Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle needs no introduction, but we’ll give you one anyway. In Book Four of his celebrated, hypnotic six-volume novel, Knausgaard has been hired as a schoolteacher in Håjford, a tiny fishing village in the northern reaches of Norway, where, living alone for the first time, he’s overtaken by his teenage obsessions and overwhelmed by the Arctic’s hibernal darkness. Jeffrey Eugenides describes the spirit of Book Four as “a cry from a kid with an amazing record collection who dreams of being a writer, written by the great writer he finally becomes.” What follows are the opening pages of Book Four, now out in paperback.
Slowly my two suitcases glided around on the carousel in the arrivals hall. They were old, from the end of the 1960s, I had found them among Mom’s things in the barn when we were about to move, the day before the removal van came, and I immediately commandeered them, they suited me and my style, the not-quite-contemporary, the not-quite-streamlined, which was what I favored.
I stubbed the cigarette out in the ashtray stand by the wall, lifted the cases off the carousel, and carried them outside.
It was five minutes to seven.
I lit another cigarette. There was no hurry, there was nothing I had to do, no one I had to meet.
The sky was overcast, but the air was still sharp and clear. There was something alpine about the landscape even though the airport I was standing outside was only a few meters above sea level. The few trees I could see were stunted and misshapen. The mountain peaks on the horizon were white with snow.
Just in front of me an airport bus was quickly filling up with people.
Should I catch it?
The money Dad had so reluctantly lent me for the journey would tide me over until I got my first paycheck in a month. On the other hand, I didn’t know where the youth hostel was, and wandering blindly around an unfamiliar town with two suitcases and a backpack would not be a good start to my new life.
No, better take a taxi.
• • •
Apart from a short walk to a nearby snack bar stand, where I consumed two sausages with mashed potatoes in a cardboard tray, I stayed in the youth hostel room all evening, lying with the duvet over my back and listening to music on my Walkman while writing letters to Hilde, Eirik, and Lars. I started one to Line as well, the girl I had spent all summer with, but set it aside after one page, undressed, and switched off the light, for all the difference that made, it was a light summer night, the orange curtain glowed in the room like an eye.
Usually I would fall asleep at once wherever I was, but that night I lay awake. In just four days I would be starting my first job. In just four days I would be entering a classroom in a small village on the coast of northern Norway, a place I had never been and knew nothing about, I hadn’t even seen any pictures.
An eighteen-year-old Kristiansander, who had just finished gymnas, who had just moved away from home, with no experience of working other than a few evenings and weekends at a parquet-flooring factory, a bit of journalism on a local paper, and a month at a psychiatric hospital this summer, I was about to become a teacher at Håfjord School.
No, I couldn’t sleep.
What would the pupils think of me?
When I went into the classroom for the first lesson and they were sitting there in their chairs in front of me, what would I say to them?
And the other teachers, what on earth would they make of me?
A door was opened in the corridor, releasing the sound of music and voices. Someone walked along quietly singing. There was a shout: “Hey, shut the door.” Afterward all the noise was enclosed again. I rolled over onto my other side. The strangeness of lying in bed under a light sky must have played a part in my not being able to fall asleep. And once the thought was established that it was difficult to sleep, it became impossible.
I got up, pulled on my clothes, sat in the chair by the window, and began to read. Dead Heat by Erling Gjelsvik.
All the books I liked were basically about the same topic. White Niggers by Ingvar Ambjørnsen, Beatles and Lead by Lars Saabye Christensen, Jack by Alf Lundell, On the Road by Jack Kerouac, Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, Jr., Novel with Cocaine by M. Ageyev, Colossus by Finn Alnæs, Lasso Round the Moon by Agnar Mykle, The History of Bestiality trilogy by Jens Bjørneboe, Gentlemen by Klas Östergren, Icarus by Axel Jensen, The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, Humlehjertene by Ola Bauer, and Post Office by Charles Bukowski. Books about young men who struggled to fit in to society, who wanted more from life than routines, more from life than a family, basically, young men who hated middle-class values and sought freedom. They traveled, they got drunk, they read, and they dreamed about their life’s great passion or writing the great novel.
Everything they wanted I wanted, too.
The great longing, which was ever present in my breast, was dispelled when I read these books, only to return with renewed vigor the moment I put them down. It had been like that all the way through my latter years at school. I hated all authority, was an opponent of the whole limited society I had grown up in, with its bourgeois values and materialistic view of humanity. I despised what I had learned at gymnas, even about literature; all I needed to know, all true knowledge, the only really essential knowledge, was to be found in the books I read and the music I listened to. I wasn’t interested in money or status symbols; I knew that the essential value in life lay elsewhere. I didn’t want to study, had no wish to receive an education at a conventional institution like a university, I wanted to travel down through Europe, sleep on beaches, in cheap hotels, or with friends I made on the way. Take odd jobs to survive, wash dishes at hotels, load or unload boats, pick oranges . . . That spring I had bought a book containing lists of every conceivable, and inconceivable, kind of job you could get in various European countries. But all of this was to culminate in a novel. I would spend some time writing in a Spanish village, go to Pamplona and run the bulls, continue on down to Greece and write on one of the islands, and then, after a year or two, return to Norway with a novel in my backpack.
That was the plan. That was why I didn’t do my military service when gymnas was over, like so many of my friends had done, nor did I enroll at university, as the rest had done, instead I went to the employment office in Kristiansand and asked for a list of all the teaching opportunities in northern Norway.
“Hear you’re going to be a teacher, Karl Ove,” people I saw at the end of the summer said.
“No,” I answered. “I’m going to be a writer. But I have to have something to live off in the meantime. I’ll work up there for a year, put some money aside, and then travel down through Europe.”
This was no longer an idea in my head but the reality I was in: tomorrow I would go to the harbor in Tromsø, catch the express boat to Finnsnes and then the bus south to the tiny village of Håfjord, where the school caretaker would be waiting to welcome me.
No, I couldn’t sleep.
I took the half bottle of whiskey from my suitcase, got a glass from the bathroom, poured, drew the curtain aside, and took a first shivering sip as I gazed at the strangely light housing estate outside.
• • •
When I woke around ten the following morning my nerves were gone. I packed my things, called for a taxi from the pay phone in the reception, stood outside with my suitcases at my feet, and smoked as I waited. This was the first time in my life I had traveled anywhere without having to return. There was no “home” to return to. Mom had sold our house and moved to Førde. Dad lived with his new wife farther north, in northern Norway. Yngve lived in Bergen. And, as for me, I was on my way to a first flat of my own. There I would have my own job and earn my own money. For the very first time I had control of all the elements in my life.
Oh, how incredibly good it felt!
The taxi came up the hill, I threw the cigarette butt to the ground, crushed it, and put the suitcases in the trunk, which the driver—a plump elderly man with gray hair and a gold necklace—had opened for me.
“The harbor, please,” I said, climbing into the back.
“The harbor’s a big place,” he said, turning to me.
“I’m going to Finnsnes. On the express boat.”
“That can be done, no problem.”
He set off downhill.
“Are you going to the gymnas there?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “I’m going on to Håfjord.”
“Oh? Fishing? You don’t look much like a fisherman!”
“Actually, I’m going there to teach.”
“That’s right. A lot of southerners do that. But aren’t you pretty young to have a job like that? Don’t you have to be eighteen?”
He laughed and looked at me in the mirror.
I gave a short laugh, too.
“I left school in the summer. I figure that’s better than nothing.”
“Yes, I’m sure you’re right,” he said. “But think of the kids growing up there. Teachers right out of gymnas. New ones every year. No wonder they give up on school after ninth grade and go fishing!”
“Yes, I guess it isn’t that surprising,” I said. “But it’s not my fault.”
“No, not at all. And fault? Who’s talking about blame! Fishing’s a much better life than studying, you know! Much better than hanging around studying until you’re thirty.”
“You’re right. I’m not going to study.”
“But you’re going to be a teacher!”
He looked at me in the mirror again.
“Yes,” I said.
There was silence for a few minutes. Then he took his hand off the gearshift and pointed.
“Down there, there’s your express boat.”
He stopped outside the terminal, set my suitcases on the ground, and closed the trunk again. I gave him the money, not knowing what to do about a tip, I had been dreading this the whole journey and solved the problem by saying that he could keep the change.
“Thank you!” he said. “And good luck!”
Bye-bye, fifty kroner.
As he rejoined the road, I stood counting the money I had left. I didn’t have much, but I could probably get an advance, surely they would understand that I wouldn’t have any money before the job started?
• • •
With its one main street, numerous plain concrete buildings, probably hastily erected, and its barren environs girdled by mountain ranges in the distance, Finnsnes, it struck me a few hours later, sitting in a patisserie with a cup of coffee in front of me and waiting for the bus to leave, looked more like a tiny village in Alaska or Canada than Norway. There wasn’t much of a center, the town was so small that everything had to be considered the center. The atmosphere was quite different here from in the towns I was used to, because Finnsnes was so much smaller, of course, but also because no effort had been made anywhere to make the place look inviting or homey. Most towns had a front and a back, but here everything looked pretty much the same.
I leafed through the two books I’d bought in the nearby shop. One was called The New Water by a writer unfamiliar to me, Roy Jacobsen; the other was The Mustard Legion by Morten Jørgensen, who had played in a couple of the bands I had followed a few years ago. Perhaps it hadn’t been such a good idea to spend my money on them, but after all I was going to be a writer, I had to read, if only to see how high the bar was set. Could I write like that? This was the question that kept running through my brain as I sat there flipping through the pages.
Then I ambled over to the bus, had a last smoke outside, put my suitcases in the luggage compartment, paid the driver, and asked him to tell me when we were in Håfjord, walked down the aisle, and sat on the penultimate seat on the left, which had been my favorite for as long as I could remember.
Across from me sat a lovely fair-haired girl, perhaps one or two years younger than me, she had her satchel on the seat, and I imagined she went to the gymnas in Finnsnes and was on her way home. She had looked at me when I got onto the bus, and now, as the driver shifted into first gear and pulled away from the stop with a jerk, she turned to look at me again. Not lingeringly, no more than a glance, and barely a fleeting one at that, but still it was enough to give me a boner.
I put on my headset and inserted a cassette into the Walkman. The Smiths, The Queen Is Dead. So as not to appear intrusive, I concentrated on staring out the window on my side for the first few kilometers and resisted all impulses to look in her direction.
After passing through a built-up area, which began as soon as we left the center and extended for quite a distance, where around half the passengers got off, we came to a long, deserted, straight stretch. Whereas the sky above Finnsnes had been pale, covering the town beneath with its vapid light, here the shade of blue was stronger and deeper, and the sun hanging over the mountains to the southwest—whose low but steep sides obscured a view of the sea that had to be there—caused the red-flecked, in places almost purple, heather, which grew densely on either side of the road, to glow. The trees here were for the most part deformed pines and dwarf birches. On my side the green-clad mountains the valley rose up to meet were gentle, hills almost, while those on the other were steep and wild and alpine, although of no great height.
Not a person, not a house, was to be seen.
But I hadn’t come here to meet new people; I had come to find the peace I needed to write.
The thought sent a flash of pleasure through me.
I was on my way, I was on my way.
A couple of hours later, still engrossed in music, I saw a signpost up ahead. From the length of the name I concluded it had to be Håfjord. The road it pointed to led straight into the mountainside. It was not so much a tunnel, more a hole, the walls seemed to have been blasted out, and there was no light in there, either. Water streamed down from the roof of the tunnel in such quantities that the driver had to turn on the windshield wipers. When we emerged on the other side, I gasped. Between two long rugged chains of mountains, perilously steep and treeless, lay a narrow fjord, and beyond it, like a vast blue plain, the sea.
The road the bus followed hugged the mountainside. To see as much of the landscape as I could I stood up and crossed to the other row of seats. From the corner of my eye I noticed the fair-haired girl turn toward me and smile when she saw me standing there with my face pressed against the window. Below the mountains opposite there was a small island, densely packed with houses on its inner landward side, completely deserted on the outer side, at least that was how it looked from this distance. There were some fishing boats moored inside a harbor with a mole around it. The mountains continued for perhaps a kilometer. Closest to us, the slopes were clad in green, but farther away they were completely bare and gray and fell away with a sheer drop into the sea.
The bus passed through another grotto-like tunnel. At the other end, on a relatively gentle mountain slope, in a shallow bowl, lay the village where I would be spending the next year.
Oh my God.
This was spectacular!
Most of the houses huddled around a road that wound its way through the village like a U. Beneath the road at the bottom was what looked like a factory building in front of a quay, it must have been the fish-processing plant, beyond it there were lots of boats. At the end of the U stood a chapel. Above the road at the top was a line of houses, behind them were dwarf birches, heather, and scrub up to the point where the valley stopped and a large mountain rose on either side.
That was it.
Well, almost: above the point where the top road met the lower one, right by the tunnel, there were two large buildings, which had to be the school.
“Håfjord!” said the bus driver. I stuffed my headset into my pocket and walked up the aisle, he followed me down the steps and opened the door to the luggage compartment, I thanked him, he said no problem without a smile and climbed back up, whereupon the bus turned in the square and reentered the tunnel.
With a suitcase in each hand and a seaman’s kit bag on my back, I first looked up, then down the road for the caretaker while drawing the fresh, salty air deep into my lungs.
A door in the house right opposite the bus stop opened. Out came a small man dressed in only a T-shirt and jogging pants. From the direction he was heading, I could see this was my man.
Apart from a little wreath of hair around his ears, he was completely bald. His face was gentle, his features were pronounced, as happens when you are in your fifties, but the eyes behind the glasses were small and piercing, and it struck me as he approached that in a way they didn’t quite match the rest.
“Knausgaard?” he said, proffering his hand but without looking me in the eye.
“Yes,” I said, and took it. Small and dry and pawlike. “And you must be Korneliussen?”
“That’s right,” he said with a smile, his arms down by his sides, taking in the view. “What do you think?”
“About Håfjord?” I asked.
“Nice, isn’t it?” he said.
“Fantastic,” I said.
He turned, looked up, and pointed.
“You’ll be living there,” he said. “So we’ll be neighbors. I live just there, you see. Shall we go up and have a look?”
“Yes,” I said. “Do you know if my things have arrived?”
He shook his head.
“Not as far as I know,” he said.
“They’ll be here on Monday then,” I said, and set off up the road beside him.
“You’ll have my youngest son at school, from what I’ve heard,” he said. “Stig. He’s in the fourth grade.”
“Do you have many children?” I said.
“Four,” he said. “Two live at home. Johannes and Stig. Tone, my daughter, and Ruben live in Tromsø.”
I scanned the village as we walked. Some people were standing outside what must have been a shop, where a couple of cars were also parked. And outside a snack bar stand on the top road there were a few people with bikes.
Far out in the fjord a boat was coming in.
Seagulls were screeching down by the harbor.
Otherwise all was still.
“How many people live here actually?” I said.
“Two hundred and fifty or so,” he said. “It depends on whether you include the kids going to school.”
We stopped in front of a black 1970s timber house, by the porch.
“Here it is,” he said. “Go ahead and step in. The door should be open. But you might as well have the key right away.”
I opened the door and went into the front hall, put down my suitcases, and took the key he handed me. It smelled as houses do when they haven’t been inhabited for a while. A faint, vaguely outdoor whiff of damp and mold.
I pushed a half-open door and went into the sitting room. The floor was fitted with an orange wall-to-wall carpet. A dark brown desk, a dark brown coffee table, and a suite upholstered in brown and orange, also dark wood. Two large panoramic windows facing north.
“This is great,” I said.
“The kitchen’s in there,” he said, pointing to a door at the end of the tiny room. He turned. “And the bedroom’s in there.”
The wallpaper in the kitchen was a familiar ’70s pattern: gold, brown, and white. There was a little table under the window. A fridge with a small freezer compartment at the top. A sink set in a short laminate counter. The floor, gray linoleum.
“And, last of all, the bedroom,” he said, standing in the doorway while I went in. The carpet on the floor was darker than the one in the sitting room, the wallpaper light, and the room empty except for an enormously wide low bed made of the same wood as the other furniture. Teak or imitation teak.
“Perfect!” I said.
“Do you have any bed linen with you?”
I shook my head. “It’s being sent.”
“You can borrow some of ours if you like.”
“That would be great,” I said.
“I’ll drop some off then,” he said. “And if you have any questions, anything at all, come down and see us. Visitors are welcome here!”
“Okay,” I said. “Thank you.”
From the sitting-room window I watched him walking down toward his house, which was maybe twenty meters down the road from mine.
Unbelievable, I had my own place.
I walked around inside, opened a few drawers, and glanced into some cupboards until the caretaker returned carrying a pile of sheets in his arms. After he’d left I started unpacking the little I had brought with me: my clothes, a towel, the typewriter, a few books, and some typing paper. I placed the desk beneath the sitting-room window, put the typewriter on top, moved the standard lamp, arranged the books on the windowsill, as well as a literary magazine, Vinduet, which I had bought in Oslo and decided I would subscribe to. Next to them I stacked the fifteen, maybe twenty, cassettes I had brought along, and beside the pile of paper on the table I laid the Walkman and the spare batteries for it.
When my writing alcove was finished I put my clothes in the bedroom wardrobes, shoved the empty cases onto the top shelf, and stood in the center of the room for a while, not sure what to do next.
I felt an urge to call someone and tell them what it was like here, but there was no telephone. Should I go out perhaps and look for a phone booth?
I was hungry, too.
What about the snack bar stand? Should I go over there?
There was nothing to do here anyway.
In front of the mirror in the little bathroom that led off the hall I put on my black beret. On the doorstep I stood for a few seconds looking down. In one sweeping gaze you could scan the whole village and everyone who lived in it. There was nowhere to hide. Walking down the road, the surface of which was gravel underneath asphalt, I felt utterly transparent.
Some teenage boys were hanging around outside the snack bar. Their conversation froze as I approached. I walked past without looking at them, went up the steps to the veranda and over to the serving hatch, which shone bright yellow in the wan late-summer-evening light that seemed to hang over the landscape. The window was smeared with grease. A boy around the same age as the ones behind me appeared at the hatch. A couple of long black hairs grew from his cheek. His eyes were brown, his hair was black.
“Hamburger with everything, fries, and a Coke,” I said. Listened intently to hear if any of the mumbling behind was about me. But it wasn’t. I lit a cigarette and paced up and down the veranda while I waited. The boy lowered a landing-net-style receptacle full of thin potato sticks into the boiling fat. Slapped a hamburger down on the hot plate. Apart from the low sizzle of the meat and the by-now excited voices behind me, there was no sound. The houses on the island across the fjord were illuminated. The sky, which hung low there, higher by contrast above the mouth of the fjord, was a bluish gray and rather heavy, though far from dark.
The silence was not oppressive, it was open.
But not to us, I thought for some reason. The silence had always been like this here, long before people existed, and would remain so long after they had disappeared. Lying here in this mountain bowl, with the sea spread out before it.
Where did it end actually? America? Canada?
Yes, that had to be it. Newfoundland.
“Here’s your burger,” the kid said, placing a Styrofoam tray containing a hamburger, a few strips of lettuce, a quarter of a tomato, and a pile of fries on the shelf outside the serving hatch. I paid, grabbed the tray, and turned to go.
“Are you the new teacher?” asked one of the boys hanging over the handlebars of his bike.
“Yes,” I said.
“You’re going to have us,” he said, spat, and pushed his cap farther up his forehead. “We’re in ninth grade. And him, he’s in eighth.”
“Oh yeah?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “You’re from the south?”
“Yes, from Sørland,” I said.
“Okay,” he said, nodding, as though indicating the audience was over now, and I was free to go.
“What are your names?” I said.
“You’ll find out soon enough,” he said.
They laughed at that. I gave an unabashed smile but felt stupid as I walked past them. He had outmaneuvered me.
“And what’s your name?” he called out after me.
“Mickey,” I said. “Mickey Mouse.”
“He’s a comedian as well!” he shouted.
Karl Ove Knausgaard was born in Norway in 1968. My Struggle has won countless international literary awards and has been translated into at least fifteen languages. Knausgaard lives in Sweden with his wife and four children.
Don Bartlett has translated dozens of books of various genres, including eight novels and short story collections by Jo Nesbø and It’s Fine by Me by Per Petterson. He lives in Norfolk, England.
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