessful attempts at a family vacation, of the emotional strain of birthday parties for children, and of the daily frustrations, rhythms, and distractions of city life keeping him from (and filling) his novel.
It is a brilliant work that emphatically delivers on the unlikely promise that many hundreds of pages later readers will be left breathlessly demanding more.
About the Author
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 two: A Man in Love
By Karl Ove Knausgaard, Don Bartlett
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2013 Karl Ove Knausgaard
All rights reserved.
29th July, 2008
The summer has been long, and it still isn't over. I finished the first part of the novel on the 26th of June, and since then, for more than a month, the nursery school has been closed, and we have had Vanja and Heidi at home with all the extra work that involves. I have never understood the point of holidays, have never felt the need for them and have always just wanted to do more work. But if I must, I must. We had planned to spend the first week at the cabin Linda got us to buy last autumn, intended partly as a place to write, partly as a weekend retreat, but after three days we gave up and returned to town. Putting three infants and two adults on a small plot of land, surrounded by people on all sides, with nothing else to do but weed the garden and mow the grass, is not necessarily a good idea, especially if the prevailing atmosphere is disharmonious even before you set out. We had several flaming rows there, presumably to the amusement of the neighbors, and the presence of hundreds of meticulously cultivated gardens populated by all these old, semi-naked people made me feel claustrophobic and irritable. Children are quick to detect these moods and play on them, particularly Vanja, who reacts almost instantly to shifts in vocal pitch and intensity, and if they are obvious she starts to do what she knows we like least, eventually causing us to lose our tempers if she persists. Already brimming with frustration, it is practically impossible for us to defend ourselves, and then we have the full woes: screaming and shouting and misery. The following week we hired a car and drove up to Tjörn, outside Gothenburg, where Linda's friend Mikaela, who is Vanja's godmother, had invited us to stay in her partner's summer house. We asked if she knew what it was like living with three children, and whether she was really sure she wanted us there, but she said she was sure, she had planned to do some baking with the children and take them swimming and go crabbing so that we could have some time to ourselves. We took her up on the offer. We drove to Tjörn, parked outside the summer house, on the fringes of the beautiful Sørland countryside, and in we piled with all the kids, plus bags and baggage. The intention had been to stay there all week, but three days later we packed all our stuff into the car and headed south again, to Mikaela's and Erik's obvious relief.
People who don't have children seldom understand what it involves, no matter how mature and intelligent they might otherwise be, at least that was how it was with me before I had children myself. Mikaela and Erik are careerists: all the time I have known Mikaela she has had nothing but top jobs in the cultural sector, while Erik is the director of some multinational foundation based in Sweden. After Tjörn he had a meeting in Panama, before the two of them were due to leave for a holiday in Provence, that's the way their life is: places I have only ever read about are their stomping grounds. So into that came our family, along with baby wipes and diapers, John crawling all over the place, Heidi and Vanja fighting and screaming, laughing and crying, children who never eat at the table, never do what they are told, at least not when we are visiting other people and really want them to behave, because they know what is going on. The more there is at stake for us, the more unruly they become, and even though the summerhouse was large and spacious it was not large or spacious enough for them to allow themselves to be overlooked. Erik pretended to be unconcerned, he wanted to appear generous and child-friendly, but he was continually contradicted by his body language, his arms pinned to his sides, the way he went round putting things back in their places and that faraway look in his eyes. He was close to the things and the place he had known all his life, but distant from those populating it just now, regarding them more or less in the same way one would regard moles or hedgehogs. I knew how he felt, and I liked him. But I had brought all this along with me, and a real meeting of minds was impossible. He had been educated at Oxford and Cambridge, and had worked for several years as a broker in the City, but on a walk he and Vanja took up a mountainside near the sea one day he let her climb on her own several meters ahead of him while he stood stock-still admiring the view, without taking into account that she was only four and incapable of assessing the risk, so with Heidi in my arms I had to jog up and take over. When we were sitting in a café half an hour later – me with stiff legs after the sudden sprint – and I asked him to give John bits of a bread roll I placed beside him, as I had to keep an eye on Heidi and Vanja while finding them something to eat, he nodded, said he would, but he didn't put down the newspaper he was reading, did not even look up, and failed to notice that John, who was half a meter away from him, was becoming more and more agitated and at length screamed until his face went scarlet with frustration, since the bread he wanted was right in front of him but out of his reach. The situation infuriated Linda sitting at the other end of the table, I could see it in her eyes, but she bit her tongue, made no comment, waited until we were outside and on our own, then she said we should go home. Now. Accustomed to her moods, I said she should keep her mouth shut and refrain from making decisions like that when she was in such a foul temper. That riled her even more, of course, and that was how things stayed until we got into the car next morning to leave.
The blue, cloudless sky and the patchwork, windswept yet wonderful countryside, together with the children's happiness and the fact that we were in a car and not a train compartment or on board a plane, which had been the usual mode of travel for the last few years, lightened the atmosphere, but it was not long before we were at it again because we had to eat, and the restaurant we found and stopped at turned out to belong to a yacht club, but, the waiter informed me, if we just crossed the bridge, walked into town, perhaps five hundred meters, there was another restaurant, so twenty minutes later we found ourselves on a high, narrow, and very busy bridge, grappling with two strollers, hungry, and with only an industrial area in sight. Linda was furious, her eyes were black, we were always getting into situations like this, she hissed, no one else did, we were useless, now we should be eating, the whole family, we could have been really enjoying ourselves, instead we were out here in a gale-force wind with cars whizzing by, suffocating from exhaust fumes on this damn bridge. Had I ever seen any other families with three children outside in situations like this? The road we followed ended at a metal gate emblazoned with the logo of a security firm. To reach the town, which looked run-down and cheerless, to no small degree, we had to take a detour through the industrial zone for at least fifteen minutes. I would have left her because she was always moaning, she always wanted something else, never did anything to improve things, just moaned, moaned, moaned, could never face up to difficult situations, and if reality did not live up to her expectations, she blamed me, in matters large and small. Well, under normal circumstances we would have gone our separate ways, but as always the practicalities brought us together again, we had one car and two buggies, so you just had to act as if what had been said had not been said after all, push the stained, rickety buggies over the bridge and back to the posh yacht club, pack them into the car, strap in the children and drive to the nearest McDonald's, which turned out to be a gas station outside Gothenburg city center, where I sat on a bench eating a sausage while Vanja and Linda ate theirs in the car. John and Heidi were asleep. We scrapped the planned trip to Liseberg Amusement Park, it would only make things worse given how the atmosphere was between us now; instead, a few hours later, we stopped on impulse at a cheap, shoddy, so-called Fairytale Land where everything was of the poorest quality, and took the children first to a small "circus" consisting of a dog jumping through hoops held at knee height, a stout manly-looking lady, probably from somewhere in eastern Europe, who, clad in a bikini, tossed the same hoops in the air and swung them around her hips, tricks that every single girl in my first school mastered, and a fair-haired man of my age with curly-toed shoes, a turban and several spare tires rolling over his harem trousers, who filled his mouth with gasoline and breathed fire four times in the direction of the low ceiling. John and Heidi were staring so hard their eyes were popping out. Vanja had her mind on the stall we had passed where you could win cuddly toys, and kept pinching me and asking when the performance would finish. Now and then I looked across at Linda. She was sitting with Heidi on her lap and had tears in her eyes. As we came out and started walking down towards the tiny fairground, each pushing a stroller, past a large swimming pool with a long slide, behind whose top towered an enormous troll, perhaps thirty meters high, I asked her why she was crying.
"I don't know," she said. "But circuses have always moved me."
"Well, it's so sad, so small and so cheap. And at the same time so beautiful."
"Even this one?"
"Yes. Didn't you see Heidi and John? They were absolutely hypnotized."
"But not Vanja," I said with a smile. Linda returned the smile.
"What?" Vanja said, turning. "What did you say, Dad?"
"I just said that all you were thinking about at the circus was that cuddly toy you saw."
Vanja smiled in the way she often did when we talked about something she had done. Happy, but also keen, ready for more.
"What did I do?" she asked.
"You pinched my arm," I answered. "And said you wanted to play the lottery."
"Why?" she asked.
"How should I know?" I said. "I suppose you wanted that cuddly toy."
"Shall we do it now then?" she asked.
"Yes," I said. "It's down there."
I pointed down the concrete path to the fairground amusements we could make out through the trees.
"Can Heidi have one as well?" she asked.
"If she wants," Linda said.
"She does," Vanja said, bending down to Heidi, who was in the stroller. "Do you want one, Heidi?"
"Yes," Heidi said.
We had to spend ninety kronor on tickets before each of them held a little cloth mouse in their hands. The sun burnt down from the sky; the air beneath the trees was still, all sorts of shrill, plinging sounds from the amusements mixed with eighties disco music from the stalls around us. Vanja wanted cotton candy, so ten minutes later we were sitting at a table outside a kiosk with angry, persistent wasps buzzing around us in the boiling hot sun, which ensured that the sugar stuck to everything it came into contact with: the tabletop, the back of the stroller, arms and hands, to the children's loud disgruntlement; this was not what they envisaged when they saw the container with the swirling sugar in the kiosk. My coffee tasted bitter and was almost undrinkable. A small, dirty boy pedaled towards us on his tricycle, straight into Heidi's stroller, then looked at us expectantly. He was dark-haired and dark-eyed, possibly Romanian or Albanian or perhaps Greek. After pushing his tricycle into the stroller a few more times, he positioned himself in such a way that we couldn't get out and he stood there with eyes downcast.
"Shall we go?" I asked.
"Heidi wanted a ride," Linda said. "Can't we do that first?"
A powerfully built man, also dark-skinned with protruding ears, came and lifted the boy and bike and carried him to the open space in front of the kiosk, patted him on the head a couple of times and went over to the mechanical octopus he was operating. The arms were fitted with small baskets you could sit in, which rose and fell as they slowly rotated. The boy began to cycle across the entrance area where summer-clad visitors were constantly arriving and leaving.
"Of course," I said, and got up, took Vanja's and Heidi's cotton candy and threw them in the waste bin, and pushed John, who was tossing his head from side to side to catch all the interesting things going on, across the square to the path leading up to "cowboy town." But "cowboy town" was a pile of sand with three newly-built sheds labelled, respectively, "Mine," "Sheriff" and "Prison," the latter two covered with "Wanted dead or alive" posters, surrounded on one side by birch trees and a ramp where some youngsters were skateboarding and on the other by a horse-riding area, which was closed. Inside the fence, just opposite the mine, the eastern European woman sat on a rock, smoking.
"Ride!" Heidi said, looking around.
"We'll have to go to the donkey ride near the entrance," Linda said.
John threw his bottle of water to the ground. Vanja crawled under the fence and ran over to the mine. When Heidi saw that she scrambled out of her stroller and followed. I spotted a red and white Coke machine at the rear of the sheriff's office, dredged up the contents of my shorts pocket and studied them: two barrettes, one hairpin with a ladybug motif, a lighter, three stones and two small white shells Vanja had found in Tjörn, a twenty krone note, two five-krone coins and nine krone coins.
"I'll have a smoke in the meantime," I said. "I'll be down there."
I motioned towards a tree trunk at the far end of the area. John raised both arms.
"Go on, then," Linda said, lifting him up. "Are you hungry, John?" she asked. "Oh, it's so hot. Is there no shade anywhere? So that I can sit down with him?"
"Up there," I said, pointing to the restaurant at the top of the hill. It resembled a train, with the counter in the locomotive and the tables in the carriage. Not a soul was to be seen up there. Chairs were propped against the tables.
"That's what I'll do," Linda said. "And feed him. Will you keep an eye on the girls?" I nodded, went to the Coke machine and bought a can, sat down on the tree trunk, lit a cigarette, looked up at the hastily constructed shed where Vanja and Heidi were running in and out of the doorway.
"It's pitch-black in here!" Vanja shouted. "Come and look!"
I raised my hand and waved, which fortunately appeared to satisfy her. She was still clutching the mouse to her chest with one hand.
Where was Heidi's mouse, by the way?
I allowed my gaze to drift up the hill. And there it lay, right outside the sheriff's office, with its head in the sand. At the restaurant Linda dragged a chair to the wall, sat down and began to breast-feed John, who at first kicked out, then lay quite still. The circus lady was making her way up the hill. A horsefly stung me on the calf. I smacked it with such force that it was splattered all over my skin. The cigarette tasted terrible in the heat, but I resolutely inhaled the smoke into my lungs, stared up at the tops of the spruce trees, such an intense green where the sun caught them. Another horsefly landed on my calf. I lashed out at it, got up, threw the cigarette to the ground and walked towards the girls with the half-full, still cold can of Coke in my hand.
"Daddy, you go round the back while we're inside and see if you can see us through the cracks, OK?" Vanja said, squinting up at me.
"Alright, then," I said, and walked round the shed. Heard them banging around and giggling inside. Bent my head to one of the cracks and peered in. But the difference between the light outside and the darkness inside was too great for me to see anything.
"Daddy, are you outside?" Vanja shouted.
"Yes," I said.
"Can you see us?"
"No. Have you become invisible?"
When they came out I pretended I couldn't see them. Focused my eyes on Vanja and called her name.
"I'm here," she said, waving her arms.
"Vanja?" I shouted. "Where are you? Come out now. It's not funny any more."
"I'm here! Here!"
"Can't you see me, really? Am I really invisible?"
She sounded boundlessly happy although I sensed a touch of unease in her voice. At that moment John started screaming. I looked up. Linda got up clutching him to her breast. It was unlike John to cry like that.
Excerpted from My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard, Don Bartlett. Copyright © 2013 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
My Struggle: Book 2,
29th July, 2008,
Reading Group Guide
1. Book 2 starts with an extended description of the chaos that has become of Karl Ove's life, now that he has three children of his own. It is quite a break from the end of Book 1, where he was childless, uncertain of his romantic relationships, and mourning the death of his father. Why do you think Knausgaard chose to juxtapose these two versions of himself at the end of Book 1 and the start of Book 2? What does this opening say about what you can expect from Book 2, and how it will differ from Book 1? What do you think this says about the impact of family on one's life story?
2. Early on in Book 2, while at a birthday party, Karl Ove recalls how he was once upstaged by a boxer when it had been necessary to break down a bathroom door: he, Karl Ove, failed to do it, but the boxer swiftly broke it in. Karl Ove recalls this because he's trying to explain his feelings of emasculation. Why do you think having a masculine image is so important to him? Do you find these sorts of ideas about men old-fashioned and silly, or do you think his concerns are valid?
3. The opening of Book 2 is dominated by domesticity: a child's birthday party, Karl Ove's interaction with his children, and his home life as a married father. What aspects of family life does Knausgaard choose to highlight? What does this say about his ideas of fatherhood and family? How are these informed by his own experiences with his father?
4. Things begin to shift away from Karl Ove's family life when he picks up a volume of Dostoevsky and begins to read it in a caféin fact, he gets so wrapped up in the book that he completely forgets his family obligations and nearly misses an appointment. Do you think the literary realm and the family realm are in conflict for Knausgaard? What might books offer to him that he's not getting from his family?
5. While reading Dostoevsky, Knausgaard muses that "whereas before man wandered through the world, now it is the world that wanders through man. And when meaning shifts, meaninglessness follows." He's talking about how ideas of personal psychology and inner life have come to dominate our understanding of ourselves in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. What roles do books play in this understanding? Why might Knausgaard, as an author, be particularly attuned to the benefits and perils of a life lived through words?
6. Throughout Book 2, Knausgaard returns again and again to the story of one of his neighbors, a lonely alcoholic Russian woman who was abandoned by her husband. She terrorizes Karl Ove and his family by blaring her music at all hours and being a menacing presence in his apartment building. Why might Knausgaard have wanted to include her in this book about passion and family? How does he interact with her, or fail to? How does she act as a foil to Karl Ove's own family life?
7. Karl Ove talks about reading a copy of his friend Geir's book, The Aesthetics of a Broken Nose, which he describes as being about "anti-liberal" cultures. He links this book to books of other thinkers, like Michel Serres and Michel Foucault, who tried to offer reference points from outside of Western civilization so that we might evaluate our culture and think about its implicit assumptions and ideas. How is Knausgaard trying to do this in My Struggle? How might this be linked to his uneasiness around masculinity? Why is it important to think about such things and question society in this manner?
8. In Book 2, Knausgaard delves into his early days as a writer, which coincided with an extremely wild portion of his life. In particular, he drank too much and was prone to blackouts and bad deeds, which may have included sleeping with a thirteen-year-old girl. This period in Karl Ove's life is highly associated with Geir and the development of their friendship as adults. How is Geir the ideal person for Karl Ove to be with at this point in his life? And how does their relationship change once Karl Ove settles down and attempts to become a family man? What role does Geir serve in Karl Ove's life?
9. In telling the story of his past, Knausgaard recalls how, while at a writers' retreat, he begins to become seduced by Linda (whom, years later, he will marry and start a family with), even though he is at that time married to a woman named Tonje. In trying to comprehend these feelings, Knausgaard writes that he remembers "thinking that I was in the middle of my life. Not life as an age, not halfway along life's path, but in the middle of my existence." What is the difference Knausgaard is drawing here between an "age" or "life's path" and "existence"? How does "existence" feel more fundamental and more high-stakes than the other two? Reading this, why do you think he decides to leave Tonje and try his luck again as a single man? How do such questions return to the roots of why Knausgaard wanted to write My Struggle?
10. In describing the passionate romance that Karl Ove falls into with Linda, Knausgaard writes about how he feared losing his independence and his writer's lifestyle, even as he wanted to be in love with her. What is the trade-off between family and freedom? How are Karl Ove's fears seen throughout the rest of Book 2? In particular, you might think about his long conversations with Geir, his descriptions of reading and writing alone, and his descriptions of family life as a married man with children.
11. Karl Ove's friend Anders has an interesting relationship to money: he has a huge capacity to earn it, but he goes through it just as fast, buying expensive items and gambling it away. His line of business is unclear, but Knausgaard says it's illegal to an extent. Anders doesn't really understand Karl Ove's values and doesn't even pretend to be interested in art, and Karl Ove respects this attitude. Why do you think Karl Ove maintains a friendship with Anders? And given that Anders makes lots of money as a scammer, and Karl Ove makes very little as a literary writer, what does this say about the sorts of things that their society values and rewards monetarily? What do you think motivates Karl Ove and Anders? Can you see any commonalities between them?
12. The birth of Karl Ove's first child, Vanja, is a major moment in the novel. He and his wife Linda exchange words during the birth that are unlike any others in Book 2. Afterward, Karl Ove continues trying to work on his second book while being a father, much as before the birth, although things are unmistakably different. How is Karl Ove's life different after the birth of Vanja? What new tensions does it introduce into his relationship with Linda? What new things does it make him think about?
13. Musing on his life as a father, Knausgaard says that "children were life." By contrast, he says of writing "what else was it but death? Letters, what else were they but bones in a cemetery?" Why might a writer, especially one who is writing his entire life story, call writing "bones in a cemetery"? It is often said that writing a classic novel gives you a sort of immortality, because your words will continue to live on even after you die. From that perspective, might writing be life, too? How does this differ from having a child, which also allows you to live on past your own death in a way? What do you think Knausgaard would say about immortality gained through writing?
14. Knausgaard says that when you reach forty years of age, you realize that "it was all here, banal everyday life, fully formed, and it always would be unless you did something. Unless you took one last gamble." Do you ever feel trapped by the everyday like this? In what ways might My Struggle have been just this sort of gamble for Knausgaard? What might this realization that at forty one becomes saturated with banal everyday life have to do with the many, many descriptions of banal, everyday details that Knausgaard places throughout these books?
15. During Vanja's christening, Karl Ove unexpectedly takes communion. After the incident, which he is at a loss to explain, he wonders why he did it and if that act has now made him a Christian. He goes on to reflect on the fact that the priest had been hesitant to christen his daughter because he and Linda were not married, and, moreover, because he didn't believe in Christian religious doctrine. What does this moment say about the importance of tradition and ritual in our lives? Do you think taking communion makes Karl Ove a Christian? Do you feel that ideas of sacredness and spirituality have a place in these books, even if Knausgaard isn't formally religious?
16. Karl Ove's friend Geir calls him an "auditor of happiness," which he describes like this: "If you have some success, generally something others would have died for, you just cross it off in the ledger. You're not happy about anything." Do you think this is a normal or abnormal way to react to success? Do you feel that this partly explains why Knausgaard is so driven to succeed? Is this a good attitude or a bad attitude for a writer/artist to have?
17. During a long conversation at a bar with Geir, Karl Ove says that when he moved to Stockholm and fell in love with Linda, he finally felt like he had been raised above the trivial matters of life. To go beyond the minutiae is something Knausgaard desires very passionately; this could be thought of as the struggle behind My Struggle. Why do you think Knausgaard struggles so hard to rise above banality? Is a passionate love the only way one can attain such a feeling? Can anyone stay above the minutiae of life forever?
18. Think about the major plot points of Books 1 and 2: Karl Ove's adolescence, the death of his father, Karl Ove's marriage, and the birth of his children. How are these events linked to different stages of life? Is it inevitable that in telling your life story, you will order it around these sorts of events? Do you feel that Karl Ove's life "breaks the mold" in certain ways?
19. After reading two books about Knausgaard, what do you think of him as a person? What adjectives would you use to describe him? Do you think he's a good father? What motivates his writing?