Your Struggle: Karl Ove Knausgaard Helps You Navigate the School Yard
From The Paris Review for Young Readers, Issue 1, Spring 2015
Dear Karl Ove,
Whenever I’m in school, I’m worried the teacher will call on me. Even when I know the answer, I get scared thinking I’ll have to talk in class. Sometimes I get so nervous I feel like I’m not there at all. Suddenly I can’t remember what to say or where I am, and the other kids laugh at me and the whole room gets shaky. Help!
Dear Nervous Nicole,
I know what you mean. I’ve experienced blackouts ever since I first started drinking. That was the summer I finished tenth grade, at the Norway Cup, when I just laughed and laughed, a momentous experience; being drunk took me to places where I was free and did what I wanted while it raised me aloft and rendered everything around me wonderful. Only recalling bits and pieces afterward, isolated scenes brightly illuminated against a wall of darkness, through which I emerged and disappeared again, was the norm. And so it went on. The following spring I went to the carnival with Jan Vidar, Mom had made me up as Bowie’s Aladdin Sane, the town was heaving with people wearing curly black wigs, hot pants, and sequins, everywhere there was the throb of samba drums, but the air was cold, people were stiff, there was a huge amount of embarrassment to be overcome all the time, and this was visible in the processions, people were squirming rather than dancing, they wanted to feel emancipated, that was what this was about, they were not, they wanted to be, this was the 1980s, this was the new liberated and forward-looking era in which everything Norwegian was pathetic and everything Mediterranean was alive and free, when the sole TV channel that had informed the Norwegian population for twenty years about what one small circle of educated people in Oslo considered important for them to know was suddenly joined by new, very different TV channels that took a lighter approach, they wanted to entertain, and they wanted to sell, and from then on these two entities fused: entertainment and sales became two sides of the same coin and subsumed everything else, which also became entertainment and sales, from music to politics, literature, news, health, in fact everything. The carnival marked this transition, a nation moving away from the seriousness of the seventies to the levity of the nineties, and this transition was visible in the awkward movements, in the nervous eyes and the wild triumphant looks of those who had overcome this awkwardness and nervousness and were now wiggling their lean bottoms on the backs of the trucks that crawled through Kristiansand’s streets on this cold spring morning with a light drizzle in the air. That was how it was in Kristiansand and that was how it was in all the other towns in Norway of any size and any self-respect. Carnival was the rage and would become a tradition, they said, every year these stiff white men and women would affirm their emancipation to the best of their ability on trucks, decked out as Mediterraneans, dancing and laughing to the drums that former school-brass-band musicians played with such a seductive hypnotic beat.
Even two sixteen-year-olds like Jan Vidar and me understood that this was sad. Of course there was nothing we wanted more than a Mediterranean-style explosion in our day-to-day reality, for there was nothing we yearned for more than inviting tits and asses, music and fun, and if there was anything we wanted to be it was dark-skinned, confident men who took these women at will. We were against meanness and all for generosity, we were against constraints and for openness and freedom. Nevertheless we saw these processions and were overcome by sadness on behalf of our town and country because there was an unbelievable lack of pride about all this, indeed it was as if the whole town was making a fool of itself, without realizing. But we did realize and we were sad as we strolled around, each with half a bottle of spirits in an inside pocket, becoming more and more drunk and cursing our town and the idiotic people in it while always keeping an eye open for faces we knew and could perhaps get together with. That is, girls’ faces, or in a pinch boys’ faces we knew who were with girls’ faces we didn’t know. Our project was doomed, we were never going to meet girls this way, but we didn’t give up as long as there was a glimmer of hope, we strolled on, getting drunker and drunker, more and more depressed. And then, at some point, I disappeared from myself. Not from Jan Vidar, he could see me of course, and when he said something to me he received an answer so he imagined that everything was as it should be, but it wasn’t, I had disappeared, I was empty, I was in the void of my soul, there was no other way for me to describe it.
Who are you when you don’t know you exist? Who were you when you didn’t remember that you existed? When I woke up in the apartment in Elvegaten the following day and knew nothing about anything it felt as if I had been let loose in the town. I could have done anything because when I was as drunk as I was there were no longer any limits in me, I did everything that entered my head, and indeed what would not enter a person’s head?
I hope this answers your question.
Karl Ove Knausgaard
To read more of this piece, purchase the issue.