This is the fourth book in Karl Ove Knausgard’s six part novel/autobiographical writing series. This is the first time in the series that I’ve really felt the importance of the ordering. In the first book, we see how the 30ish year old Karl Ove is dealing with the untimely death of his father. But in this book, we better understand the impact that his father’s personality, parenting, and influence have on the developing teen.
We begin the book with Karl Ove traveling to upper Norway to become a “forms teacher” which basically works out to a kind of temporary teaching position akin to a teaching assistant or tutor. He will be teaching a group of 8 year olds and a group of 13 year old, each class with 5-6 students. Now this wouldn’t seem like such a big deal as a lot of writers began their career with teaching positions, and even as an untrained teacher at that, it’s not that alarming given the informal role that education seems to have in the small fishing village. What is alarming is that he’s only 18, and as we come to learn he’s deeply obsessed with two things that a lot of 18 year old boys are, having sex and getting drunk. This plays a small, but luckily not traumatic role in his teaching.
We begin with him arriving, borrowing bed linens, taking an immediate dislike to the school administrator (whose only concern is that the students are treated well and professionally), and we begin to understand very quickly that while this is an adventure for Karl Ove, he’s not particularly concerned with becoming a good teacher. He’s very defensive in his job, he mistakes his own intelligence for skillful pedagogy, and he takes every single bit of criticism, setback, and friction as a direct assault on his ego. All is going ok until one weekend, looking to meet up with a girl he met on the train into town (and I mean girl — she’s 16), he gets blindingly drunk and wakes up super hungover in his flat with no recall of how he got there. We then take a 200 page detour back into his middle adolescence where drinking and alcoholism, his father’s near abandoning behavior, and the family drama that led him to the north of Norway unfold for us, filling in a lot of gaps that we too had. We close with the return to the fishing village.
What is absolutely wonderful about this book is the sheer honesty of the narration. Karl Ove’s obsessions as a teen boy are so fragilely and eloquently rendered. The narrative perspective and the character are so tied to a teenage consciousness, that he seems entirely without self-reflection (of any real sense) or irony, but the stronger authorial voice of Knausgard the novelist, and our own understanding of events that is stronger and more knowing than the teen boy does create a powerful sense of irony. There’s no precocious self-effacing here; we’re the ones who bring the understanding in.
I don’t recommend this book to anyone who isn’t interested in a sympathetic (if honest) reading of teenage boyhood, especially as Karl Ove at 18 isn’t particularly likeable (he’s at his best around 35 or 40 in my opinion), but if you have been a boy or know boys and know how much they get in their own ways in becoming actual human beings, this book is absolutely brilliant.