Some Rain Must Fall by Karl Ove Knausgaard review – gripping account of early manhood

In the fifth epic volume of Knausgaard’s compelling life story, he learns how to love and not to write

If you did not know better, you would say Karl Ove Knausgaard was teasing. His tremendous, maddening, addictive autobiographical epic has taken his native Norway by storm, drawing comparisons with Proust and becoming an international literary sensation. But in the opening sentence of volume five, he announces that this latest instalment will be about the 14 years he lived in Bergen; he adds that of this period, which begins in 1988, when he is 19, he remembers “surprisingly little”. That ought to make his book, at 672 pages, staggeringly long. But to all Knausgaard fans (a group to which I helplessly belong), the length is expected. We have, in more senses than one, been here before.

The books, written under the title My Struggle, have up to this point been non-chronological. We know about his father’s death (dealt with in volume one, A Death in the Family), his second marriage (volume two, A Man in Love), his beginnings (volume three, Boyhood Island) and his teens (part four, Dancing in the Dark). Knausgaard’s indifference to chronological time is faithful to the way in which he, like most of us, thinks about his life. He keeps reminding us of the way emotions reorder time. And in this gripping account of early manhood, emotions rule.

Here, Knausgaard undergoes a sentimental and literary education. He learns how not to write. At 19, he is the youngest student accepted into Bergen’s writing academy and is in for a bruising. His attempts at poetry are critically mauled and other literary humiliations follow. At one point, in protest, he plans to submit a poem, exclusively composed of the repeated C-word (a friend dissuades him at the last minute). It has been a long road to becoming the writer he is. Today, his particular gift is to combine polish with the spontaneity of the rough draft. His style is transparent, forward-going, not held up by metaphor – Don Bartlett’s translation is outstanding.

Knausgaard shares his thoughts about what he has been reading. James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man thrills him. VS Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival makes him see that a reader can “rest in the prose, the way you can rest under a tree”. He admiringly singles out Adam Thorpe’s Ulverton. But part of the fascination, for English readers, is that he is not English. As a Norwegian, he is, for us – in pretty much everything he does – exotic. He devours contemporary Norwegian fiction with keen, sometimes jealous, interest. For a while, despairing of becoming a novelist, he even turns book reviewer.

Yet why, aside from his acuity as a critic, spend time with him when he is, in other ways, such a loser? He drinks like a rebellious teenager (no wonder he does not remember much) and when inebriated is delinquent: he steals bicycles, betrays girlfriends, gets into fights and self-harms (something that, as we know, he will do later in life too). He is tormented by shame and then drinks again – self-loathing the flipside to his vanity. His tone is self-lacerating, fanatical and often funny, although it is seldom Knausgaard doing the laughing. Of his younger self, he writes: “I knew so little, had such ambitions and achieved nothing.”

But this, of course, is a huge part of the appeal. Reading about someone who is floundering – who makes a hash of things, who breaks his own heart – is cheerier than any self-congratulatory tract.

The next unsolvable riddle is to decide how much of what Knausgaard writes is true. If his memory is as ragged as he claims, his books are astonishingly inventive reconstructions. As early as page three, he describes people walking to and fro in a service station, not an obviously promising subject: “I was filled with an inner exultation, this was precisely what I loved best, the familiar, the known – the motorway, the petrol station, the cafeteria.”

His banal epiphanies satisfy because of his acknowledgment that life includes the random, the inexplicable and the unbeautiful. He understands rogue happiness. This perverse attention to what other writers ignore is part of his charm. Knausgaard even includes walk-on parts that punctuate life, such as when he refers to a passing lady in a fox stole whom he assumes to be mad. She appears once and never again.

Knausgaard is curious about the world outside himself, yet inescapably self-involved. Self-consciousness is his weakness and strength. He could not write as he does without it. When his brother, Yngve, brands a poster of John Lennon in Karl Ove’s room uncool, Karl Ove, chagrined, yanks it from the wall. A despised raincoat makes him look like “a hick from the hills”, but he is stuck with it in rainy Bergen (see the book’s title). He gets work in a mental institution and frets about making “a good impression”. But then, with bald truthfulness, he describes his ill-judged approach to the job. He takes a nightmare walk with Ornulf, an aggressive, legless patient who projects himself out of his wheelchair to crab-walk across a main road, in flight from the author’s bullish attempts to control him.

Knausgaard has further reasons – sexual and otherwise – for self-consciousness. His relationships with women are turbulent and he is unsparing in telling all (“I came too fast, often before anything had happened at all”). But when he meets Tonje (who is to be his first wife), everything changes. They laugh together at the memory of how, during a nervous early date, he admired her decorative ears. There is a touching and unusually sober rightness to the description of their relationship; at the same time, it is an uneasy privilege to know, as we do, what will become of their marriage.

About the impression he makes on the page, Knausgaard is less conspicuously self-conscious. The paradox of writing about self-consciousness is that it blows self-consciousness apart. What remains is self-knowledge: “I knew exactly who I was,” he surprisingly announces. And he allows us to believe we know him better than his wife or his mother do. As a man, Karl Ove Knausgaard may not know where he is going. As a writer he eventually does, and he finds his first publisher before this volume ends. But the eerie thing is that, at times, it is as if we are not within the pages of this book at all, but outside it and in his confidence. We understand that he is ambitious to write a novel that will make his name and we suppress, as we read, the acknowledgment that this achievement, this extraordinary work of which he has been dreaming, is the book we hold in our hands.

Some Rain Must Fall is published by Vintage (£17.99). Click here to buy it for £14.39


Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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