Dancing in the Dark by Karl Ove Knausgaard, book review: Mysticism interrupts minutiae

Knausgaard's talent and torment focus, and finally ignite, an everyday story of growing up smart, but growing up sad

Boyd Tonkin
Thursday 05 March 2015 01:00 GMT
Delivers a knockout kick: Karl Ove Knausgaard
Delivers a knockout kick: Karl Ove Knausgaard

In one of the heart-to-heart chats with his beloved mum that bring Karl Ove Knausgaard's teenage rhapsody down to earth, the young pseud "went on about the meaninglessness of all things" until – wait for it – "she burst into an uncontrollable fit of laughter".

More often than in the first three volumes of his six-part intimate odyssey, the reader will share mum's mirth – just as the grown-up Karl Ove intends. The white-hot autobiographical furnace of his My Struggle sequence has so enthralled readers across the world that they may overlook the ever-changing variety of moods in this epic fiction. That certainly includes comic bathos.

For all sulky adolescents, the sublime stands a hair's-breadth away from the ridiculous. In volume four, as the music-mad kid leaves school at 18 to work for a year as an unqualified schoolteacher in the far north of Norway, pathos endlessly fuses with farce. Thus a graphic account of a post-party puke ("the muscles in my stomach writhed like snakes...") segues into a 200-page flashback. Looking back in anger and tenderness, this section ties young Karl Ove's alcoholic blackouts with his terrifying father's booze-fuelled slow-motion suicide.

This interlude divides the chronicle of a year of amateurish pedagogy in the rough-and-ready fishing village of Hafjord. In this lonely but sociable backwater, the apprentice teacher, progressive-rock buff and would-be author seeks to "cross the line" into adulthood. The wide-screen, storm-swept Arctic landscape impresses even the priggish avant-garde rebel who treats nature as a "cliché". Through Dancing in the Dark, mysticism interrupts minutiae.

Drink-by-drink, grope-by-grope inventories of bashes and binges, along with the fumbling encounters with village girls that conclude them, suddenly give way to electrifying insight into the beauty of each moment: "I was here now, I was experiencing this and then I would die". Absurdly, poignantly, Karl Ove's reluctant virginity towers in front of him like some unconquerable "Mount Everest". He meets plenty of spirited and willing girls, each drawn with fondness and finesse, but suffers one overriding problem: premature ejaculation. Predictably, perhaps, the book reaches its anti-climactic climax with Everest scaled in a rock-festival tent.

At this point, in the mid- to late-Eighties, Prince, Bowie, Talking Heads and U2 accompany our young knight on his quest for the perfect short story, the trail-blazing concept album or the girlfriend with whom he can, finally, stay the course. "Music was the rope" that bound memories together and kept his life in place. During the flashback to his last years at school, he works as a snarling record reviewer while trying to absorb the shock of his parents' separation. It's not so much a case of anarchy in Norway as "chaos" in a shattered family.

Boozing to excess, just like dad, helps Karl Ove to dull the pain of domestic breakdown and bridge the chasm between his dreams of "the great rock'n'roll lifestyle" (literary branch) and his urge to be "a clever student, a decent son, a good person". Like every other teen, only more so, he finds that "the real 'mes' were irreconcilable". Both his talent and his torment focus, and finally ignite, an everyday story of growing up smart, but growing up sad. At the end of this bittersweet stint in the far north, translated again with both dynamism and delicacy by Don Bartlett, the last track invoked happens to be that talisman of the late John Peel: "Teenage Kicks" by The Undertones. For all its manic over-dub of detail, Dancing in the Dark delivers a knockout kick.

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