A Man in Love begins by pitching us straight into the action, into a bit of a ‘domestic’ in fact, as we join Karl Ove Knausgaard in the middle of a summer holiday in Tjorn, near Gothenburg. The time is July 2008 and these opening scenes paint a candid picture of the reality of Karl Ove’s family life with Linda, his second wife, and their three children (Vanya, Heidi and John). All the tensions of trying to occupy and manage the needs of their three young children are centre stage:
…so twenty minutes later we found ourselves on a high, narrow and very busy bridge, grappling with two buggies, hungry, and with only an industrial area in sight. Linda was furious, her eyes were black, we were always getting into situations like this, she hissed, no one else did, we were useless, now we should be eating, the whole family, we could have been really enjoying ourselves, instead we were out here in a gale-force wind with cars whizzing by, suffocating from exhaust fumes on this bloody bridge. Had I ever seen any other families with three children outside in situations like this? (p. 5)
It’s a compelling opening and one that immediately captured my interest. The book starts at this point and returns to these scenes towards the end. In between these bookends a number of other strands run through the narrative all of which come together to form the crux of Karl Ove’s story.
In one sense – perhaps unsurprisingly given the book’s title – this is a story of how Karl Ove falls in love with Linda. At this point, the timeline flips back to the early 2000’s. Having upped and suddenly left Tonje, his wife and partner of eight years, Karl Ove moves from Norway to Stockholm and reconnects with Linda, a writer he first encountered at the Biskops-Arno writers’ workshop. They meet several times for coffee, the occasional drink in a bar, and while it’s clear they are attracted to one another, they seem unable to express their real feelings in order to move beyond mere small talk. Unable to deal with this paralysis any longer, Karl Ove decides to pour out his heart in a letter to Linda:
I wrote down what she meant to me. I wrote what she had been for me when I saw her for the first time and what she was now. I wrote about her lips sliding over her teeth when she got excited. I wrote about her eyes, when they sparkled and when they opened their darkness and seemed to absorb light. I wrote about the way she walked, the little, almost mannequin-like, waggle of her backside. I wrote about her tiny Japanese features. I wrote about her laughter, which could sometimes wash over everything, how I loved her then. I wrote about the words she used most often, how I loved the way she said ‘stars’ and the way she flung around the word ‘fantastic’. I wrote that all this was what I had seen, and that I didn’t know her at all, had no idea what ran through her mind and very little about how she saw the world and the people in it, but that what I could see was enough. I knew I loved her and always would. (p.194)
I won’t reveal exactly how these two get together, but clearly they do. Here’s Karl Ove in the glow-zone of the first flushes of love:
For the first time in my life I was completely happy. For the first time there was nothing in my life that could overshadow the happiness I felt. We were together constantly, suddenly reaching for each other at traffic lights, across a restaurant table, on buses, in parks, there were no demands or desires except for each other. I felt utterly free, but only with her, the moment we were apart I began to have yearnings. (p 201)
As time passes, however, the heightened intensity of the first flushes of love fades away. Children arrive and A Man in Love taps into Karl Ove’s search for meaning in his everyday existence:
Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, not something that was meaningful or made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change nappies but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it, and always had done. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts. (p. 59-60)
In some sense, I think part of what Knausgaard is trying to do here is to find a way of navigating normality, those flat periods between the peaks of intensity that life throws his (and our) way. We experience periods of extreme emotional sharpness in our lives. Our teenage years where everything is hyper-intense, falling in love, the birth of a child, the adrenaline rush from moments of success, a death in the family. But it’s trying to find meaning and fulfilment in the everyday that presents a challenge for Karl Ove, despite the fact he clearly loves and feels great tenderness towards his family:
At the traffic lights across from us a car was revving, and when I turned my head I saw the sound was coming from one of those enormous jeep-like vehicles that had begun to fill our streets in recent years. The tenderness I felt for Vanja was so great it was almost tearing me to pieces. To counteract it, I broke into a jog. (p. 54)
For Knausgaard, perhaps the key to all this is being able to free up sufficient space and time for his work as a writer…and this topic forms another stand within the narrative. Here, an interview with a journalist causes him to reflect on his frustrations as a writer and difficulties in being able to devote sufficient time to his calling:
I had one opportunity. I had to cut all my ties with the flattering, thoroughly corrupt world of culture in which everyone, every single little upstart, was for sale, cut all my ties with the vacuous TV and newspaper world, sit down in a room and read in earnest, not contemporary literature but literature of the highest quality, and then write as if my life depended on it. For twenty years if need be. (p. 459)
And yet the minutiae and demands of his family life are stopping him, and he lays bare his feelings for the reader to see:
But I couldn’t grasp the opportunity. I had a family and I owed it to them to be there. I had friends. And I had a weakness in my character which meant that I would say yes, yes, when I wanted to say no. no, which was so afraid of hurting others, which was so afraid of conflict and which was so afraid of not being liked that it could forgo all principles, all dreams, all opportunities, everything that smacked of truth, to prevent this happening. (p. 459-460)
This is my first experience of Knausgaard and I found it utterly compelling and addictive. I’ve been reading this year’s IFFP longlist (along with a group of bloggers led by Stu) and as I didn’t have time to start with A Death in the Family – My Struggle: Book 1, I pitched straight in with A Man in Love (book 2 in the series).
I’m finding it a little hard to pinpoint exactly why I found this book so gripping, but I think a large part of it has to do with the sense that these are real people Knausgaard is showing us here. Real people with real names and real lives, that’s how it appears to me. And he’s laying himself bare, exposing his emotions with extreme candour. He holds nothing back, flaws and all. Even though he internalises many of his own emotions and avoids conflict in social situations, we, the readers, gain access to his innermost thoughts right down to their essence.
Maybe there’s also an element of my recognising many of the demands and challenges he describes in raising three small children, all very close to one another in age. I’ve seen the exhaustion and mix of emotions this can trigger in friends and family in similar circumstances.
Part of the appeal (for me) also stems from the way the narrative unfolds. It doesn’t follow a conventional narrative arc and as a reader there’s the allure of not knowing quite where Karl Ove is going to take us next. Alongside the story of Karl Ove and Linda’s family life, children’s parties and wandering around Stockholm with a buggy, he spins off into topics including existential discussions on the meaning of Holderlin’s poems, cultural differences between Sweden and Norway and many more. We meet various friends and family members, all vividly painted in such a way that conveys their distinct personalities and demeanours. There are flashes of painful humour, too; the acute embarrassment and humiliation Karl Ove feels when dancing with Vanya at baby Rhythm Time class; his irritation at Swedish middle-class parents for plying children with wholesome vegetable crudités at a toddler’s party; his encounters with the neighbour from hell. It’s all here.
A Man in Love deserves its place on the IFFP shortlist, and I’m sure I’ll track back and read A Death in Family, along with forthcoming instalments as they appear…I suspect I’m in for the long haul now.
Other members of the IFFP shadow group have also reviewed A Man in Love: Stu, Tony Malone, Tony Messenger and David Hebblethwaite – just click on the links to read their thoughts. This review was first published as a guest post on Tony Malone’s blog (18th March 2014) and Tony has kindly granted his permission for me to republish my review here.
A Man in Love is published in the UK by Vintage Books. Page numbers refer to the paperback edition. Source: library copy.