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book review

Portrait of a writer as a young man

Karl Ove Knausgaard.Chester Higgins Jr/The New York Times/File

Admirers of the first four volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s 3,500 page autobiographical novel, “My Struggle,” often remark on the guilelessness of the prose. Like clear running water, it can seem mysteriously impelled, magically transparent.

But writing isn’t black magic, as Knausgaard himself has noted. And what is less frequently remarked on is the importance of the visual in each book — including the fifth, which has just been released in a fine translation from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett. Throughout “My Struggle,” but especially in Book Five, there is a carefully calibrated tension between the forward momentum of narrative and the stillness, the silence of things seen as they are, unfastened from meaning or plot.


This fifth and penultimate volume describes, over about 630 pages, the 14 years the author spent as a student and struggling writer in the Norwegian town of Bergen — a town, as he writes, “of swishing windshield wipers,” “where everything is constantly trickling and dripping.”

Just as he did in earlier volumes, the narrator begins by claiming that he can remember almost nothing of the very period he proceeds to describe in intricate detail. This disavowal stirs up confusion in the reader: Will all of this then be invented? Or did the writing process somehow trigger a gush of recollection? We can’t be sure. But the effect of the claim is to fog up the windows a little, and this in turn somehow enhances the intimacy, the illicit vividness, of everything we are made privy to. Doubt draws you in.

Book Five, like the two volumes that preceded it, has a straightforward, linear structure. It tells the saga of a young writer’s path from failure to success. The fabric from which this simple tale is spun — more sight, sound, and emotion than story — is light and loose like a billowing parachute that could easily lose its shape. So Knausgaard drapes it over two dramatic events that function as supports.


The first is an amorous disaster, which occurs about a quarter of the way in. It is a reversed mirror image of the second, an amorous success, which takes place toward the end. It’s best not to give too much away, but both involve a girl, our hero, and his beloved brother, Yngve.

This installment is drenched, more than any of its predecessors, in shame. “Every morning,” writes Knausgaard, “a feeling of humiliation sat deep in my body.” Some of the sources of this shame are trivially generic; others less so.

There is the pervasive shame, familiar to most young adults, of ignorance, insecurity, and callowness. There is the shame, too, of being a failed writer. There is the shame of being vanquished in love and reduced to masturbating in front of nudes in art history books. And there is the shame of repeated binge drinking, blackouts, acts of drunken violence, and infidelity.

But the deeper shame, the unshakeable humiliation, stems from childhood. The narrator was psychologically brutalized as a child by his father, a domestic tyrant who later regressed to the level of a whining, childish slob who drank himself to death — but whom Knausgaard could never bring himself to hate.

Much of the unforgettable first volume of “My Struggle” revolves around the immediate aftermath of this father’s squalid death. The new volume returns us to this episode. And although the story is told from a different, less pressurized perspective, it is no less gut-wrenching. We see with greater insight this second time how the child’s blameless humiliation is reinforced by the adult son’s guilt at his failure to try to prevent his father’s decline.


What is extraordinary about “My Struggle” is that Knausgaard’s willingness to expose his shame, without ever flinching, is balanced everywhere by his openness to beauty, his belief in transformation, his heartfelt yearning.

Thus, we share in the young student’s exhilaration as he is inducted into the sphere of higher learning. We get to grips, too, with his baffled but at times almost euphoric recognition of the complexity of reality and of the tenderness and vulnerability of other people.

Everything Knausgaard writes is wedded to feeling, and all is expressed so openly, so unguardedly, that we are consistently disarmed. “[T]he heart is always right. It never errs,” he tells us. He repeats it, as if it were a mantra, later on.

Repetition is something we associate with the aftermath of trauma. It happens when we are locked inside a dark plot from which we cannot escape. But it can also be a symptom of happiness: the tautology of life loving itself, doubling back on itself, arresting time so as to savor itself. Knausgaard catches this beautifully in the book’s most incandescent passages: “We . . . were completely open with each other, everything was filled with light. I ached with happiness because I had her, she was there, all the time. All the time she was there, around me, and I ached with happiness, everything was filled with light.”


Knausgaard is an intensely visual writer. Like Marcel Proust, the author to whom he is so often compared, he loves painting and knows his art history. Book Five is filled with marvelous descriptions of the appearance of things. He compares seeing dustbins, for instance, in sunlight, when they seem transient and “hardly there,” with seeing them under overcast skies, when they appear “like shining pillars of silver, some of them magnificent, others sadder and more wretched, but all there, just then, at that moment.”

He is fascinated by different qualities of presence. Like Chardin, he will cherish an object’s stillness in space. Like Constable, he will faithfully record a fleeting cloud. But he also believes fervently in narration, because without stories there can be no meaning. So, like Rembrandt’s profoundly narrative art, his writing is propelled by this search for meaning.

This tension between description and narration, which is never really resolved, finds its correlative in the photograph of Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” on the book’s cover. Existence is not linear, Smithson’s massive earthwork suggests. It curls back in on itself, and simply is — until (like the downward-spiraling life of Knausgaard’s own father) it sinks or disintegrates, and is no more.

Can we live without plot, without a sense of progress and evolution? The question hangs over Knausgaard’s whole book, and particularly over his descriptions of the mental institution where he finds work in between studying, and where he spends long, plotless hours with enfeebled fellow men.


Knausgaard’s search for meaning is itself, of course, part of the plot. But it is always threatening to collapse, to fold in on itself. What if description is all there is? “Why actually should you write about actions?” he asks. Wouldn’t it be more admirable to describe a forest seen from above?

In the end, he artfully combines both actions and descriptions. But what stands out in Book Five above everything — above the shame and the rainy days in Bergen — is Knausgaard’s feeling for beauty. On a Wednesday at the end of August in the late 1980s, he is almost ecstatic in the face of a hot-dog wrapper, an old man carrying a bag, and a pavement flecked with chewing gum.

“The world,” he writes, “extended its hand and I took it.” Over the course of a masterpiece that runs to more than 3,000 pages, he hasn’t once let go.


Book Five

By Karl Ove Knausgaard

Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett

Archipelago, 626 pp., $27

Sebastian Smee can be reached at sebastian.smee@globe.com.