Over the past few weeks we’ve been talking nonstop about this year’s crop of Best Translated Book Award nominated authors, translators, and publishers. Now it’s time for us to take a deeper dive into what this award really celebrates: the beauty of storytelling and the art of translation. Over the next few days, leading up to the announcement of the winner on the 28th, we’ll take a closer look at different aspects of several of the nominated titles.
In which I look back on my experiences reading volumes 1 and 2 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six book autobiographical series titled My Struggle and conclude that volume one is THE SHIT while volume two is quite simply shitty.
My Struggle: Book One / A Death in the Family (March 20, 2013)
At thirty-nine years of age, Karl Ove Knausgaard found himself arriving rather unexpectedly at a crossroads. The author of two successful novels, married for a second time and raising three children, Knausgaard could feel time slipping away from him. As the demands placed on him by life kept increasing, his time spent dedicated to writing his next masterpiece kept decreasing. Faced with the grim realization of his own fleeting mortality, he set out on a quest to reexamine his entire life with the hope that he could find some meaning in it all, that he could arrive at a place of understanding what it all meant by exploring the past and capturing it with the written word.
Don Bartlett’s translation (from My Struggle: Book One):
Soon I will be forty, and when I’m forty, it won’t be long before I’m fifty. And when I’m fifty, it won’t be long before I’m sixty. And when I’m sixty, it won’t be long before I’m seventy. And that will be that.
And so with breakneck speed he embarked on writing his six-volume (!) series of autobiographical novels. Outrageously titled My Struggle in his homeland (that translates to mein Kampf in German for those keeping track at home), this first volume was retitled A Death in the Family in the UK, where it was released in English for the very first time last year as well. In it, Knausgaard spends half his time remembering seemingly every day, ordinary tales from his teenage years, and the other half dealing with the emotional fallout from the death of his father. Both halves feature a concise, almost reporter like use of language, as if the author was reliving his life in an attempt to recreate the circumstances he lived through and the emotions they evoked in order to reclaim them for posterity. It isn’t always pretty. In fact, sometimes it’s downright boring. What makes it interesting, and what ultimately makes it work however, is that Knausgaard holds nothing back.
We all have our own personal hang-ups, our kinks, our quirks. The things that define us, that make us us. Knausgaard isn’t afraid to spend some quality time looking in the mirror and reporting back his findings. He understands that before he can point his potentially poisoned pen at others, he needs to start with himself. He genuinely wants to reach a place of understanding and acceptance, and he’s willing to expose himself first, and then those around him, in a less than flattering light to get there.
The common thread that holds the two seemingly disparate parts of the novel together is the presence of his father. In life, the man is a complicated, flawed human being who can’t make a solid connection with either of his children. In death, he’s an inanimate corpse, unable to think, feel, or talk, yet still holding sway over the lives of his two sons. They need to see the body to accept that his passing is real, but even that confirmation isn’t enough because they’re faced with the realization that they’re left behind to untangle and repair the damage he wrought in life. Not just the physical damage inflicted on house and home, but the mental damage inflicted on them through having survived a lifetime full of both real and imagined abuses.
We live in an age where information has never been more accessible, yet we seem content with hiding death away. It’s almost as if by denying its existence that we somehow feel that we can be the ones to finally rise above it, to somehow escape the eventual fate that awaits us all.
Knausgaard however doesn’t want to turn his back on the end. He wants to face it. He wants to embrace it. He wants to understand it and assimilate it into our everyday lives. He wants to know that he will eventually die, to feel it every waking moment of every second lived, so that life might be somehow bearable, somehow worth living, somehow purposeful. It’s not a bad goal to strive for.
And if you have to tear apart yourself, your friends, and your family to get there? Well that’s just all the more entertaining.
My Struggle: Book Two / A Man in Love (August 19, 2013)
There was a time not so long ago when I was in love with the writing of Karl Ove Knausgaard. Not his two proper novels Out of the World and A Time to Every Purpose under Heaven, which I still haven’t found the time to read, but his more recently translated “autobiographical novel” My Struggle: Book One. In it, Knausgaard obsesses over his own mortality and the death of his father in an unbelievably honest and strangely shocking way. While reading it I felt like I was having a conversation directly with the author. Not that our situations were exactly the same, but for the first time in a very long time I felt like someone actually “got it” and that it was “okay” for me to feel the way I did with respect to my own father.
What a difference a few short months can make.
Question: What’s worse than changing diapers, going to toddlers’ birthday parties, shuffling little ones back and forth between home and day care, and doing all of the other tedious crap that goes along with being a parent?
Answer: Reading 500+ pages about someone else doing it all.
Gone are the thoroughly engaging and chillingly intimate tales of personal woe that made book one feel so damn personal and inviting in the most deeply fucked up way possible and in their place are tedious descriptions of everyday, mundane tasks. Yes, this book is still intimate, but in a different, less satisfying way.
As the subtitle of book two, A Man in Love, reveals, this one is all about love, or more specifically it’s about being in love, or at the very least it’s about being in love with the idea of love itself as this unattainable concept that no one can never hope to grasp, yet should continue trying to attain because, well, that part is disappointingly less clear.
At the start we learn that Knausgaard has tossed aside his current wife Tonje and is desperately pursuing a relationship with a woman who gives his own personal brand of crazy a run for its money. His initial attempt to win this unstable poet named Linda over doesn’t go so well:
Don Bartlett’s translation (from My Struggle: Book Two):
I pulled out the plug, switched it off, went into the bathroom, grabbed the glass on the sink and hurled it at the wall with all the strength I could muster. I waited to hear if there was any reaction. Then I took the biggest shard I could find and started cutting my face. I did it methodically, making the cuts as deep as I could, and covered my whole face. The chin, cheeks, forehead, nose, underneath the chin. At regular intervals I wiped away the blood with a towel. Kept cutting. Wiped the blood away. By the time I was satisfied with my handiwork there was hardly room for one more cut, and I went to bed.
Eventually however he succeeds in his attempts to woo her and the two begin an outrageously unhealthy relationship that leads to a shitload of fights and the birth of three children. Their twisted brand of love (her gouging furniture with knives when she doesn’t get her way, his threatening to abandon the entire family if he can’t continue to lease his own separate apartment to live/write in whenever it strikes his fancy) should make for interesting reading, and it does, but only in very small doses. Mostly however, it makes one wonder: Why are these two people staying together? Why did they decide to bring not one, but three children into this hell of a relationship? Why are they so fucking unhappy?
In the end I was left feeling that Knausgaard never loved Tonje, that he doesn’t love Linda, and that the only person he wants to love is someone that’s completely unattainable because he’s so critically damaged: himself.
A man that is desperate to find a way to love himself and that has dedicated six separate volumes to writing about his failed attempts at it, and the damage he’s inflicted upon others all along the way, can only remain interesting for so long. Not surprisingly this particular one wears out his welcome rather quickly. Not because his brand of crazy-ass-psycho isn’t relatable, but because he comes off as far too whiny and annoying thanks to the needlessly intricate descriptions he continually provides of the repetitive, mundane tasks that he must begrudgingly perform.
Get over yourself? Apparently doing that will take at least another four books. Here’s to hoping that when they arrive in translation, reading volumes 3-6 will be a far more engaging experience.
Of the ten titles that are finalists for the Best Translated Book Award this year, My Struggle: Book Two is the one that most accurately replicates the tedium and repetition of daily life. Hooray? I didn’t particularly care for it, but that said I’m still looking forward to taking a trip to Boyhood Island in a few short weeks. Oof. I promise to never write a sentence like that last one ever again. Boyhood Island is the subtitle of My Struggle: Volume 3 which will be published the end of next month. Honest.