Here’s the original version of my review of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Boyhood Island (Harvill Secker), the third volume of his My Struggle cycle. The edited version appeared in the Times on Saturday 29th March. Short version: I liked it. Also, I seem to find it hard to avoid starting a paragraph with an adverb…
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume My Struggle is a phenomenon, selling over a million copies in his native Norway – not bad for a country of five million people. Somewhere between autobiography and fiction, it’s attracted criticism for its author’s blithe use of the names and characters of real people – but its confessional tone, and the sheer detail in which Knausgaard remembers and retells his life, have also seen him anointed “the new Proust”.
Volume three, Boyhood Island, is set in the 1970s, and follows its author and principle subject’s life from six to eleven years old. Here is a painfully sensitive boy, forever bursting into tears over slights (perceived or real) large and small. He’s also clever, and knows it: boastfulness, he’s told repeatedly, is not an endearing trait. It’s not clear whether this lesson ever sinks in; Knausgaard’s account of himself, superficially self-deprecating, is deeply self-aggrandising.
The locations and the details may be unique, or indeed fictional, but it is Knausgaard’s gift to elevate this unsparing cataloguing of an individual childhood into something universal. Here we have the intensity of a seven year old’s loves, his experiments in piety and, inevitably, lapse back into misbehaviour, the falling out of and back into friendships, the summer days of exploring the natural world, and even dabblings in pyromania. (This is as far as my empathy with Karl Ove went, but the feeling of pushing against the boundaries of what’s permitted, and the fear when things get out of control, did all ring “as true as perfect pitch”.) The effect of this incredibly thorough chronicling of personal history is to generate similarly comprehensive recollections in the reader, as if Boyhood Island is a kind of tuning fork shaking loose the reader’s own long-buried memories.
Still, this is a long book, and its final hundred pages or so, in which Karl Ove’s attention turns to girls, are more repetitive and less enthralling than what’s come before. There are only so many times one can nod in recognition at the fickleness of young love, or cringe sympathetically at youthful mistakes (one girl breaks off their romance after he has subjected her to an attempt to break the record among his peers for the longest kiss, coming in at 15 uninterrupted minutes). Worse, seen through Karl Ove’s eyes, the Anne Lisbets and Mariannes on whom his affections settle are undifferentiated ciphers, mere objects of juvenile lust.
Inevitably, if this is fiction pretending to be memoir or actual memoir, little resembling a plot, other than its central character’s slow maturation, sustains this book; by the end, more or less randomly, the family is moving house, Karl Ove’s elder brother has moved out, and it is suddenly “the year dad lost his grip on us”. This remark, thrown in casually and barely elaborated upon, a hundred pages from the end, has its payoff in the earlier volume, A Death in the Family, but there as here it’s the father – and his son’s attempts to stay on the right side of him – that dominate the book. Knausgaard senior is mean-spirited, bad-tempered, unpredictable, violent, and the paradox of the father-son relationship is also that of the bully and his victim: forever fearful of his father, Karl Ove notes nonetheless that “if I did well in a test it was to him that I wanted to bring the news, not mum, that wasn’t the same.” Like many of the more telling details in this most detailed of books, this is dropped in mid-paragraph and never referred to again. Yet the book also places the reader somewhat in the father’s position: at times you can empathise with Knausgaard Sr’s exasperation at the son who feels everything so very deeply. You want the boy to grow thicker-skinner, to be able to deal with the world. The father’s tragedy is that he doesn’t know how to teach his son, but can only tease, shout, bluster, be cruel.
Ultimately, it’s books, of course, that help Karl Ove learn how to be in the world: banned from reading violent comics, he turns to “real” books, all faithfully itemised. He grows more insular, but a transformation is occurring: banishing himself to his bedroom isn’t just a way of keeping out of trouble; reading, omnivorously, indiscriminately, he is “converting the inside of my room to an enormous outside”. It’s the reverse of Knausgaard the author’s project: dedicating hundreds of thousands of words to the interior life of one more or less unremarkable man. He might not thank you for it, but you could reconstruct the young Karl Ove Knausgaard almost entirely from these 500 pages. He’d tell you, likely through tears, what his book does comprehensively: growing up is hard to do.