I completed the next 800 pages of the Karl Knausgaard My Struggle odyssey. Book 2 — “A Man in Love” — is said to be the best of the six volumes. I ate it up. So intimate. So raw. So many insights. This book focused on falling in love, having kids, and the balancing of work and family. Also, death: frequently death.
Not everyone should commit to reading a 3,600 page six-volume novel about a Norwegian writer who’s writing a 3,600 page novel. (To borrow a phrase from Leland de la Durantaye.) There’s a ridiculous amount of detail stuffed into the stories, but it’s all centered on one man, so it’s easier to keep track of than your typical 1000+ page beastly novel. And fortunately, the man has a pretty interesting inner life.
My Kindle highlights below. All bolding mine. Here were my highlights from book one.
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.
She was blond, had high cheekbones and narrow eyes, a long, slim body, and she knew how to dress, but she was much too pleased with herself, too self-centered for me to find her attractive. I have no problem with uninteresting or unoriginal people – they may have other, more important attributes, such as warmth, consideration, friendliness, a sense of humor, or talents such as being able to make a conversation flow to generate an atmosphere of ease around them, or the ability to make a family function – but I feel almost physically ill in the presence of boring people who consider themselves especially interesting and who blow their own trumpets.
I was with other people I was bound to them, the nearness I felt was immense, the empathy great. Indeed, so great that their well-being was always more important than my own. I subordinated myself, almost to the verge of self-effacement; some uncontrollable internal mechanism caused me to put their thoughts and opinions before mine. But the moment I was alone others meant nothing to me. It wasn’t that I disliked them, or nurtured feelings of loathing for them, on the contrary, I liked most of them, and the ones I didn’t actually like I could always see some worth in, some attribute I could identify with, or at least find interesting, something that could occupy my mind for the moment. But liking them was not the same as caring about them.
This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change diapers but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it. So the life I led was not my own.
What would it have been like to live in a world where everything was made from the power of your hands, the wind, or the water? What would it have been like to live in a world where the American Indians still lived their lives in peace? Where that life was an actual possibility? Where Africa was unconquered? Where darkness came with the sunset and light with the sunrise? Where there were too few humans and their tools were too rudimentary to have any effect on animal stocks, let alone wipe them out? Where you could not travel from one place to another without exerting yourself, and a comfortable life was something only the rich could afford, where the sea was full of whales, the forests full of bears and wolves, and there were still countries that were so alien no adventure story could do them justice, such as China, to which a voyage not only took several months and was the prerogative of only a tiny minority of sailors and traders, but was also fraught with danger. Admittedly, that world was rough and wretched, filthy and ravaged with sickness, drunken and ignorant, full of pain, low life expectancy and rampant superstition, but it produced the greatest writer, Shakespeare, the greatest painter, Rembrandt, the greatest scientist, Newton, all still unsurpassed in their fields, and how can it be that this period achieved this wealth? Was it because death was closer and life was starker as a result? Who knows?
Be that as it may, we can’t go back in time, everything we undertake is irrevocable, and if we look back what we see is not life but death. And whoever believes that the conditions and character of the times are responsible for our maladjustment is either suffering from delusions of grandeur or is simply stupid, and lacks self-knowledge on both accounts.
This state lasted for six months, for six months I was truly happy, truly at home in this world and in myself before slowly it began to lose its luster, and once more the world moved out of my reach.
Yet I wanted to have more of what came in its wake because public attention is a drug, the need it satisfies is artificial, but once you have had a taste of it you want more.
What had once been normal topics you didn’t talk about much, namely children, were now placed at the forefront of existence and cultivated with a frenzy that ought to make everyone raise their eyebrows, for what could be the meaning of this? In the midst of this lunacy there was me trundling my child around like one of the many fathers who had evidently put fatherhood before all else.
The slight disdain I felt for men pushing strollers was, to put it mildly, a double-edged sword as for the most part I had one in front of me when I saw them.
I swayed from side to side with Vanja in my arms, thinking that this must be what hell was like, gentle and nice and full of mothers you didn’t know from Eve, with their babies.
Now I had an hour to myself. It was the sole condition I had made before taking over responsibility for Vanja during the daytime, that I would have an hour on my own in the afternoon, and even though Linda considered it unfair since she’d never had an hour to herself like that, she agreed. The reason she’d never had an hour, I assumed, was that she hadn’t thought of it. And the reason she hadn’t thought of it was, I also assumed, that she would rather be with us than alone.
But the whole point for me of living in a big city was that I could be completely alone in it while still surrounded by people on all sides. All with faces I had never seen before! The unceasing stream of new faces.
One’s self-image not only encompasses the person you are but also the person you wanted to be, could be or once had been. For the self-image there was no difference between the actual and the hypothetical. It incorporated all ages, all feelings, all drives.
As a result I walked around Stockholm’s streets, modern and feminized, with a furious nineteenth-century man inside me. The way I was seen changed, as if at the stroke of a magic wand, the instant I laid my hands on the stroller. I had always eyed the women I walked past the way men always have, actually a mysterious act because it couldn’t lead to anything except a returned gaze, and if I did see a really beautiful woman I might even turn around to watch her, discreetly of course, but…
Before Dostoyevsky, the ideal, even the Christian ideal, was always pure and strong, it was part of heaven, unattainable for almost everyone. The flesh was weak, the mind frail, but the ideal was unbending. The ideal was about aspiring, enduring, fighting the fight. In Dostoyevsky’s books everything is human, or rather, the human world is everything, including the ideals, which are turned on their heads: now they can be achieved if you give up, lose your grip, fill yourself with non-will rather than will. Humility and self-effacement, those are the ideals in Dostoyevsky’s foremost novels, and inasmuch as they are never realized within the framework of the story line, therein lies his greatness, because this is precisely a result of his own humility and self-effacement as a writer.
Why should we do one thing rather than another when there was no goal anyway, nor any direction in life, apart from to huddle together, live, and then die?
Death makes life meaningless because everything we have ever striven for ceases when life does, and it makes life meaningful, too, because its presence makes the little we have of it indispensable, every moment precious.
Or as Jünger writes: “Little by little all areas are brought under this single common denominator, even one with its residence as far from causality as the dream.” In our century even our dreams are alike, even dreams are things we sell. Undifferentiated, which is just another way of saying indifferent. That is where our night is.
However, it is not a dead point, not for literature either, for literature is not just words, literature is what words evoke in the reader. It is this transcendence that validates literature, not the formal transcendence in itself, as many believe.
…it is about opening up what language normally does not have access to but that we still, somewhere deep inside us, know or recognize, or if we don’t, allows us to discover.
Feeling cold to the depths of my soul, I walked down the corridor.
What did I want? I didn’t know. I was lying on a sofa just outside Stockholm, knowing not a soul, and everything in me was chaos and unrest. The uncertainty penetrated to my core, through to that which defined who I was.
“Attending a poetry reading is like being in a hospital,” he said as we left the next station. “Full of neuroses.”
Then I met Linda and the sun rose. I can’t find a better way to express it. The sun rose in my life. At first, as dawn breaking on the horizon, almost as if to say, this is where you have to look. Then came the first rays of sunshine, everything became clearer, lighter, more alive, and I became happier and happier, and then it hung in the sky of my life and shone and shone and shone.
But Arve, it seemed to me on that day, was a truly open person, as well as being curious and constantly striving to understand what he saw. But there was no ulterior motive about his openness, it was not a damned psychologist’s openness, nor was there any ulterior motive about the curiosity.
I was married, we were fine, soon we would be buying a flat together. Then I came here and wanted to wreck everything? I did. I wandered beneath the sun-dappled shade from the trees, surrounded by the warm fragrances of the forest, 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. My heart trembled.
She eyed me with obvious scorn. Pancakes are for children, she said. We’re not having a children’s party. Okay, I said, let’s call them crêpes then. Is that good enough for you? She turned her back on me.
If she was angry her presence was all that existed in me. It was like having an enormous dog in the room growling and I had to take care of it.
“I’m very sorry. Terribly sorry. But it was what you said that hit me so hard. Before I met you I hadn’t even dared imagine that I might have children one day. I didn’t dare. Even when I fell in love with you I didn’t. And then you said what you said. It was you who brought up the subject, do you remember? The very first morning. I want to have children with you. And I was so happy. I was so utterly, insanely happy. Just the fact that there was a possibility. It was you who gave me that possibility. And then … yesterday … Well, it was like you were withdrawing the possibility. You said perhaps we should put off having children.
The next day we moved my things, that is to say all my books, which had now grown to number twenty-five hundred titles, a fact which Anders and Geir, who were helping me with the move, cursed from the bottom of their hearts as we shifted…
And it is never easy to confront life-changing news, especially when you are deeply embroiled in the everyday and the banal, which we always are. They absorb almost everything, make almost everything small, apart from the few events that are so immense they lay waste to all the everyday trivia around you. Big news is like that and it is not possible to live inside it.
One evening I got so angry at her that I threw a glass at the stove with all my might. Strangely enough, it didn’t break. Typical, I thought afterward, I couldn’t even perform the classic act of smashing a glass during a fight.
When she became pregnant everything changed, now there was a horizon beyond the one the two of us formed, something greater than us, and it was there the whole time, in my thoughts and hers. Her unease may have been great, but even in its midst there was always a wholeness and security in her. Everything would fall into place, it would be fine, I knew it would.
The problem, if you can call it a problem, was that it was impossible to dislike him. He could talk to anyone, which is a rare gift, and he was generous, which you noticed as soon as you met him. And he was always happy. He was the person who stood up at parties and thanked the hosts for the spread or congratulated them on whatever occasion it was or did whatever was required, and he had a kind word for everyone, however much or little they had in common with him.
She was so angry that she screamed, actually screamed on the phone. I just held it away from my ear and kept writing. She said she would leave me. Go, I said. I don’t care, I have to write. And it was true. She would have to go if that was what she wanted. She said, I will. You’ll never see us again. Fine, I said. I wrote twenty pages a day. I didn’t see any letters or words, any sentences or shapes, just countryside and people, and Linda phoned and screamed, said I was a fairweather father, said I was a
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 the 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 a ghetto outside one of the cities there. Just to see what they would say.
It was easy to protect yourself against music when you were prepared or just had it on as background, because it was simple, undemanding, and sentimental, but when I was not prepared, like now, or was really listening, it hit home with me. My feelings soared and before I knew what was happening my eyes were moist. It was only then that I realized how little I normally felt, how numb I had become. When I was eighteen I was full of such feelings all the time, the world seemed more intense and that was why I wanted to write, it was the sole reason, I wanted to touch something that music touched. The human voice’s lament and sorrow, joy and delight, I wanted to evoke everything the world had bestowed upon us. How could I forget that?
And if there had been any limits before they had certainly been removed now that a grandchild had come into the world. She worshipped Vanja and would do anything, absolutely anything for her.
One of the consequences of living here, I mused, as I banged the container lids shut and unlocked the door to have a cigarette outside, was that I simply said less. I had just stopped almost all the small talk, chatting with assistants in shops, waiters in cafés, conductors on trains, and strangers in chance encounters. This was one of the best parts about returning to Norway: the ease of dealing with people I didn’t know returned and my shoulders dropped.
Since I also wrote I ought to have been able to relate to her work, but the craft side was so prominent in writing a screenplay, where it was about all manner of ebbs and flows of tension, character development, plots and subplots, intros and turning points, I assumed I would have little to contribute in that respect and never mobilized more than polite interest.
She radiated a business-like manner that went well with Fredrik’s more flippant and child-like character. They had one child and were expecting another. Unlike us, they had everything under control, there was order in the home, they went out with their child and organized interesting activities. After we had been to theirs, or they had been to ours, that was often what Linda and I discussed: how on earth what appeared to be so simple for them could be so utterly beyond our capability.
But there was always a piece missing, it was always as though we were standing on opposite sides of a small chasm, the conversation was always tentative, we never really found the right tone. But the few times we did it was to everyone’s relief and pleasure. Much of the reason it did not really work was me: my great expanses of silence and the slight discomfort that came over me when I did say something.
From there it was a swift jump to pregnancies in general and then to births. I chimed in with something or other, added a snippet here and there, and otherwise listened in silence for the main part. Births are an intimate and sensitive topic of conversation for women, there is a lot of covert prestige and as a man the only possible option is to keep well away. To refrain from expressing an opinion.
The clouds in the sky to the east had a gentle golden hue, as though lit from the inside by the sun that was behind them.
Vidar drove as many older men did, hunched over the wheel, as though the few extra centimeters closer to the windshield were decisive for good vision.
The light beneath the sky was losing its luster. The approaching darkness was unevenly distributed across the landscape, the already dark areas were sucking it in more and more greedily, such as the trees at the edge of the forest, the trunks and branches were completely black now. The weak February light faded without a fight, without resistance, not even a last flicker could it rouse, just a slow, imperceptible decline until everything was darkness and night.
What was going through her head? Oh, I knew. She was all alone with Vanja during the day, from when I went to my office until I returned, she felt lonely, and she had been looking forward so much to these two weeks. Some quiet days with her little family gathered around her, that was what she had been looking forward to. I, for my part, never looked forward to anything except the moment the office door closed behind me and I was alone and able to write.
We might believe that our world embraced everything, we might do our thing down here on the beach, drive around in our cars, phone each other and chat, visit one another, eat and drink and sit indoors imbibing the faces and opinions and the fates of those appearing on the TV screen in this strange, semi-artificial symbiosis we inhabited and lull ourselves for longer and longer, year upon year, into thinking that it was all there was, but if on the odd occasion we were to raise our gaze to this, the only possible thought was one of incomprehension and impotence, for in fact how small and trivial was the world we allowed ourselves to be lulled by? Yes, of course, the dramas we saw were magnificent, the images we internalized sublime and sometimes also apocalyptic, but be honest, slaves, what part did we play in them? None. But the stars twinkle above our heads, the sun shines, the grass grows, and the earth, yes, the earth, it swallows all life and eradicates all vestiges of it, spews out new life in a cascade of limbs and eyes, leaves and nails, hair and tails, cheeks and fur and guts, and swallows it up again. And what we never really comprehend, or don’t want to comprehend, is that this happens outside us, that we ourselves have no part in it, that we are only that which grows and dies, as blind as the waves in the sea are blind.
He radiated naïveté, but not as though from inexperience, quite the contrary, he gave every impression of having experienced a great deal, it was more as if all the experiences were there but he hadn’t drawn the consequences, as though they had left him unaffected, so to speak.
I had only met her a couple of times, but to me she seemed to have many sides, there was a wealth of nuance in her personality, and you intuited a psychological depth, with no apparent signs of neuroticism, the constant companion of sensitivity of course, at least not obtrusively.
Not that I think she is innocent, necessarily, but she gives that impression. Innocence of this kind is typical of you. Purity and innocence don’t interest me. However, it’s very clear in you. You’re a deeply moral and a deeply innocent person. What is innocence? It is that which has not been touched by the world, that which has not been destroyed, it is like water into which a stone has never been thrown. It’s not that you don’t have lusts, that you don’t have desire, for you do, it’s just that you conserve innocence. Your insanely huge longing for beauty comes in here as well. It wasn’t by chance that you chose to write about angels. That’s the purest of the pure. You can’t get purer than that.” … Others search and search, and when they find a nugget, they sell it to acquire life, splendor, music, dance, enjoyment, luxury, or at least a bit of pussy, right, throw themselves at a woman just to forget they exist for an hour or two. What you lust for is innocence and this is an impossible equation.
What is a saintly life? Suffering, sacrifice, and death. Who the hell would want a great inner life if they don’t have any outer life? People only think of what introversion can give them in terms of external life and success. What is the modern view of a prayer? There is only one kind of prayer for modern people and that is as an expression of desire. You don’t pray unless there is something you want.
I shook my head. “There’s no safer place for secrets than in you,” he said. “You forget everything. Your brain’s like Swiss cheese without the cheese.
Then Cecilia came into the office wanting to chat. We went for lunch together. She had been out last night with her partner and his friend. She had flirted with the friend all evening, she said, and her partner had been livid when they got home, of course.” “How long have they been together?” “Six years.” “Was she thinking of leaving him?” “No, not at all. On the contrary, she wants children with him.” “So why the flirting?” I asked. Geir looked at me. “She wants to have her cake and eat it, too, obviously.” “What did you say to her? I assume she went to you for advice?” “I said she should deny it. Deny everything. She hadn’t been flirting, she’d just been friendly. Say no, no, no. And then don’t be so stupid next time, wait for an opportunity to offer itself and go about it calmly and collectedly. I don’t blame her for doing what she did. I blame her for being inconsiderate. She hurt him. That was uncalled for.”
However, there are many ways to be trapped; there are many ways of not being free. You have to remember that you’ve had everything you wanted. You’ve had your revenge on those you targeted. You have status. People sit waiting for what you do and wave palm leaves as soon as you show your face. You can write an article about something that interests you and it will be in print in the newspaper of your choice a few days later. People phone and want you to go here, there, and everywhere. Newspapers ask you for a comment on all sorts of matters. Your books will be published in Germany and England. Do you understand the freedom there is in that? Do you understand what has opened in your life? You talk about a longing to let go and fall. If I let go I would be standing in the same place. I’m standing right at the bottom. No one’s interested in what I write. No one’s interested in what I think. … Whenever I enter a room full of people I have to make myself interesting. I don’t preexist, like you, I don’t have a name, I have to create everything from scratch every time. I’m sitting at the bottom of a hole in the ground and shouting through a megaphone. It doesn’t matter what I say, no one is listening.
The last thing you want to hear when you’re in the darkness of depression is the babbling of some happy jerk.
As always after long interviews I felt empty, drained like a ditch. As always, it felt as though I had betrayed myself. Merely by sitting there I had gone along with the premise, which was that the two books I had written were good and important, and that I, the writer, was an unusual and interesting person. That was the starting point for the conversation: everything I said was important. If I didn’t say anything important, well, then I was just hiding it. Because it obviously had to be somewhere! So when I told stories about my childhood, for example, some perfectly normal, ordinary story everyone had experienced, it was important because it was me who said it. It said something about me, the writer of two good and important books. And I not only went along with this view, which formed the basis for the conversation, but did it with great enthusiasm. I sat there jabbering away like a parrot in the zoo. All while knowing the reality of the situation.
If I have learned one thing over these years that seems to me immensely important, particularly in an era such as ours, overflowing with such mediocrity, it is the following: Don’t believe you are anybody. Do not fucking believe you are somebody. Because you are not. You’re just a smug, mediocre little shit. Do not believe that you’re anything special. Do not believe that you’re worth anything, because you aren’t. You’re just a little shit. So keep your head down and work, you little shit. Then, at least, you’ll get something out of it. Shut your mouth, keep your head down, work, and know that you’re not worth a shit. This, more or less, was what I had learned. This was the sum of all my experience.
Relationships were there to eradicate individuality, to fetter freedom and suppress that which was pushing through.
How can you sit there receiving applause when you know that what you have done is not good enough? I had one opportunity. I had to cut all my ties with the flattering, thoroughly corrupt world of culture where everyone, every single little upstart, was for sale, cut all my ties with the vacuous TV and newspaper world, sit down in a room and read in earnest, not contemporary literature but literature of the highest quality, and then write as if my life depended on it. For twenty years if need be.
wanted the maximum amount of time for myself, with the fewest disturbances possible. I wanted Linda, who was already at home looking after Heidi, to take care of everything that concerned Vanja so that I could work. She didn’t want to. Or perhaps she did, but she couldn’t cope. All our conflicts and arguments were in some form or other about this, the dynamics. If I couldn’t write because of her and her demands, I would leave her, it was as simple as that. And somewhere she knew.
The way I took my revenge was to give her everything she wanted, that is, I took care of the children, I cleaned the floors, I washed the clothes, I did the food shopping, I cooked, and I earned all the money so that she had nothing tangible to complain about, as far as I and my role in the family were concerned. The only thing I didn’t give her, and it was the only thing she wanted, was my love. That was how I took my revenge. … Oh, how I gloated when I caught her in the trap and could stand there agreeing to all her demands! After the eruption, which was inevitable, after we had gone to bed, she would often cry and want to be comforted. That gave me an opportunity to extract further revenge, because I wouldn’t comply.
I knew John was asleep. But the ones in the back, had they also nodded off? I turned to look over my shoulder. Yes, indeed. Three girls lay there with mouths agape and eyes closed. Happiness exploded inside me. It lasted for one second, two seconds, maybe three. Then came the shadow that always followed, this happiness’s dark train.
… reinforced by a happiness that was so strong I remembered it twenty-five years later. But this happiness hadn’t had a shadow, it had been pure, undiluted, unadulterated. Then life lay at my feet. Anything could happen. Anything was possible. It wasn’t like that any longer. A lot had happened, and what had happened laid the groundwork for what could happen. Not only were the opportunities fewer, the emotions I experienced were weaker. Life was less intense. And I knew I was halfway, perhaps more than halfway. When John was as old as I was now I would be eighty. And with one foot in the grave, if not both feet. In ten years I would be fifty. In twenty, sixty.
Why, when I’m on board a plane or in a car imagining it’s going to crash, why do I think that’s not so bad? That it doesn’t matter? That I might just as well die as live? For this is what I think more often than not. Indifference is one of the seven deadly sins, actually the greatest of them all, because it is the only one that sins against life.