And so we come to volume four of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic, exhaustive, entrancing, artfully artless non-fiction novel (reviewers, poor souls, have long since run out of epithets to describe the My Struggle series). And for those who have somehow missed the fuss, here – briefly – is what it’s all about: between 2009 and 2011, in an effort to write himself dry, the Norwegian author produced 3,600 pages of autobiographical prose, forensically raking over his past, reordering and repackaging his memories, while refusing to differentiate between the banal (a favourite breakfast cereal) and the momentous (artistic transcendence, patricidal rage). The results have rightly garnered more attention than most writers can hope for in a lifetime and, thanks to the tireless efforts of Don Bartlett, Anglophone readers now only have two volumes left.
Dancing in the Dark mainly concerns Karl Ove’s chaotic late teenage years and, in particular, the ludicrous nine months he spent as an eighteen-year-old form teacher at a rural school in northern Norway. Untrained, untamed and significantly less mature than most of his pupils, Karl Ove is a whirlwind of instincts and emotions: insecure, arrogant, nihilistic, buoyant, principled, mendacious, and bursting with unfulfilled promise and undirected hormones. His chief interests, alongside music, are getting drunk and getting laid. He fantasises about his younger students; he snogs one of them at a party. And he wants to become a writer. This is why he has come out to the boondocks: to save up money, compose short stories, prepare for a life of penmanship. Did I mention getting laid?
In the previous instalment, Boyhood Island, we followed Karl Ove’s early years in the 1970s, his life darkened by the spectre of his terrifying father. Gripping though this was, the book lacked the intensity of the first two volumes, in which Karl Ove confronted his father’s terrible, alcohol-induced demise and his own struggles as a parent to three time-obliterating kids. The perspective in Boyhood Island was a child’s, and there was a childishness to many of the observations.
In Dancing in the Dark, we are often left similarly frustrated: the guileless reflections (‘Oh, this was the world and I was living in the midst of it’), the cringing attempts at lyricism (‘These were luminous shafts of grace in our world of yellowing grass’) and the prosaic exclamations, mostly about breasts (‘Wow’, ‘Ay-yay-yay’, ‘This was just brilliant’), swamp the more sophisticated explorations of what it is to be a particular human being. There is a great deal here about erotic longing and even more about premature ejaculation. Karl Ove, for reasons never fully explained (‘I hadn’t even tried’; it was ‘beyond my horizons’), never masturbates, and his sexual outlets exclusively take the form of nocturnal emissions and calamities of frottage. Every time he comes close to having sex he comes instead. Orgasm has thus become ‘the hated spasm’. He believes himself to be incapable of penetration. This is psychologically interesting – but it remains insufficiently explored.
Knausgaard has himself admitted that, following the unexpected success of the first two volumes, he withdrew a little in his writing, only fully regaining his tempo in the sixth and final book. So far, this shows. Yet Dancing in the Dark is still – to use another of the epithets that stick like burrs to My Struggle – narcotically compulsive. Readers who have made it this far will already be so invested that the balance of banality to illumination is almost an irrelevance. In a way, the tedium is just a tease; it helps us to keep reading. Because we always want to know what it is that makes Karl Ove’s mother so detached, what it is that drives his father over the edge, even whether Karl Ove will ever manage to have sex. Much of the brilliance of this project is a matter of structure: insights into character are provided and then evaded, explosive moments described and then abandoned; what we know about future selves is later informed by past ones. This is how memory works.
Take the following scene from the present volume. Karl Ove is visiting his father, who has a new girlfriend. Having always been sober and intense, ‘Dad’ has started drinking (‘relaxing with a drop of wine’, as he calls it). The tension effortlessly builds, as it so often does in My Struggle, the short, attentive observations and awkward dialogue driving us forward (‘Mm, he said. Sun’s nice. Yes, I said’). ‘Dad’ then remarks that there’s been ‘another’ fatal road accident in the area:
Almost all these accidents are disguised suicides, he said. They drive straight into a lorry or into a mountainside. No one can possibly know whether it was intentional or not. So they’re spared the shame. Do you really believe that? I said. Indeed I do, he said. And it’s effective too.
This is a cynical observation, and Karl Ove’s scepticism is a natural response to it. But in the wider context, it is crammed with almost unbearable meaning, because we have already seen what happens to ‘Dad’; we have witnessed, in horror, the effects of his drinking and the aftermath of his own suicidal death.
Dancing in the Dark pulses with moments such as these. And thus whether it is better or worse than its predecessors is also an irrelevance. If you have read the first one, you will need to read on – and you shouldn’t stop reading until the end.