A Man (a Writer) in Love

KarlOveKI 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.

AmazoncoverIt’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?


13 thoughts on “A Man (a Writer) in Love”

  1. Wonderful post. I’m deep in the trenches these days with a seven-year-old and a two-year-old, who’s currently sick and at home with his mother. If he’s out again tomorrow, it will be my turn to miss work. Between work and family, I get very little writing done, but I do my best not to let it bother me. I turned 40 yesterday and was lamenting to my wife that I hadn’t accomplished much in terms of writing this past year (or the past decade). She looked at me and said, “Well, it’s time to adjust your definition of success.” I agree with her…but I can’t help but feel that tug to create. Ah, well.

    1. Happy belated birthday greetings, Robert, although I know it can seem a killer. (Knausgaard apparently started this outpouring of memoir writing when he turned 40, which was also the age when his father abandoned their family and his brother went through a little mid-life crisis). I take comfort from stories of late bloomers. Tell myself there is still time for masterpieces.

  2. Oh, this is a tough one. And I think the only way the answers are revealed is when you are old. Or older. IF you have paced yourself….from a younger age, when the writing bug, creativity, etc. raised it’s head and would not go back to sleep……

    well, then you have a ‘work ethic’. Always wondered what that really was.

    To me, the earlier years are full of energy, themes, scattered and fried pieces and behavior…and only IF you are doing just a little almost every day throughout the year…can you actually have a body of work later on. But that shove to create must be worked into family, marriage, work, social, etc. It’s not easy, because it is a silent partner, except when it isn’t.

    You raised all the important stuff.

    Lady Nyo

    1. It is tough – and I don’t think I’ll every fully resolve it. Just have to take it one day at a time. Some days I am more selfless, uncomplaining and tough, like my peasant stock ancestors. Other days I go all soft and dramatically navel-gazing. Guilt strikes whichever way I handle it.
      A Zen attitude of letting go of ideals and perfection might help.

    1. Yes, do. I resisted it for a while, because I thought it would be self-absorbed whining of educated white middle class in developed world (as if I don’t do enough of that already!). But it raises very interesting issues, which we grapple with. And I’ve heard that the whole six volumes should be read in their entirety (so far only two have been translated into English).

  3. Very interesting to have a woman’s view on it – I have to say that Linda’s issues didn’t have quite so much prominence in my reading as in yours 😉 Good to see though that you enjoyed it. Obviously it’s not *just* for men…

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