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

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Thursday, May 5, 2016

He dreamed he'd seen St. Augustine?: Karl Ove Knausgaard and the confessional novel

Over the course of reading the first 5 books in Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle I've noted in several posts that his struggle amounts to living w/ his two competing, even antithetic drives: the desire to be welcomed and accepted by family and peers, to fit in and not be and oddity or oddball, and and the same time the drive to be unique and special, to be an artist, a writer. We see this struggle and this conflict, two forces that often diverge and sometimes do converge (success as a writer does bring public recognition and acceptance and even love, at times). Book 5 opens up another dimension of his struggle, at least one that hadn't been as clear to me in the first 4 books, and that's to overcome his great sense of shame - a theme somewhat less prominent in art and literature (maybe more so in Scandinavia than elsewhere, however - one of Bergman's great films is The Shame). In this volume, which covers the years of his life from roughly 19 to 23, corresponding to an American youth's college years, a time in which he truly commits to his writing, with great frustration, however, and experiences his first mature love, we see how he manages to ruin every relationship, to cause a lot of destruction and turmoil, to stupidly engage in petty theft and vandalism, to injure his brother (hurling a glass, without warning, right at his face), much or most of these episodes occurring during one of his blind, blackout drunks. It seems to me what he's trying to do is obliterate part of his life - his shame about masturbation (though as a mature writer he's extraordinary open and confessional about every aspect of his sex life), shame at cheating on his very sweet and devoted girlfriend, shame about his looming alcoholism, and maybe in some way shame about his family - which is to say about his miserable son of a bitch father. Shame and the concurrent violent actions and drunken binges seems to balance out against his writing: when he's writing well he is less driven by shame, but when his writing is going poorly, which it mostly is at this stage of his life, and he's smart enough to see that (not delusional like so many young would-be writers) he acts out, often destructively. We recognize that it took KOK some years, decades even, to discover his destiny as a writer, to be brave enough to write the kind of novel he was meant to write, that would ease his pain. As we read this novel, sharing with the author a much greater understanding than the character KOK can have in that we know what he become (a great writer), we begin to understand that the solution KOK devised was to put his shame out in the open, to write a kind of confessional novel not seen maybe since St. Augustine.

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