Dancing in the Dark
By Karl Ove Knausgaard. Harvill Secker, 548 pp, softcover
With Dancing in the Dark, the fourth volume of his intimate epic novel-as-memoir, Norwegian literary superstar Karl Ove Knausgaard shifts his attention and narrows his focus to a single year in his life. It’s the mid 1980s, and Knausgaard, just finished high school, is uncertain of his future. He doesn’t want to go to university, and he doesn’t want to serve in the military: he wants to be a writer, but he has no idea how to become one.
At the suggestion of his father—a teacher himself—Knausgaard signs on for a year of teaching in a remote northern Norwegian village. Eighteen years old, untrained, hardly an exceptional student himself, Knausgaard finds himself charged with the education of a handful of villagers, some only marginally younger than he is. It is a year of sexually charged longing, blackout drinking, literary exploration, and gnawing frustration.
In other words, a very Knausgaard year.
The fact that Dancing in the Dark is the most self-contained of Knausgaard’s saga—to this point—is both its greatest strength and a potential source of peril. It stands alone, but this doesn’t make it a suitable introduction to Knausgaard’s life and world. Readers who haven’t followed the series will likely find themselves lost or—more significantly—utterly alienated by the novel’s central figure.
Knausgaard is tortured by his virginity (and his problems with premature ejaculation), but this obsession isn’t the stuff of adolescent comedy: Knausgaard’s desire comes with an edge, a desperation and cruelty that are, at times, difficult to bear. What appears in isolation as a bitter misogyny will—to readers familiar with Knausgaard—reveal itself as an aspect of a larger misanthropy, a vicious superiority and self-righteousness arising from a childhood of isolation and abuse. New readers may sense the pain at the core of Knausgaard’s character, but the relentlessness of his desire may put them off before they have the opportunity.
While the above sounds dire, it shouldn’t put you off. Reading Knausgaard’s saga—one of the most significant literary projects in recent memory—is a dazzling experience. Dancing in the Dark is piercing in its emotional directness, heartbreaking and hilarious by turns. Just don’t start here—turn back to A Death in the Family and give Knausgaard his due.