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7.6.14

À mon chevet: 'My Struggle'

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
On one such day Dad decided to teach me how to swim. He told me to follow him down to the water's edge. Perhaps half a meter below the surface, a small, slippery ridge overgrown with seaweed jutted into the sea, and that was where I was to stand. Dad swam out to a reef four or five meters from the shore. And turned to face me.

"Now you swim over here to me," he said.

"But it's deep!" I said. Because it was, the seabed between the two reefs was barely visible, it was probably three meters down.

"I'm here, Karl Ove. Don't you think I could rescue you if you sank? Come on, swim. It's not in the slightest bit dangerous! I know you can do it. Launch yourself and do the strokes. If you do that you can swim, you know! Then you can swim!"

I crouched down in the water. The seabed was a greenish glimmer a long way down. Would I be able to float over that? My heart only beat this hard when I was frightened.

"I can't," I shouted.

"Course you can!" Dad shouted back. "It's so easy! Just push off, do a couple of strokes, and you'll be here."

"I can't!" I said. He studied me. Then he sighed and swam over.

"OK," he said. "I'll swim beside you. I can hold a hand under your tummy. Then you can't sink!"

But I couldn't do it. Why didn't he understand? I started to cry.

"I can't," I said. The depth of the water was in my head and in my chest. The depth was in my arms and legs, in my fingers and toes. The depth filled all of me. Was I supposed to be able to think that away?

There weren't any more smiles to be seen now. With a stern expression he clambered onto the land, walked over to our things, and returned with my life jacket.

"Put this on then," he said, throwing it at me. "Now you can't sink even if you tried."

I put it on, even though I knew it didn't change anything. He swam out again. Turned to face me.

"Try now!" he said. "Over here to me!" [...] But I couldn't. I would never ever be able to swim across that deep water. Tears were rolling down my cheeks.

"Come on, boy!" Dad shouted. "We haven't got all day!"

"I CAN'T!" I shouted back. "CAN'T YOU HEAR?"

He stiffened and glared at me, his eyes furious.

-- Karl Ove Knausgård, Min Kamp, Vol. 3 (translation by Don Bartlett)
I have been racing through each volume of this Norwegian novel as the translation comes out (see my posts on Vol. 1 and Vol. 2). The author was born just about a month before I was born, and one part of the book's appeal is noticing the parallels between our rather different lives as children of the 1970s and 80s. This is likely why many of the things that happened to the author, as I read about them, feel so personal. In particular, the way that imagination and reality are woven together in a child's mind is pitch perfect in this volume, as is the way that young Karl Ove sees human faces and other attributes in everything around him -- the doorknob of his bedroom, a cement mixer standing in his friend's back yard, pencils standing in a jar.

After dealing mostly with episodes of his young adult life in the first two volumes, Knausgård now turns back to the beginning, poring over his earliest memories and what life was like growing up on Tromøya Island in southern Norway. The tense, conflicted feelings the author has for his father, the towering and yet often petty figure whose disastrous decline dominated the first volume, are coming more clearly into focus. Earlier this week, I tweeted that a piece on Knausgård by Joshua Rothman for The New Yorker had suggested the idea of searching the Internet for images of Knausgård's family and friend who are characters in the book. That possibility had never occurred to me, and I was a little afraid that I would regret replacing the imagined characters in my brain with the real people. When I searched for pictures of Yngve, Knausgård's older brother, that was exactly what happened, leading me to tweet again: "Well, looked at pictures of Yngve, Knausgård's brother. Going to stay with the Yngve in my mind, and all the others, too." Yngve Knausgård himself favorited that Tweet and now is following my Twitter account, the first time that a character in a novel I am reading has communicated with me outside of the book.

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