All writers at some time think they’re a fraud, that the talent they thought they possessed is just an illusion — probably because, for the majority, it is.
“The idea of being a writer attracts a good many shiftless people,” Flannery O’Connor wrote with merciless accuracy, “those who are merely burdened with poetic feelings or afflicted with sensibility.”
It’s a rare young writer who doesn’t wonder if the hell of mediocrity is the only one in which he’ll reign.
So it is with Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard, who, in the fifth and penultimate installment of his circuitous autobiography, tackles the success and failure — mostly failure — of his early career. He begins as a 19-year-old student at the Writing Academy in western Norway. It’s quite an honor for an ambitious but unaccomplished young man; he’ll be joining a group of older writers, some already published, in an elite class taught by the country’s leading authors.
Life quickly turns sour, for reasons any struggling MFA student will appreciate: Everyone is better than he is, and they let him know it. The would-be writer learns that his style is immature, that his stories (when they aren’t lifted from elsewhere) are stockpiled with cliches, and that the dream of breaking into the literary pantheon will more likely be attained by his peers.
What’s the problem? he wonders. He already does all the stuff writers do: drinks to excess, smokes, reads the greats, listens to the Cramps, the Smiths and all the other cool bands (there really ought to be a Knausgaard playlist on Spotify) and has sex whenever he doesn’t bungle the opportunity. (If the previous volume had an index, Knausgaard, premature ejaculation of, would fill half a page.)
But maybe he’s just kidding himself.
“Deep down,” he says, “I was decent and proper, a goody-goody, and, I thought, perhaps that was also why I couldn’t write. I wasn’t wild enough, not artistic enough, in short, much too normal for my writing to take off.”
Over the years, life takes a tailspin, as it often has in the previous volumes. He drinks heavily, can’t stay faithful to his sweet-natured girlfriend, develops a hair-trigger temper, turns self-destructive. Worst of all, he watches helplessly as others’ careers take off — not just that of his brilliant older friend, the poet Espen Stueland, but even less gifted latecomers like his friend Tore Renberg. “It was just so unfair,” he moans. “Why should he, four years younger than me, have the talent and not me?”
He’s like a hard drinking Salieri, stumbling through a world where another Mozart is always threatening to jump out at every corner, wielding his latest book.
In each succeeding volume of this one-of-a-kind chronicle, Knausgaard has aimed for nothing less than to discover just who he is, to get to the root of his own particular self. Here, that struggle is intensified, as the idea of being a writer is so woven into his self-conception that failure makes him doubt who he is supposed to be and which direction to take.
“I had no future,” he writes at one point, “not because it existed somewhere else but because I couldn’t imagine it. That I might control my future and try to make it turn out the way I wanted was completely beyond my horizon.”
This crisis of confidence colors everything he sees; every relationship and friendship becomes some indication of who he is not or of who he could become. From the very first volume, the fear of death has motivated him toward creating this massive life story, and here again he returns to the idea of decline. Taking a job as an orderly at a mental institution, he observes lives that are much more off the rails than his own, with minds that no longer work and bodies that malfunction. Even a friendship with an older employee suddenly becomes a dread sign of what’s ahead.
“Was he actually me?” he wonders. “Would I become like him? An ex-student drifting around for years taking shifts until it is too late, all the options are gone and this becomes life?”
The limbo that Knausgaard essays in this book is, like so much of his life, particular to him but also highly familiar to everyone else. You could almost call it “The Sorrows of Karl Ove,” because it approaches that period of youth where the stakes seem enormously high, everything a matter of life and death, and so much time is spent wanting and waiting — for sex, sensation, literary inspiration.
This fifth volume feels more insular than the others, but that’s where Knausgaard has always been at his best. The inner life inspires him. It’s what gives the sentences their urgency. He’s the rare writer who has made self-absorption work for him.
Rodney Welch frequently writes about books for the Columbia, S.C., Free Times.
By Karl Ove Knausgaard
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett
Archipelago. 624 pp. $27