The Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard is the latest hot Scandinavian literary import. The first three volumes of his autobiographical opus, “My Struggle,” have made him a bit of a phenomenon in New York.
The first volume, at least, of “My Struggle” does not have any character as Hollywood-ready as Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.” But there is something mesmeric about the book, which shifts back and forth between Knausgaard’s teenage years as his parents divorce, the days immediately following his father’s death, the final weeks of his second wife’s first pregnancy and his experiences as the primary caregiver to his children. “My Struggle: Part 1” is a quiet chronicle of a man’s grappling with domesticity.
When Knaussgard and his brother are left in the care of their father as children, the contrast between his care and their mother’s is clear. “He had prepared the food beforehand, and then kept it in the fridge, and the fact that it was cold made it difficult to swallow, even when I liked the toppings he had chosen,” Knausgaard remembers. “If Mom was at home there was a selection of meats, cheeses, jars on the table.”
While his mother is off in a continuing education program, his father’s housekeeping is desultory, cat excrement littering the sofa in a queasy parallel to the wreck Knausgaard’s father will make of his grandmother’s house when he is drinking himself to death.
On an occasion when the older man does clean, the younger Knausgaard reflects that “Of course he had done it because my mother was coming home. But even though there was a specific reason and he had not done it simply because it had been so unbelievably filthy and disgusting there, it was a relief to me. Some order had been reestablished.”
As a father himself, Knausgaard is more like “one of the softie fathers beginning to emerge and assert themselves [in the 1970s], those who were not averse to pushing strollers, changing diapers, sitting on the floor and playing with children.” But even though he has no desire to be like the man his father became, that does not mean that domesticity comes easily to him.
“As I write, I am filled with tenderness for her,” he writes of his daughter. “But this is on paper. In reality, when it really counts, and she is standing there in front of me, so early in the morning that the streets outside are still and not a sound can be heard in the house, she, raring to start a new day, I, summoning the will to get to my feet, putting on yesterday’s clothes and following her into the kitchen, where the promised blueberry-flavored milk and the sugar-free muesli await her, it is not tenderness I feel, and if she goes beyond my limits, such as when she pesters and pesters me for a film, or tries to get into the room where John is sleeping, in short, every time she refuses to take no for an answer but drags things out ad infinitum, it is not uncommon for my irritation to mutate into anger, and when I then speak harshly to her, and her tears flow, and she bows her head and slinks off with slumped shoulders, I feel it serves her right.”
Like the housewives in Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” Knausgaard discovers that “I am up against a superior force, for no matter how much housework I do at home the rooms are littered with mess and junk, and the children, who are taken care of every waking minute, are more stubborn than I have ever known children to be, at times it is nothing less than bedlam here.”
But the consequences for men of failing to master domestic skills, or worse, of failing to care about them, are severe.
Some of the most affecting passages in “My Struggle: Part 1” are of Knausgaard and his brother Yngve’s confrontation with the detritus of the final years of their father’s life. Both had stopped speaking to him, and when they die, they learn that their father and his mother had effectively barricaded themselves in the older woman’s house, which is full of bottles, soiled clothes and furniture ruined by human waste.
The two men dedicate themselves to cleaning up the ruined dwelling. As disgusting and dispiriting as it is, making that heroic effort is easier than the everyday work of keeping a home clean and cheerful. But that order is worth everything, as the teenaged Knausgaard knew, and as he and his friend recognized one bad New Year’s Eve when their quest for a party has gone awry.
“My feet were frozen,” Knausgaard remembers, “and for a brief instant I was at the point of suggesting we should give the beer a miss, go to his house and celebrate New Year’s Eve with his parents. Lutefisk, soft drinks, ice cream, cakes, and fireworks.” Sometimes it is dreams that small that feel miraculous when, through hard work, they become real.