Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Slowly Reading Knausgaard: My Struggle

It was toward the end of the second volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s opus, My Struggle: A Man in Love, that I noticed something strange on my Nook e-reader. Instead of turning at their usual lightening speed, the pages were slowing down. I tapped the lower right-hand corner as vigorously as I could; still, each page stayed stuck for a good ten seconds before moving forward. As any sentient person knows, electronic time is not like ordinary time, say, when you are sitting in your backyard watching the birds at the feeder or talking with a friend over dinner. Waiting for anything to appear online or on a screen is nearly unbearable, even when that wait time is just a few seconds longer than usual.

I’d read the first book of the series in print (also in the English translation) and when I put it down, after the long, visceral, and grueling description of Karl Ove’s father’s death and the horrible state of the family house afterwards, I thought, Okay, it’s a fascinating project and I’m interested in Knausgaard for so many reasons, including why and how his book has become such a phenomenon to people don’t know Norwegian and Swedish culture, but I don’t think I’ll be reading the second book anytime soon.  I felt wrung out and vaguely ill.

Then, late one night a couple of months ago, a kind of Knausgaardian feeling began to come over me, a curiosity about what he might do next. A yearning to be in his world again, to see him smoking outside his apartment building, changing nappies, walking around Stockholm and buying expensive second-hand books, talking with his friend Geir and his current wife Linda. What ever happened with his first wife? And how did he end up in Sweden?

I called up him on the Nook.

I don’t read regularly on my Nook Simple Touch, which I bought a few years ago in protest against the Kindle, but there are many things I love about e-reading. One is the opportunity to read lots of samples, sometimes a good thirty pages, of all kinds of books. This is a brilliant way of getting a feel for all the works of an author and for exploring work by writers I’m unfamiliar with. I don’t buy a huge number of e-books, but I do buy some every month, along with going to the library and continuing to shop at independent local bookstores.

I hit “buy” on My Struggle: A Man in Love that evening and for a few days I read, enthralled and vaguely uneasy, trying to pin down what makes him so readable. For me there’s some nostalgia and recognition at many of the places he describes. I lived and worked in Norway in the early 1970s and returned frequently for long stays after that. I’d once had a friend in Knausgaard’s hometown of Arendal and I know the beauty and loneliness of Southern Norway’s rocky coasts and beaches. I also recall the tedium and narrowness of small-town Norway. I knew the Bergen of the 1980s, too; I had younger friends, Bjørn and Ida, who used to go to Hulen, the club Knausgaard mentions during his university years. As for Stockholm, over the last ten years I’ve been there often; I’ve know those Östermalm streets and I’ve seen those men with baby carriages (maybe I even saw Karl Ove?). Last March in Stockholm I went to the cafe Blå Porten with my friend Hugh and to Zita Bar with Eva; both locales turn up in My Struggle: A Man in Love. (Eva, like others I know in Sweden, assured me that she doesn’t have the patience to sit around reading Knausgaard.)

So there’s the familiarity, the recognition, and also for me the curiosity of reading about a Norwegian in Sweden, uncomfortable at Swedish collectivity, worried about Swedish gender roles and his sense of not belonging. He illuminates something for me, as an outsider who translates, researches, and has good friends in both countries, about what it feels like to be Norwegian, to live in Sweden.

Knausgaard’s writing is sometimes lyrical, sometimes ordinary, and his philosophic and literary ideas often strike me as half-baked. His identification with the great man, nonconformist truth-teller thread in Norwegian literature is vaguely clichéd and self-aggrandizing––Ibsen, Hamsun, and Hauge are among his chosen fathers. One could add Strindberg, too, who also minutely examined his soul in countless works of fiction and autobiography.

Knausgaard gives a nod to older contemporaries, Dag Solstad and Kjartan Fløgstad, important male Norwegian authors he measures himself against; otherwise he’s dismissive of most Scandinavian writers, softened by modern socialism and somehow feminized and coopted by the easy life that popular writers have in Scandinavia. You wouldn’t be getting a good idea, if you only read Knausgaard, that there are significant women authors in Scandinavia and that historically they’ve had much to say about marriage, patriarchy, and unheroic daily life.

My good friend Katherine Hanson, who did her dissertation on the poet Olav M. Hauge, has immersed herself for many years as a translator and commentator on the work of the bold and incisive nineteenth-century writer Amalie Skram. If you want to talk about a writer colliding with social norms, talk about Skram, whose husband put her in an insane asylum, or Norwegian Gerd Brantenberg, whose witty novel from the 1980s, Egalia’s Daughters, sends up gender roles in an imaginary world where women have all the power and men have none. There seem to be no gay or feminist writers, no immigrant voices in Knausgaard’s literary world. His views of Scandinavian literature are weakened by this absence.

All the same, his way of seeing the world and his constructed appearance of honesty and self-revelation are compelling, I can’t deny it. Boring sometimes, but compelling and often memorable. As a reader I can’t help feel the imprint of his sensibility and the rhythm of the words getting under my skin. I engage with him. I engage deeply and sometimes I go back and reread passages, or linger on scenes, or feel I am lingering, because Knausgaard himself is loitering so distinctly on the page. It may not be Proustian (the writing is not often as beautiful as Proust’s), but there is a kind of attentiveness to daily life and its ordinary events that captures the sense of suspended time, a present moment in which other past times exist, in which childhood is conjured up from smells and tastes.

Perhaps it was because of all this Knausgaardian lingering and loitering in My Struggle: A Man in Love that at first I hardly noticed that the pages of my Nook had slowed so noticeably, and that the story or the description took so long to progress, but instead hovered in its digital shimmer longer than normal before moving on, as if in a kind of suspended time.

But at one point, shortly after the scene where the narrator’s cell phone is knocked from his hand on a Stockholm subway platform and seems to fly into a woman’s open purse—a scene that actually did arouse some curiosity on my part as to what happened next—the pages turned no more. I could go back to the beginning and move forward and back, but around page 380, a barrier went up, and all I could get from Nook was an error message, one I’d never encountered before: “Activity Reader is not responding. Wait or force close.”

Waiting was no use, nor were repetitive actions, nor turning the Nook on and off. I began to realize that the problem could be in the e-book itself.

Thus began a correspondence with B&N’s Customer Service over the next three weeks. As with most online businesses that make it incredibly simple to buy things and so complicated to get help should anything go awry, I spent a long time looking for the right contact information. I was oddly thrilled when I got a response the next day that showed I wasn’t just imagining things:

Thank you for contacting Barnes and Noble. We understand that "My Struggle, Book Two: A Man in Love" is showing an error message "Activity Reader is not responding. Wait or Force close". We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.

We have downloaded the same title on our NOOK Simple Touch, and we got the same issue. Thanks for letting us know.

This eBook was not formatted correctly. We will forward this to our NOOK Content Management Team for revision. This will take 1 to 2 weeks to be corrected. You will receive an email stating that the necessary corrections have been applied.


Of course, having been validated so thoroughly, I thought that I would actually receive an email in a week or two; why shouldn’t I believe “Isaac”? But two weeks passed and no email arrived stating that the necessary corrections had been applied. Once or twice I check my e-copy; no, things still came to a grinding halt around page 380. I grew impatient. Surely, with Knausgaard’s importance, other readers must have had this problem? Was this a sign that I was the only person left reading a Nook not a Kindle? Wouldn’t Farrar Straus like to know that eager Knausgaardians had met an error message?

The response to my follow-up inquiry was friendly but of course by someone other than “Isaac.” “Marie” didn’t believe I had a problem. She’d looked at My Struggle: A Man in Love on her company Nook and the pages turned just fine. Obviously she hadn’t gotten up to page 380. Maybe that was true of other readers as well?

So I asked for a refund. And received a lovely letter from “Mickey.”

Warm greetings from Barnes & Noble!

I understand that you would like to get a refund on the eBook entitled "My Struggle, Book Two" that is still having an error after downloading it on your account even though you were informed that the eBook has already been fixed. On behalf of Barnes & Noble, please accept our sincere apologies for any inconvenience this may have caused.

Since you're one of our valued customers, as you requested, we are issuing a refund to your credit card with the amount of $10.89.

Should you have any further concern, please do not hesitate to email us back and we would be grateful to assist you.

I hope that, I was able to address your concern accordingly. It is my great honor and privilege to assist you with this concern.

Take care and enjoy the rest of the day!

Clearly “Mickey” was not a native English speaker, but he was very close. What gave him away was a slight floweriness, a concern for my welfare. And how kind that he offered to address my concern accordingly, that it was an honor and privilege to assist me.

After my refund, the copy I had of My Struggle: A Man in Love swiftly vanished from my Nook library. After some thought I decided to give it another try and ordered a new copy—how simple that always is on the Simple Touch: “Buy. Confirm.” But sadly this copy had the exact same problems as the earlier one: a slowing down, followed by a refusal to budge, and an error message.

I wrote again to Barnes and Noble, complaining mildly, and asked for another refund. Again, a kind reply came back the next morning from “Arren.”

Thank you for writing to us, and we hope you are doing great today. We can certainly understand your frustration because you ordered My Struggle, Book Two: A Man in Love again, but you still encountered the same issue, and you would like to be refunded.

This missed opportunity to give you an enjoyable experience with B&N is something that we could never abide by. As a result of the issue you have recently encountered, and in order to prevent this from happening to you and other customers in the future, we are investigating issues more often and new procedures are being put in place. 

I love this letter about B&N’s missed opportunity to give me an enjoyable experience even though, forgive me, I harbor doubts about new procedures being put in place. Still, I wanted to reassure “Arren” that in the scheme of world events and life’s disappointments, it’s not the worse experience I’ve ever had. I have trouble sustaining the pose of entitled consumer and am easily placated by a refund. I wanted to tell him that in a strange way, the slowing of Knausgaard made sense to me, and that it illustrated, unintendedly, all that was most Knausgaardian about modern life and its peculiar irritations, as well as giving me a sense of suspended time, a yearning to know the future while stuck in the present.

The truth is I had quite liked my correspondence with B&N. The opportunity for enjoyment was not missed at all. The gracious tone of their emails with their hint of Google Translator was so different from what I usually find in my inbox that I delighted in them.

All the same, that very same day I went to my local library and just checked out My Struggle: A Man in Love. And very soon I knew what had happened to that cell phone that went flying out of Karl Ove’s hand.

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