Misfits, Taggers and Horror Builds Up

This grouping of reviews will puzzle you, perhaps, but the three books provoked a similar reaction in me, albeit with different degrees of discomfort. They are all about misfits, and give a rather brutal picture of Scandinavian societies, which to many of us seem a haven of egalitarianism and tolerance.

somerainKarl Ove Knausgaard: Some Rain Must Fall (My Struggle 5), transl. Don Bartlett

I admit I’m a bit addicted to the long, rambling, self-absorbed outpourings of Knausgaard. It’s a little like reading all your unedited jumble of thoughts (somewhat better expressed). The author is so hard on himself (or on his younger self, which I still believe is a bit of an alter ego rather than his real self), particularly in this volume. Karl Ove is now 19 and has followed his big brother to Bergen, where he will attend the writing academy. He stays in Bergen for fourteen years, during which he feels he is not making any progress as a human being or as a writer, despite his utmost efforts. He has no one but himself to blame: he is constantly sabotaged by his own ego, envy of others, awkwardness, drinking and lust. He feels hurt when others criticise his writing efforts, plagiarises someone’s work, gets drunk and violent, is a lousy boyfriend, tries to be part of a band although he can barely play the drums, doesn’t quite know what to do with himself. This is such a powerful, unvarnished portrait of a young man trying to rise above the average but fearing that there may not be anything of substance within him.

Yes, all the usual criticism of Knausgaard applies: it is overlong, it goes off on tangents all the time, it feels unfiltered like life itself, but it is eminently entertaining and readable. Disquieting? Yes, especially when I read the book below straight after. Unfair to compare Karl Ove with Anders Behring Breivik? Well, in the sixth and final volume of My Struggle, Knausgaard explores that connection himself, looking at the darkness inherent in human nature and the choices young people make. The difference being, of course, that while both Karl Ove and Anders are self-conscious and awkward youngsters who want to believe they are the best, Karl Ove is also self-aware and self-deprecating.

oneofusÅsne Seierstad: One of Us – The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway, transl. by Sarah Death

On July 22, 2011, Anders Behring Breivik detonated a bomb outside the Norwegian prime minister’s office in central Oslo, killing eight people. He then proceeded to a youth camp on the wooded island of Utøya, where he gunned down sixty-nine more, most of them teenage members of the country’s governing Labour Party. In this book, journalist Seierstad explores not only the life of the perpetrator, but also of a few of his victims, and examines the inadequate police emergency response on that day, as well as the debates surrounding his trial and plea of insanity.

We get a glimpse into Breivik’s childhood, his distant father, life with his depressed single mother, attempts to ingratiate himself with the hip-hop community and make a name for himself as a graffiti tagger, a right-wing activist, a successful entrepreneur, and then an Internet game addict and self-styled master warrior who believed he could save Europe from the threat of Islam and multiculturalism. However, Norwegian society is also closely examined: the official rhetoric of feminism and tolerance compared to real-life examples on the ground. We see that Breivik was far from alone in his beliefs, although few were willing to openly voice them and no one else was prepared to take such violent action. And we wonder if it was liberalism or indifference which allowed him to pile up such an arsenal of weapons and bomb-making equipment in a derelict farmhouse.

This was really hard to read at times: detailed, fascinating and distressing in equal measure, and at times it felt voyeuristic and too graphic in its description of the massacre and the grief of the survivors. An important book, however; no doubt about it.

girlbombJari Järvelä: The Girl and the Bomb, transl. by Kristian London

We move to Finland, to the small town of Kotka, near Helsinki. Rust and Metro are graffiti taggers and lovers, always trying to stay one step ahead of the law. Just like in the real-life account of Anders Breivik’s teenage years, the police are cracking down hard on graffiti artists, whom they perceive as ‘vandals’ and often outsource the catching of them to private security firms. As they are being chased one night by these security guards, Rust falls to his death. The guards try to cover up the incident and Metro is determined to take revenge for her boyfriend’s death.

I really enjoyed this short, sharp, clever novel, with its alternating points of view. I liked both of the main characters, feisty Metro and hapless security guard Jere, who only wanted a quiet life but finds himself taking the blame for somebody else. I kept wishing that they weren’t on opposing sides and that there would be an explanation between them and a ‘happy ending’ of sorts. But of course no such happy ending is possible when violence, accusations and misunderstandings escalate. An intriguing peek into an urban subculture, as well as a deep-dive under the seemingly serene surface of Finnish society to the murkiness below.

 

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?