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À mon chevet: 'Min Kamp 5'

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

book cover
Life at the institution was not only different from outside, time was too. Standing by the window and looking into the forest, I knew that if I had been there, sitting under a tree and looking over at these buildings, time would have been barely noticeable, I would have drifted as lightly through the day as the clouds across the sky, whereas inside the institution and looking out, time was much heavier, almost claylike, as though here it met obstacles and was always being forced to take detours, like a river traversing a plain before joining the sea, one might imagine, winding its way in countless labyrinthine, meandering bends. [...]

It was no surprise that time went more slowly there, it was a place where nothing was supposed to happen, where no progress was possible, you noticed that as soon as you entered, this was storage, a warehouse for unwanted people, and the notion was so awful that you did whatever was in your power to act as if this were not the case. The residents had their own rooms with their own possessions, which were identical to the rooms and possessions of people outside, they had meals together with their wardmates and caregivers, which was supposed to represent their family, and every day they went to "work." What they created there had no intrinsic value, the value lay in the fact that the work gave their lives a semblance of the meaning lives outside had. And it was the same with everything in their world. What they were surrounded by looked like something, and it was in that outward semblance that its value lay. This became clearest to me on the first Friday when I was doing the afternoon shift and the whole ward was going to a "disco" after dinner. It was to take place in a function hall in the district, a large room with tables and chairs in one half and a dance floor in the other. The lighting was muted, the windows were covered with curtains. Pop music blared out of the speakers, some Down syndrome residents moved back and forth on the dance floor. The place was full of wheelchairs everywhere, gaping mouths, rolling eyes. The residents of my ward sat around a table by the windows, each with a Coke. [...]

This was deeply disturbing. Disturbing because all these misshapen bodies and crippled souls who had been trundled into the discotheque -- the most important space for youth culture, created for dreams about romantic love, charged with the future and potential -- didn't experience any dreams, any yearnings, any electric charges, all they saw was hot dogs and soft drinks. And the music, which was meant to fill the body with joy and happiness, was only noise. When they danced it was just movements and when they smiled it was because it was a charade, now they were doing what normal people did. Everything was like the world as it was, but all the meaning had been stripped from it, and what was left was a parody, a travesty, grotesque and painful. [...]

The mist hung over the trees, the rain was heavy and pummeled the ground, which glinted in the light from windows and lamps. I stood outside the admin building waiting for Gunvor, who was coming to pick me up. The evening sky was gray and shambling, seeming to sink into the countryside. It was beautiful. The pavement was damp, the grass was damp, the trees were damp, and their greenery muted the gray but was still strong and bright. The forest of twisted limbs and disordered minds. With the lights from the windows and the silence among the trees it was as disturbing a place as it was appealing. Everything aroused ambivalence, nothing was clear cut: if all the routines and the slow rhythm in which everything happened occasionally caused me to collapse into a semi-apathetic tedium, it was still always mentally agonizing to be there as well. It was as though I was running and sitting still at the same time, my breathing was accelerated and my heart hammered wildly while the rest of my body was motionless. I wanted to be a good person, full of empathy for those worse off than me, but if they came too close, what I felt for them was contempt or anger, as if their deficiencies touched something deeper inside me.

-- Karl Ove Knausgård, My Struggle: Part 5, pp. 344-48
The most painful, riveting part of reading Knausgård's My Struggle is the unflinching openness of Knausgård's self-regard. He explores his vanity, self-loathing, and personal and professional failures with the same patient scrutiny: his first reading of Dante's Commedia; his youthful approaches toward the alcoholism that destroyed his father, and the multiple embarrassing and dangerous things he does when he is heavily drunk; the art book he looks at to masturbate; his adulterous affairs; and his many failed years completely stymied as a writer. When he lives in Iceland for a short time, he even ends up at a party in Björk's apartment in Reykjavik, where she sits playing tracks on her CD player and he almost throws up on her staircase. By far the most uncomfortable section in the five volumes of My Struggle I have read so far is the account of Karl Ove's time working in a mental health institution as a summer job, excerpted here. I had to put the book down several times during the course of these pages, roughly in the middle of the fifth book, but I could not stay away for long.

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