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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Writing as obsession, compulsion, and atonement: Memory in My Struggle

Karl Ove Knausgaard's volume 3, Boyhood, ends in a bit of a rush, as KOK reaches puberty and a degree of independence, entering a new school (the equivalent of a middle school in the U.S., I think), and most of all, with his father now, at least for a year, out of the picture - so we don't have the constant tension and anxiety, KOK is not continuously on the lookout, in fear of the unpredictable rages of his tyrannical father. He is growing up. And yet - he's still a kid; this volume ends with him at age 13, starting to be seriously interested in girls yet completely awkward and inappropriate with with them. We also see a new theme emerge, as kids in his school begin to pick on him and tease him, calling him a "jessie" (loosely translated, I think, as "faggot"). This seems odd, as KOK seemed to be a pretty active, boyish, even popular guy, but now he's a bit on the outside, just as he's freed from the terror of his father. Very sad - would be unbearable had we not known that he goes on to a reasonably happy young adulthood and to success in life. Volume ends with a beautiful, reflective passage as the family leaves the island of Tromoyo for a new life on the mainland, and a new school, and KOK looks back and reflects that the people he knew there will soon forget him, he will be like a blur in their memories, and he will move on - and then KOK notes that this wasn't so at all: he has tried to look up some of his childhood acquaintances on the Internet and found nothing (today, he would do better I think), but they have stayed with him for his whole life, completely vivid and alive in his memory. This phenomenon is something that I believe almost all writers experience: absolutely vivid childhood memories that provide a lifetime of material (and that astonish non-writer friends). Updike wrote beautifully about the phenomenon in his final poems - these vivid memories are a writer's blessing and curse, and the act of writing is a mixture of obsession, compulsion, and atonement - and sometimes of purging as well, as I believe most of us (I for a moment put myself among the other, far greater writers here) lose the thread of these memories once we summon them up and memorialize them in fiction: they're there for others, but no longer for us.

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