I had read about Karl Ove Knausgård (or Knausgaard, as he has been anglicised) and his scandalously candid and painful memoir ‘Min Kamp’ (My Struggle)before, but it was Tony Malone’s thoughtful review of it which drove me into its arms. I downloaded the free sample chapters from Amazon and read them in one go. I immediately ordered a paperback edition of the book – this was going to be a keeper. Not only did I laugh at the descriptions of my own family holidays and children’s parties, but I also shame-facedly had to admit that perhaps I shared some stylistic similarities with this writer. (Endless sentences, showing off one’s literary knowledge and fascination with trivia, anyone?)
Wry recognition: that was my first reaction to the sharp, witty observations of the daily struggle to balance creativity and family obligations, social life and the desire to be alone, the polarity between the compulsion to write and the frustration of daily chores.
Then gender loyalty kicked in. Wait a minute, what about his wife Linda? Maybe she wanted to be creative too, reignite her writing career? Maybe she too needs to be alone with her thoughts from time to time, or hates Rhyme Time singing with smug yummy mummies? I can recall all to clearly how lost I have felt at school gates, how much of an outsider at playgroups, bored to tears by all the talk about feeding and potty-training, and (more recently) about best schools and 11+ exams. Maybe well-educated women feel a toddler’s conversation is somewhat less fascinating and stimulating when they too could be spouting forth with friends about Hölderlin or the Norwegian/Swedish cultural differences over beer and cognac.
It’s not that most women are happy with or convinced by domesticity: but they simply are realists. There is no other way to raise children in a satisfactory manner. They are just as trapped as Knausgaard himself claims to be, a 19th century man caught in Scandinavian 21st century expectations. Perhaps there is a far more profound and chilling social statement he is making, namely that men in the Scandinavian countries, whom many consider to be a paradise for women and mothers, are experiencing a backlash. They are feeling emasculated by these expectations of equality, which to me feels like an admission of the greater selfishness of modern man (and woman).
The pursuit of happiness as a legitimate and valuable life goal is something quite new in the history of humankind. Our lives were previously so brief, our daily existence so precarious that any joy was a fleeting coincidence. Gritting one’s teeth and getting on with it, self-sacrifice, was the norm, even for my grandparents’ generation. But we are different now – we seek happiness, self-fulfillment, and we often equate that with comfort. That is why we complain so much about the demands of work (although it is often much easier than hard manual labour), the pressures of parenting, the difficulties of writing and creating.
It’s this kind of thinking which the book provoked in me, and it ultimately transcends any petty gender disputes. The reviewer from the Independent got it spot-on with the comment: ‘By closely examining his world, [Knausgaard] gives readers impetus to reflect on their lives. He reveals plenty about himself… but the people we learn most about … are ourselves.’
The book, to me, raises questions about the intrinsic selfishness of all true creators or inventors, anyone who is single-mindedly pursuing an artistic or scientific goal. Art (or science) is an exacting mistress, demanding so much of you that she leaves little room for anything else, whether you are a man or a woman. Darwin, Tolstoy, Dickens – those bearded patriarchs with large families, who ostensibly managed to have both – were in fact helped by stoic wives in the background, taking over all family responsibilities so that the man of genius could show his genius.
And, as fewer and fewer partners are willing to accept this background role (nor should they), I wonder what will happen with that fierce mistress? Will she cave in, become more sensible and puny, ease her demands? Or will all great artists have to resign themselves to a life of solitude or of dysfunctional families?