The fraught interplay between the teenage Karl Ove and his father, who is now divorced and living a different life with Unni, his girlfriend, is caught in this extract. One of the first changes the sixteen-year-old notices is the informal way of dress for a formerly carefully put-together man; the second is the steady drinking; the third is that infractions he commits that would have been punished before, such as spilling a drink, smoking, or having another glass of wine, pass by unremarked. The narrator’s disorientation is clear; this is not the father he once knew. However, everything can change back quickly, and the alcohol-induced state of cheerfulness on the part of both adults descends into anger once Karl Ove’s mother is brought up too many times for Unni’s comfort. Abruptly dismissed from their home, Karl Ove boards a bus. He doesn’t dwell on the mood shift any more than we consciously think of the air we breath. The narrative jumps forward a quarter century to when he has possession of his dead father’s notebooks that indicate Karl Ove’s visits, along with other matters.
From My Struggle: Book Four
Karl Ove Knausgaard; Translated by Donald Bartlett
The following afternoon I went to Dad’s. I had put on a white shirt, black cotton trousers, and white basketball shoes. In order not to feel so utterly naked, as I did when I wore only a shirt, I took a jacket with me, slung it over my shoulder and held it by the hook since it was too hot outside to wear it.
I jumped off the bus after Lundsbroa Bridge and ambled along the drowsy, deserted summer street to the house he was renting, where I had stayed that winter.
He was in the back garden pouring lighter fluid over the charcoal in the grill when I arrived. Bare chest, blue swimming shorts, feet thrust into a pair of sloppy sneakers without laces. Again this getup was unlike him.
“Hi,” he said. “Hi,” I said. “Have a seat.”
He nodded to the bench by the wall.
The kitchen window was open, from inside came the clattering of glasses and crockery.
“Unni’s busy inside,” he said. “She’ll be here soon.” His eyes were glassy.
He stepped toward me, grabbed the lighter from the table, and lit the charcoal. A low almost transparent flame, blue at the bottom, rose in the grill. It didn’t appear to have any contact with the charcoal at all, it seemed to be floating above it.
“Heard anything from Yngve?”
“Yes,” I said. “He dropped by briefly before leaving for Bergen.” “He didn’t come by,” Dad said.
“He said he was going to, see how you were doing, but he didn’t have time.”
Dad stared into the flames, which were lower already. Turned and came toward me, sat down on a camping chair. Produced a glass and bottle of red wine from nowhere. They must have been on the ground beside him.
“I’ve been relaxing with a drop of wine today,” he said. “It’s summer after all, you know.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Your mother didn’t like that,” he said. “Oh?” I said.
“No, no, no,” he said. “That wasn’t good.” “No,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, emptying the glass in one swig.
“Gunnar’s been round, snooping,” he said. “Afterward he goes straight to Grandma and Grandad and tells them what he’s seen.”
“I’m sure he just came to visit you,” I said. Dad didn’t answer. He refilled his glass.
“Are you coming, Unni?” he shouted. “We’ve got my son here!” “OK, coming,” we heard from inside.
“No, he was snooping,” he repeated. “Then he ingratiates himself with your grandparents.”
He stared into the middle distance with the glass resting in his hand. Turned his head to me.
“Would you like something to drink? A Coke? I think we’ve got some in the fridge. Go and ask Unni.”
I stood up, glad to get away.
Gunnar was a sensible, fair man, decent and proper in all ways, he always had been, of that there was no doubt. So where had Dad’s sudden backbiting come from?
After all the light in the garden, at first I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face in the kitchen. Unni put down the scrub brush when I went in, came over and gave me a hug.
“Good to see you, Karl Ove.” She smiled.
I smiled back. She was a warm person. The times I had met her she had been happy, almost flushed with happiness. And she had treated me like an adult. She seemed to want to be close to me. Which I both liked and disliked.
“Same here,” I said. “Dad said there was some Coke in the fridge.”
I opened the fridge door and took out a bottle. Unni wiped a glass dry and passed it to me.
“Your father’s a fine man,” she said. “But you know that, don’t you?”
I didn’t answer, just smiled, and when I was sure that my silence hadn’t been perceived as a denial, I went back out.
Dad was still sitting there.
“What did Mom say?” he asked into the middle distance once again. “About what?” I said, sat down, unscrewed the top, and filled the glass so full that I had to hold it away from my body and let it froth over the flag- stones.
He didn’t even notice!
“Well, about the divorce,” he said. “Nothing in particular,” I said.
“I suppose I’m the monster,” he said. “Do you sit around talking about it?” “No, not at all. Cross my heart.”
There was a silence.
Over the white timber fence you could see sections of the river, greenish in the bright sunlight, and the roofs of the houses on the other side. There were trees everywhere, these beautiful green creations that you never really paid much attention to, just walked past; you registered them but they made no great impression on you in the way that dogs or cats did, but they were actually, if you lent the matter some thought, present in a far more breath- taking and sweeping way.
The flames in the grill had disappeared entirely. Some of the charcoal briquettes glowed orange, some had been transformed into grayish-white puffballs, some were as black as before. I wondered if I could light up. I had a packet of cigarettes inside my jacket. It had been all right at their party. But that was not the same as it being permitted now.
Dad drank. Patted the thick hair at the side of his head. Poured wine into his glass, not enough to fill it, the bottle was empty. He held it in the air and studied the label. Then he stood up and went indoors.
I would be as good to him as I could possibly be, I decided. Regardless of what he did, I would be a good son.
This decision came at the same time as a gust of wind blew in from the sea, and in some strange way the two phenomena became connected inside me, there was something fresh about it, a relief after a long day of passivity.
He returned, knocked back the dregs in his glass and recharged it.
“I’m doing fine now, Karl Ove,” he said as he sat down. “We’re having such a good time together.”
“I can see you are,” I said. “Yes,” he said, oblivious to me.
Dad grilled some steaks, which he carried into the living room, where Unni had set the table: a white cloth, shiny new plates and glasses. Why we didn’t sit outside I didn’t know, but I assumed it was something to do with the neighbors. Dad had never liked being seen and definitely not in such an intimate situation as eating was for him.
He absented himself for a few minutes and returned wearing the white shirt with frills he had worn at their party, with black trousers.
While we had been sitting outside Unni had boiled some broccoli and baked some potatoes in the oven. Dad poured red wine into my glass, I could have one with the meal, he said, but no more than that.
I praised the food. The barbecue flavor was particularly good when you had meat as good as this.
“Skål,” Dad said. “Skål to Unni!”
We held up our glasses and looked at each other. “And to Karl Ove,” she said.
“We may as well toast me too then.” Dad laughed.
This was the first relaxed moment, and a warmth spread through me. There was a sudden glint in Dad’s eye and I ate faster out of sheer elation.
“We have such a cozy time, the two of us do,” Dad said, placing a hand on Unni’s shoulder. She laughed.
Before he would never have used an expression such as cozy.
I studied my glass, it was empty. I hesitated, caught myself hesitating, put the little spoon into a potato to hide my nerves and then stretched casually across the table for the bottle.
Dad didn’t notice, I finished the glass quickly and poured myself another. He rolled a cigarette, and Unni rolled a cigarette. They sat back in their chairs. “We need another bottle,” he said, and went into the kitchen. When he returned he put his arm around her.
I fetched the cigarettes from my jacket, sat down and lit up. Dad didn’t notice that either.
He got up again and went to the bathroom. His gait was unsteady. Unni smiled at me.
“I teach my first course at gymnas in Norwegian this autumn,” she said. “Perhaps you can give me a few tips? It’s my first time.”
“Yes, of course.”
She smiled and looked me in the eye. I lowered my gaze and took another swig of the wine.
“Because you’re interested in literature, aren’t you?” she continued. “Sort of,” I said. “Among other things.”
“I am too,” she said. “And I’ve never read as much as when I was your age.” “Mm.”
“I plowed through everything in sight. It was a kind of existential search, I think. Which was at its most intense then.”
“You’ve found each other, I can see,” Dad said behind me. “That’s good. You have to get to know Unni, Karl Ove. She’s such a wonderful person. She laughs all the time. Don’t you, Unni?”
“Not all the time.” She laughed.
Dad sat down, sipped from his glass and as he did so his eyes were as vacant as an animal’s.
He leaned forward.
“I haven’t always been a good father to you, Karl Ove. I know that’s what you think.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Now, now, no stupidities. We don’t need to pretend any longer. You think I haven’t always been a good father. And you’re right. I’ve done a lot of things wrong. But you should know that I’ve always done the very best I could. I have!”
I looked down. This last he said with an imploring tone to his voice. “When you were born, Karl Ove, there was a problem with one of your legs. Did you know that?” “Vaguely,” I said.
“I ran up to the hospital that day. And then I saw it. One leg was crooked! So it was put in plaster, you know. You lay there, so small, with plaster all the way up your leg. And when it was removed I massaged you. Many times every day for several months. We had to so that you would be able to walk. I massaged your leg, Karl Ove. We lived in Oslo then, you know.”
Tears coursed down his cheeks. I glanced quickly at Unni, she watched him and squeezed his hand.
“We had no money either,” he said. “We had to go out and pick berries, and I had to go fishing to make ends meet. Can you remember that? You think about that when you think about how we were. I did my best, you mustn’t believe anything else.”
“I don’t,” I said. “A lot happened, but it doesn’t matter anymore.” His head shot up.
“YES, IT DOES!” he said. “Don’t say that!”
Then he noticed the cigarette between his fingers. Took the lighter from the table, lit it, and sat back.
“But now we’re having a cozy time anyway,” he said. “Yes,” I said. “It was a wonderful meal.”
“Unni’s got a son as well, you know,” Dad said. “He’s almost as old as you.” “Let’s not talk about him now,” Unni said. “We’ve got Karl Ove here.” “But I’m sure Karl Ove would like to hear,” Dad said. “They’ll be like brothers. Won’t they. Don’t you agree, Karl Ove?” I nodded.
“He’s a fine young man. I met him here a week ago,” he said. I filled my glass as inconspicuously as I could.
The telephone in the living room rang. Dad got up to answer it. “Whoops!” he said, almost losing his balance, and then to the phone, “Yes, yes, I’m coming.” He lifted the receiver. “Hi, Arne!” he said.
He spoke loudly, I could have listened to every word if I’d wanted to. “He’s been under enormous strain recently,” Unni whispered. “He needs to let off some steam.” “I see,” I said.
“It’s a shame Yngve couldn’t come,” she said. Yngve?
“He had to go back to Bergen,” I said.
“Yes, my dear friend, I’m sure you understand!” Dad said. “Who’s Arne?” I said.
“A relative of mine,” she said. “We met them in the summer. They’re so nice. You’re bound to meet them.”
“OK,” I said.
Dad came back in and saw the bottle was nearly empty. “Let’s have a little brandy, shall we?” he said. “A digestif?” “You don’t drink brandy, do you?” Unni asked, looking at me. “No, the boy can’t have spirits,” Dad said.
“I’ve had brandy before,” I said. “In the summer. At soccer training camp.” Dad eyed me. “Does Mom know?” he said.
“Mom?” Unni said.
“You can have one glass, but no more,” Dad said, staring straight at Unni. “Is that all right?”
“Yes, it is,” she said.
He fetched the brandy and a glass, poured, and leaned back into the deep white sofa under the windows facing the road, where the dusk now hung like a veil over the white walls of the houses opposite.
Unni put her arm around him and one hand on his chest. Dad smiled. “See how lucky I am, Karl Ove,” he said.
“Yes,” I said, and shuddered as the brandy met my tongue. My shoulders trembled.
“But she has a temper too, you know,” he said. “Isn’t that true?” “Certainly is,” she said with a smile.
“Once she threw the alarm clock against this wall,” he said. “I like to get things off my chest right away,” Unni said. “Not like your mother,” he said.
“Do you have to talk about her the whole time?” Unni said.
“No, no, no, not at all,” Dad said. “Don’t be so touchy. After all, I had him with her,” he said, nodding toward me. “This is my son. We have to be able to talk as well.”
“OK,” Unni said. “You just talk. I’m going to bed.” She got up. “But Unni . . .” Dad said.
She went into the next room. He stood up and slowly followed her with- out a further look.
I heard their voices, muted and angry. Finished the brandy, refilled my glass, and carefully put the bottle back in exactly the same place.
Oh dear. He yelled.
Immediately afterward he returned.
“When does the last bus go, did you say?” he said. “Ten past eleven,” I said.
“It’s almost that now,” he said. “Perhaps it’s best if you go now. You don’t want to miss it.”
“OK,” I said, and got up. Had to place one foot well apart from the other so as not to sway. I smiled. “Thanks for everything.”
“Let’s keep in touch,” he said. “Even though we don’t live together any- more nothing must change between us. That’s important.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Do you understand?”
“Yes. It’s important we keep in touch,” I said.
“You’re not being flippant with me, are you?” he said.
“No, no, of course not,” I said. “It’s important now that you’re divorced.” “Yes,” he said. “I’ll ring. Just drop by when you’re in town. All right?” “Yes,” I said.
While putting on my shoes I almost toppled over and had to hold on to the wall. Dad sat on the sofa drinking and noticed nothing.
“Bye!” I shouted as I opened the door.
“Bye, Karl Ove,” Dad called from inside, and then I went out into the darkness and headed for the bus stop.
I waited for about a quarter of an hour until the bus arrived, sitting on a step smoking and watching the stars, thinking about Hanne.
I could see her face in front of me.
She was laughing; her eyes were gleaming. I could hear her laughter.
She was almost always laughing. And when she wasn’t, laughter bubbled in her voice.
Brilliant! she would say when something was absurd or comical.
I thought about what she was like when she turned serious. Then it was as if she was on my home ground, and I felt I was an enormous black cloud wrapped around her, always greater than her. But only when she was serious, not otherwise.
When I was with Hanne I laughed almost all the time. Her little nose!
She was more girl than woman in the same way that I was more boy than man. I used to say she was like a cat. And it was true there was something feline about her, in her movements, but also a kind of softness that wanted to be close to you.
I could hear her laughter, and I smoked and peered up at the stars. Then I heard the deep growl of the bus approaching between the houses, flicked the cigarette into the road, stood up, counted the coins in my pocket, and handed them to the driver when I stepped on board.
Oh, the muted lights in buses at night and the muted sounds. The few passengers, all in their own worlds. The countryside gliding past in the dark- ness. The drone of the engine. Sitting there and thinking about the best that you know, that which is dearest to your heart, wanting only to be there, out of this world, in transit from one place to another, isn’t it only then you are really present in this world? Isn’t it only then you really experience the world?
Oh, this is the song about the young man who loves a young woman. Has he the right to use such a word as “love”? He knows nothing about life, he knows nothing about her, he knows nothing about himself. All he knows is that he has never felt anything with such force and clarity before. Everything hurts, but nothing is as good. Oh, this is the song about being sixteen years old and sitting on a bus and thinking about her, the one, not knowing that feelings will slowly, slowly, weaken and fade, that life, that which is now so vast and so all-embracing, will inexorably dwindle and shrink until it is a manageable entity that doesn’t hurt so much, but nor is it as good.
Only a forty-year-old man could have written that. I am forty now, as old as my father was then, I’m sitting in our flat in Malmö, my family is asleep in the rooms around me. Linda and Vanja in our bedroom, Heidi and John in the children’s room, Ingrid, the children’s grandmother, on a bed in the liv- ing room. It is November 25, 2009. The mid-’80s are as far away as the ’50s were then. But most of the people in this story are still out there. Hanne is out there, Jan Vidar is out there, Jøgge is out there. My mother and my brother, Yngve – he spoke to me on the phone two hours ago, about a trip we are planning to Corsica in the summer, he with his children, Linda and I with ours – they are out there. But Dad is dead, his parents are dead.
Among the items Dad left behind were three notebooks and one diary. For three years he wrote down the names of everyone he met during the day, everyone he phoned, all the times he slept with Unni, and how much he drank. Now and then there was a brief report, mostly there wasn’t.
“K.O. visited” appeared often. That was me.
Sometimes it said “K.O. cheerful” after I had been there. Sometimes “good conversation.”
Sometimes “decent atmosphere.” Sometimes nothing.
I understand why he noted down the names of everyone he met and spoke to in the course of a day, why he registered all the quarrels and all the reconciliations, but I don’t understand why he documented how much he drank. It is as if he was logging his own demise.
—Karl Ove Knausgaard