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Karl Ove Knausgaard suddenly found fiction ‘nauseating,’ and drowning in stories. (Dan Hansson/SvD/TT News Agency)
Karl Ove Knausgaard suddenly found fiction ‘nauseating,’ and drowning in stories. (Dan Hansson/SvD/TT News Agency)

Why I read a difficult six-volume diary by a Norwegian novelist Add to ...

Our minds are flooded with images of places we have never been, yet still know, people we have never met, yet still know and in accordance with which we, to a considerable extent, live our lives. The feeling this gives that the world is small, tightly enclosed around itself, without openings to anywhere else, is almost incestuous, and although I knew this to be deeply untrue, since actually we know nothing about anything, still I could not escape it.

Through a child’s eyes again

Back in Toronto, I played snatches of Candy Crush Saga, the computer game to which 93 million human beings are currently addicted, in between bouts of My Struggle. Reading Mr. Knausgaard made me worry that I was not seizing my life, which in turn made me anxious; playing Candy Crush, lining up shapes and colours and making the tiny screen burst with connections and cheers, made me feel better again, at least for a few seconds. But each time Candy Crush lured me away, a wave of self-disgust followed, whereupon – alas I’m not exaggerating – I turned back to Mr. Knausgaard, hoping to cleanse myself.

Sometimes all it took was a single passage. Volume 3, Boyhood Island, is Mr. Knausgaard’s seamless memory of growing up on a freshly minted suburban housing estate in Norway after 1975. He remembers the boundless specificity of childhood, when everything is new to us: the gravel and asphalt of freshly laid driveways (“Oh, that alone, the driveways of childhood! And the 70s cars parked in them!” – that’d be Mr. Knausgaard parodying the conventions of memoir), the distinctive smell of a friend’s house, the way children anthropomorphize everything (“It was strange how all large trees had their own personalities…”), the “immense antiquity” of houses and cars, the thrill of a new pair of running shoes. Childhood is the last time we live entirely and happily within our inner selves.

All you had to do was stick your head out the door and something absolutely fantastic happened. Just walking up ... and waiting for the bus was an event, even though it had been repeated almost every day for many years. Why? ... Oh, because of the wet snow. Because of the wet down jackets. Because of the many good-looking girls. Because of the bus rattling along with chains on its tyres. Because of the condensation on the windows when we went inside...

It crushes me to admit that we notice these details less as we grow older. The fade starts early, at puberty, when we begin to believe the outer world is what matters most, when we start to think we’ve seen it all before. The details are still there, of course. We just panic and pretend they aren’t worth noting any more, because time is running out and we require more instantly affirming thrills, whether it’s Candy Crush or the steady suspense of Breaking Bad or the sluttish come-on of a new e-mail message.

How comforting it would be if Mr. Knausgaard had an easy answer: that if we gave up Parenthood and rededicated ourselves to serious mindfare, all would feel meaningful again. Alas, that’s not the way the human rolls. Even Mr. Knausgaard admits it. By the time he turned 40, he writes, “I hardly read books any more. If there was a newspaper around I would prefer to read that. And the threshold just kept rising. It was idiotic because this life gave you nothing, it only made time pass.” He and his wife mean to watch serious art films, but, when evening comes and the kids are in bed, they gravitate to fluff like the rest of us. “We wanted to be entertained. And it had to be with as little effort and inconvenience as possible.”

In other words, even Karl Ove Knausgaard, the great chronicler of the modern condition, regrets the laziness of his unlived life. But that’s the redeeming trait of the unlived life: It’s still life. If someone takes the trouble to remember the details and write them down for us to read on our own time, in the privacy of our own heads, we get a second chance to live it.

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