My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Karl Body

Photo of the Raleigh Peanut Man, Burnace Jenks. Photo taken by Count Hayes in the early 1970s. County Hayes Photo Collection, State Archives of North Carolina, Raleigh, NC.

A few weeks after the novel was finished life began as a house-husband, and the plan was it would last until next spring while Linda did the last year of her training at the Dramatiska Institutet. The novel writing had taken its toll on our relationship, I slept in the office for six weeks, barely seeing Linda and our five-month-old daughter, and when at last it was over she was relieved and happy, and I owed it to her to be there, not just in the same room, physically, but also with all my attention and participation. I couldn’t do it. For several months I felt a sorrow at not being where I had been, in the cold, clear environment, and my yearning to return was stronger than my pleasure at the life we lived. The fact that the novel was doing well didn’t matter. After every good review I put a cross in the book and waited for the next, after every conversation with the agent at the publisher’s, when a foreign company had shown some interest or made an offer, I put a cross in the book and waited for the next, and I wasn’t very interested when it was eventually nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize, for if there was one thing I had learned over the last six months it was that what all writing was about was writing. Therein lay all its value. Yet I wanted to have more of what came in its wake because public attention is a drug, the need it satisfies is artificial, but once you have had a taste of it you want more. So there I was, pushing the stroller on my endless walks on the island of Djurgården in Stockholm waiting for the telephone to ring and a journalist to ask me about something, an event organizer to invite me somewhere, a magazine to ask for an article, a publisher to make an offer, until at last I took the consequences of the disagreeable taste it left in my mouth, and began to say no to everything, at the same time as the interest ebbed away and I was back to the everyday grind. But no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get into it, there was always something else that was more important. Vanja sat there in the stroller looking around while I trudged through the town, first here, then there, or sat in the sandbox digging with a spade in the play area in Humlegården where the tall, lean Stockholm mothers who surrounded us were constantly on their phones, looking as if they were part of some absurd fashion show, or she was in her high chair in the kitchen at home swallowing the food I fed her. All of this bored me out of my mind. I felt stupid walking around indoors chatting to her, because she didn’t say anything, there was just my inane voice and her silence, happy babbling or displeased tears, then it was on with her clothes and venturing into town again, to the Moderna Museet in Skeppsholmen, for example, where at least I could see some good art while keeping an eye on her, or to one of the big bookstores in the center, or to Djurgården or Brunnsviken Lake, which was the closest the town came to nature, unless I took the road out to see Geir, who had his office in the university at that time. Little by little, I mastered everything with regard to small children, there wasn’t a single thing I couldn’t do with her, we were everywhere, but no matter how well it went, and irrespective of the great tenderness I felt for her, my boredom and apathy were greater. A lot of effort was spent getting her to sleep so that I could read and to making the days pass so that I could cross them off in the calendar. I got to know the most out-of-the-way cafés in town, and there was hardly a park bench I had not sat on, at some time or other, with a book in one hand and the stroller in the other. I took Dostoyevsky with me, first Demons, then The Brothers Karamazov. In them I found the light again. But it wasn’t the lofty, clear and pure light, as with Hölderlin; with Dostoyevsky there were no heights, no mountains, there was no divine perspective, everything was in the human domain, wreathed in this characteristically Dostoyevskian wretched, dirty, sick, almost contaminated mood that was never too far from hysteria. That was where the light was. That was where the divine stirred. But was this the place to go? Was it necessary to get down on bended knee? As usual I didn’t think as I read, just engrossed myself in it, and after a few hundred pages, which took several days to read, something suddenly happened, all the details that had been painstakingly built up slowly began to interact, and the intensity was so great that I was carried along, totally enthralled, until Vanja opened her eyes from the depths of the stroller, almost suspicious, it seemed: where have you taken me now?

There was no option but to close the book, lift her up, get out the spoon, the jar of food, and the bib if we were indoors, set a course for the nearest café if we were outside, fetch a high chair, put her in it and go over to the counter and ask the staff to warm the food, which they did grudgingly because Stockholm was inundated with babies at that time, there was a baby boom, and since there were so many women in their thirties among the mothers who had worked and led their own lives until then, glamorous magazines for mothers began to appear, with children as a sort of accessory, and one celebrity after another allowed herself to be photographed with, and interviewed about, her family. What had previously taken place in private was now pumped into the public arena. Everywhere you could read about labor pains, cesareans and breast-feeding, baby clothes, strollers and holiday tips for parents of small children published in books written by house husbands or bitter mothers who felt cheated as they collapsed with exhaustion from working and having children. What had once been normal topics you didn’t talk about much, namely children, were now placed at the forefront of existence and cultivated with a frenzy that ought to make everyone raise their eyebrows, for what could be the meaning of this? In the midst of this lunacy there was me trundling my child around like one of the many fathers who had evidently put fatherhood before all else. When I was in the café feeding Vanja there was always at least one other father there, usually of my age, that is, in his mid-thirties, and who had a shaved head to hide hair loss. You hardly ever saw a bald patch or a high forehead any longer, and the sight of these fathers always made me feel a little uncomfortable, I found it hard to take the feminized aspect of their actions, even though I did exactly the same and was as feminized as they were. The slight disdain I felt for men pushing strollers was, to put it mildly, a two-edged sword as for the most part I had one in front of me when I saw them. I doubted I was alone with these feelings, I thought I could occasionally discern an uneasy look on some men’s faces in the play area, and the restlessness in their bodies that made them prone to snatching a couple of pull-ups on the bars while the children played around them. However, spending a few hours every day in a play area with your child was one thing. There were things that were much worse. Linda had just started to take Vanja to Rhythm Time classes for tiny tots at the Stadsbiblioteket library, and when I took over responsibility she wanted Vanja to continue. I had an inkling something dreadful was awaiting me, so I said no, it was out of the question, Vanja was with me now, so there would be no Rhythm Time. But Linda continued to mention it off and on, and after a few months my resistance to what the role of the soft man involved was so radically subverted, in addition to which Vanja had grown so much that her day needed a modicum of variety, that one day I said yes, today we were thinking of going to the Rhythm Time course at the Stadsbiblioteket. Remember to get there in good time, Linda said, it fills up quickly. And so it was that early one afternoon I was pushing Vanja up Sveavägen to Odenplan, where I crossed the road and went through the library doors. For some reason I had never been there before, even though it was one of Stockholm’s most beautiful buildings, designed by Asplund some time in the 1920s, the period I liked best of all in the previous century. Vanja was fed, rested and wearing clean clothes, carefully chosen for the occasion. I pushed the stroller into the large, completely circular interior, asked a woman behind a counter where the children’s section was, followed her instructions into a side room lined with shelves of children’s books, where on a door at the back there was a poster about this Rhythm Time class starting here at 2 p.m. Three strollers were already present. On some chairs a little farther away sat the owners, three women in heavy jackets and worn faces, all around thirty-five, while what must have been their snot-nosed children were crawling around on the floor between them.

I parked the stroller by theirs, lifted Vanja out, sat down on a little ledge with her on my lap, removed her jacket and shoes and lowered her gently to the floor. Reckoned she could crawl around a bit as well. But she didn’t want to, she couldn’t remember being here before, so she wanted to stick with me and stretched her arms out. I lifted her back onto my lap. She sat watching the other children with interest.

An attractive, young woman holding a guitar walked across the floor. She must have been about twenty-five; she had long, blond hair, a coat reaching down to her knees, high, black boots, and she stopped in front of me.

“Hi!” she said. “Haven’t seen you here before. Are you coming to the Rhythm Time class?”

“Yes,” I said, looking up at her. She really was attractive.

“Have you signed up?”

“No,” I said. “Do you have to?”

“Yes, you do. And I’m afraid it’s full today.”

Good news.

“What a shame,” I said, getting up.

“As you didn’t know,” she said, “I suppose we can squeeze you in. Just this once. You can sign up afterwards for the next time.”

“Thank you,” I said.

Her smile was so attractive. Then she opened the door and went in. I leaned forward and watched her putting her guitar case on the floor, removing her coat and scarf, and hanging them over a chair at the back of the room. She had a light, fresh, spring-like presence.

I had a hunch where this was going, and I should have got up and left. But I wasn’t there for my sake, I was there for Vanja and Linda. So I stayed put. Vanja was eight months old and absolutely bewitched by anything that resembled a performance. And now she was attending one.

More women with strollers came, in dribs and drabs, and soon the room was filled with the sounds of chatting, coughing, laughing, clothes rustling and rummaging through bags. Most seemed to come in twos or threes. For a long time I seemed to be the only person on my own. But just before two o’clock a couple more men arrived. From their body language I could see they didn’t know each other. One of them, a small guy with a big head, wearing glasses, nodded to me. I could have kicked him. What did he think: that we belonged to the same club? Then it was off with the overalls, the hat and the shoes, out with the feeding bottle and rattle, down on the floor with the child.

The mothers had long since gone into the room where Rhythm Time was due to take place. I waited until last, but at a minute to, I got up and went in with Vanja on my arm. Cushions had been strewn across the floor for us to sit on, while the young woman leading the session sat on a chair in front of us. With the guitar on her lap she scanned the audience with a smile. She was wearing a beige cashmere sweater. Her breasts were well-formed, her waist was narrow, her legs, one crossed over the other and swinging, were long and still clad in black boots.

I sat down on my cushion. I put Vanja on my lap. She stared with big eyes at the woman with the guitar who was now saying a few words of welcome.

“We’ve got some new faces here today,” she said. “Perhaps you’d like to introduce yourselves?”

“Monica,” said one.

“Kristina,” said another.

“Lul,” said a third.

Lul? What the hell sort of name was that?

The room went quiet. The attractive young woman looked at me and sent me a smile of encouragement.

“Karl Ove,” I said somberly.

“Then let’s start with our welcome song,” she said, and struck the first chord, which resounded as she was explaining that parents should say the name of their child when she nodded to them, and then everyone should sing the child’s name.

She strummed the same chord, and everyone began to sing. The idea behind the song was that everyone should say hi to their friend and wave a hand. Parents of the children too small to understand took their wrists and waved their hands, which I did too, but when the second verse started I no longer had any excuse for sitting there in silence and had to start singing. My own deep voice sounded like an affliction in the choir of high-pitched women’s voices. Twelve times we sang hi to our friend before all the children had been named and we could move on. The next song was about parts of the body, which, of course, the children should touch when they were mentioned. Forehead, eyes, ears, nose, mouth, stomach, knee, foot. Forehead, eyes, ears, nose, mouth, stomach, knee, foot. Then we were handed some rattle-like instruments that we were supposed to shake as we sang a new song. I wasn’t embarrassed, it wasn’t embarrassing sitting there, it was humiliating and degrading. Everything was gentle and friendly and nice, all the movements were tiny, and I sat huddled on a cushion droning along with the mothers and children, a song, to cap it all, led by a woman I would have liked to bed. But sitting there I was rendered completely harmless, without dignity, impotent, there was no difference between me and her, except that she was more attractive, and the leveling, whereby I had forfeited everything that was me, even my size, and that voluntarily, filled me with rage.

“Now it’s time for the children to do a bit of dancing!” she said, laying her guitar on the floor. Then she got up and went to a CD player on a chair beside her.

“Everyone stand in a ring, and first we go one way, stamp with our feet, like so,” she said, stamping her attractive foot, “Turn around once and go back the other way.”

I got up, lifted Vanja and stood in the circle that was forming. I looked for the other two men. Both were completely focused on their children.

“OK, OK, Vanja,” I whispered. “‘Each to his own,’ as your great-grandfather used to say.”

She looked up at me. So far she hadn’t shown any interest in any of the things the children had to do. She didn’t even want to shake the maracas.

“Away we go, then,” said the attractive woman, pressing the play button. A folk tune poured into the room, and I began to follow the others, each step in time to the music. I held Vanja with a hand under each arm, so that she was dangling, close to my chest. Then what I had to do was stamp my foot, swing her around, after which it was back the other way. Lots of the others enjoyed this, there was laughter and even some squeals of delight. When this was over we had to dance alone with our child. I swayed from side to side with Vanja in my arms thinking that this must be what hell was like, gentle and nice and full of mothers you didn’t know from Eve, with their babies. When this was finished there was a session with a large blue sail, which at first was supposed to be the sea, and we sang a song about waves and everyone swung the sail up and down, making waves, and then it was something the children had to crawl under until we suddenly raised it, this too to the accompaniment of our singing.

When at last she thanked us and said goodbye, I hurried out, dressed Vanja without meeting anyone’s eye, just staring down at the floor, while the voices, happier now than before they went in, buzzed around me. I put Vanja in the stroller, strapped her in and pushed her out as fast as I could without drawing attention to myself. Outside on the street, I felt like shouting till my lungs burst and smashing something. But I had to make do with putting as many meters between me and this hall of shame in the shortest possible time.

“Vanja, oh Vanja,” I said, scurrying down Sveavägen. “Did you have fun then? It didn’t really look like it.”

“Tha tha thaa,” Vanja said.

She didn’t smile, but her eyes were happy.

She pointed.

“Ah, a motorbike,” I said. “What is it with you and motorbikes, eh?”

As we reached the Konsum shop at the corner of Tegnérgatan I went in to buy something for supper. The feeling of claustrophobia was still there, but the aggression had diminished, it wasn’t anger I felt as I pushed the stroller down the aisle between the shelves. The shop evoked memories, it was the one I had used when I had moved to Stockholm three years earlier, when I was staying at the flat Nordstedts, the publishers, had put at my disposal and which was a stone’s throw farther up the street. I had weighed over a hundred kilos at the time and moved in a semicatatonic darkness, escaping from my former life. It hadn’t been much fun. But I had decided to pick myself up, so every evening I went to the Lill-Jansskogen forest to run. I couldn’t even manage a hundred meters before my heart was pounding so fast and my lungs were gasping so much that I had to stop. Another hundred meters and my legs were trembling. Then it was back to the hotel-like flat at walking pace for crisp bread and soup. One day I had seen a woman in the shop, suddenly she was standing next to me, by the meat counter of all places, and there was something about her, the sheer physicality of her appearance that from one moment to the next filled me with almost explosive lust. She was holding her basket in front of her with both hands, her hair was auburn, her pale complexion freckled. I caught a whiff of her body, a faint smell of sweat and soap, and stood staring straight ahead with a thumping heart and constricted throat for maybe fifteen seconds, for that was the time it took her to come alongside me, take a pack of salami from the counter and go on her way. I saw her again when I was about to pay, she was at the other cash register, and the desire, which had not gone away, welled up in me again. She put her items in her bag, turned and went out the door. I never saw her again.

This is an excerpt from My Struggle: Book Two: A Man in Love, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s fictionalized memoir, translated by Don Bartlett and published by Archipelago Books.

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