Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/5/2015 (819 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Since A Death in the Family -- the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard's six-volume, semi-autobiographical series My Struggle -- was initially released in English, transfixed critics and readers have attempted to explain precisely why the meandering, drama-deficient 3,600-page series is not only a massive bestseller and cultural touchstone in its native Norway, but also why it's an utterly absorbing, possibly essential literary experience in any language.
That effort to explain and advocate for its mystifying power will continue with the just-released translation of the fourth volume, Dancing in the Dark, as the scope and daring of the endeavour once again both supports and opposes its seemingly mundane subject matter: the inner life of the author.
In the loose manner that the preceding volumes organized themselves around a chronological period in Knausgaard's life (or "Knausgaard's" life -- the series is ostensibly fiction, though the presentation aggressively indicates memoir), Dancing in the Dark focuses largely on the author's time, almost directly out of high school, teaching in a remote town in Norway. While there, his initial desire to seclude himself and focus on his writing comes into conflict with the weight and nature of his sexual desires and his ongoing issues with alcohol.
While those details may sound potentially salacious and dramatic in point form, readers familiar with the previous volumes will know that is hardly the path Knausgaard walks. As A Death in the Family spent its first two-thirds on endless digressions before even considering its critical event -- the decline and death of the narrator's father due to alcoholism -- so too does Dancing in the Dark elevate visits to the convenience store or the release of a new Prince album to the same level and intensity of examination as any of the larger concerns.
The effect of that sustained intensity is what makes the work both satisfying and, to some, endlessly frustrating: it shows a mind that is restless and unedited, constantly absorbing and reacting to the scroll of time and activity. And though it makes not a single nod towards universality -- it is a distinctly male, distinctly northern European narrative, and doesn't ever position itself as a voice for something larger -- the unsettled, self-centred and sometimes outright simplistic narrative seems alarmingly accurate and bewilderingly fresh.
As such, it's difficult to find a comparison point for the book. As a whole, Knausgaard's immensely intimate project has been compared regularly to Marcel Proust's equivalently focused (and proportioned) In Search of Lost Time. But where Proust hypnotized the reader with lessons and language, My Struggle takes the more humble, and sometimes more slovenly, approach of laying down the basics of a person's mental life unadorned, complete with plain and occasionally clichéd language, distasteful or meaningless asides, and literal track listings and shopping lists.
Additionally, memory -- both its intoxicating power and its shocking malleability -- is never the focus for Knausgaard in the manner that it is for the perpetually adrift Proust. There is nothing dreamlike in Knausgaard's presentation, even when specifically describing dreams; past events, internal and external, are presented harshly and concretely, and the emotions of the past are not editorialized by the narrator in the present.
But perhaps what sets it apart the most is how casually Knausgaard marries the ego and audacity required to undertake a project like this at all to the pitiless, unflinching self-revelation that makes it readable and (sometimes distressingly) relatable.
Somewhere in that space between ludicrous ambition and microscopic examination, the series spins literary straw into odd, but beautiful, gold.
Doug McLean is a Winnipeg writer and musician.