Authors: Karl Ove Knausgaard,Don Bartlett
Another thing we had signed her up for was a playgroup where the children sometimes sang together, but also did drawings and various other creative activities. The second time she went they were supposed to draw a house, and Vanja had coloured the grass blue. The playgroup leader had gone over to her and said grass wasn’t blue but green. Could she do another one? Vanja had torn up her drawing and then shown her annoyance in a way which made the children’s parents raise their eyebrows and consider themselves lucky to have the well-brought-up children they had. Vanja is a great many things, but above all she is sensitive, and the fact that this attitude is already hardening – and it is – causes me concern. Seeing her grow up also changes my view of my own upbringing, not so much because of the quality but the quantity, the sheer amount of time you spend with your children, which is immense. So many hours, so many days, such an infinite number of situations that crop up and are lived through. From my own childhood I remember only a handful of incidents, all of which I regarded as momentous but which I now understand were a few events among many, which completely expunges their meaning, for how can I know that those particular episodes that lodged themselves in my mind were decisive, and not all the others of which I remember nothing?
When I discuss such topics with Geir, with whom I talk on the telephone for an hour every day, he is wont to quote Sven Stolpe, who has written somewhere about Bergman that he would have been Bergman irrespective of where he had grown up, implying, in other words, that you are who you are whatever your surroundings. What shapes you is the way you are towards your family rather than the family itself. When I was growing up I was taught to look for the explanation of all human qualities, actions and phenomena in the environment in which they originated. Biological or genetic determiners, the givens, that is, barely existed as an option, and when they did they were viewed with suspicion. Such an attitude can at first sight appear humanistic, inasmuch as it is intimately bound up with the notion that all people are equal, but upon closer examination it could just as well be an expression of a mechanistic attitude to man, who, born empty, allows his life to be shaped by his surroundings. For a long time I took a purely theoretical standpoint on the issue, which is actually so fundamental that it can be used as a springboard for any debate – if environment is the operative factor, for example, if man at the outset is both equal and malleable and the good man can be shaped by engineering his surroundings, hence my parents’ generation’s belief in the state, the education system and politics, hence their desire to reject everything that had been and hence their new truth, which is not found within man’s inner being, in his detached uniqueness, but on the contrary in areas external to his intrinsic self, in the universal and collective, perhaps expressed in its clearest form by Dag Solstad, who has always been the chronicler of his age, in a text from 1969 containing his famous statement ‘We won’t give the coffee pot wings’: out with spirituality, out with feeling, in with a new materialism, but it never struck them that the same attitude could lie behind the demolition of old parts of town to make way for roads and car parks, which naturally the intellectual left opposed, and perhaps it has not been possible to be aware of this until now, when the link between the idea of equality and capitalism, the welfare state and liberalism, Marxist materialism and the consumer society is obvious because the biggest equality creator of all is money, it levels all differences, and if your character and your fate are entities that can be shaped, money is the most natural shaper, and this gives rise to the fascinating phenomenon whereby crowds of people assert their individuality and originality by shopping in an identical way, while those who once ushered all this in with their affirmation of equality, their emphasis on material values and belief in change, are now inveighing against their own handiwork, which they believe the enemy created, but like all simple reasoning this is not wholly true either: life is not a mathematical quantity, it has no theory, only practice, and though it is tempting to understand a generation’s radical rethink of society as being based on its view of the relationship between heredity and environment, this temptation is literary and consists more in the pleasure of speculating, that is of weaving one’s thoughts through the most disparate areas of human activity, than in the pleasure of proclaiming the truth. The sky is low in Solstad’s books, they show an incredible awareness of the currents in modern times, from the feeling of alienation in the 60s, the celebration of political initiatives at the beginning of the 70s, and then, just as the winds of change were starting to blow, to the distance-taking at the end. These weathervane-like conditions need be neither a strength nor a weakness for a writer, but simply a part of his material, a part of his orientation, and in Solstad’s case the most significant feature has always been located elsewhere, namely in his language, which sparkles with its new old-fashioned elegance, and radiates a unique lustre, inimitable and full of elan. This language cannot be learned, this language cannot be bought for money and therein lies its value. It is not the case that we are born equal and that the conditions of life make our lives unequal, it is the opposite, we are born unequal, and the conditions of life make our lives more equal.
When I think of my three children it is not only their distinctive faces that appear before me, but also the quite distinct feeling they radiate. This feeling, which is constant, is what they ‘are’ for me. And what they ‘are’ has been present in them ever since the first day I saw them. At that time they could barely do anything, and the little bit they could do, like sucking on a breast, raising their arms as reflex actions, looking at their surroundings, imitating, they could all do that, thus what they ‘are’ has nothing to do with qualities, has nothing to do with what they can or can’t do but is more a kind of light that shines within them.
Their character traits, which slowly began to reveal themselves after only a few weeks, have never changed either, and so different are they inside each of them that it is difficult to imagine the conditions we provide for them, through our behaviour and ways of being, have any decisive significance. John has a mild, friendly temperament, loves his sisters, planes, trains and buses. Heidi is extrovert and talks to everyone she meets; she’s obsessed with shoes and clothes, wants to wear only dresses, and is at ease with her little body, such as when she stood naked in front of the swimming pool mirror and said to Linda, Mummy, look what a nice bottom I’ve got! She hates being reprimanded; if you raise your voice to her she turns away and starts crying. Vanja, on the other hand, gives as good as she gets, has quite a temper, a strong will, is sensitive and gets on easily with people. She has a good memory, knows by heart most of the books we read to her as well as lines in the films we see. She has a sense of humour and is always making us laugh when we are at home, but when she is outside she is easily affected by what goes on around her, and if the situation is too new or unaccustomed she goes into her shell. Shyness made its appearance when she was around seven months, and manifested itself through her shutting her eyes as if asleep whenever a stranger approached; she simply shut her eyes, as if she were asleep. She still does that on rare occasions; if she is sitting in the car and we bump into a parent from the nursery, for example, her eyes suddenly close. At the nursery in Stockholm, which was directly opposite our flat, after a tentative, fumbling start, she attached herself to a boy of her age called Alexander, and together they ran riot on the playground equipment, so much so that the staff said they sometimes had to protect Alexander from her – he couldn’t always handle her intensity. But by and large he brightened up when she came, and was sorry when she left, and since then she has always preferred to play with boys; there is something about their physical and unrestrained side she obviously needs, perhaps because it is uncomplicated and easily gives her a feeling of control.
When we moved to Malmö she went to a new nursery, near the Western Harbour, in the newly built part of town where the most affluent lived, and as Heidi was so small I was the one who had to be responsible for settling her in. Every morning we cycled through the town, past the old shipbuilding yards and out towards the sea, Vanja with her little helmet on her head and her arms around me, me with my knees at stomach height on the undersized ladies’ bike, light-hearted and happy, for everything in the town was still new to me, and the shifts of light in the morning and afternoon sky had still not been dulled by the debilitating gaze of routine. I thought it would be no more than a transitional phase, Vanja telling me first thing every morning, with an occasional tear, that she didn’t want to go to the nursery; she would like it after a while, of course she would. But when we arrived she would not budge from my lap, no matter what the three young women who comprised the staff enticed her with. I thought it would be best to throw her in at the deep end, just walk away and leave her to fend for herself, but neither they nor Linda would hear of such brutality, so I sat there on a chair in a corner of the room with Vanja on my lap, surrounded by children at play, with the sun blazing outside, but the weather became gradually more autumnal as the days passed. In the break, for a snack consisting of apple and pear slices served by the staff in the yard, she would only take part if we sat ten metres away from the others, and when I agreed to that, me with an apologetic smile on my face, it was no surprise to me, for this was my way of relating to other people: how had she, only two and a half years old, managed to pick it up? Of course the staff eventually succeeded in coaxing her away from me, and I was able to cycle back to do some writing while she shed heart-rending tears, and after a month had passed I dropped her off and picked her up as normal. But sometimes in the mornings she still said she didn’t want to go, still cried now and then, and when another nursery close to our flat rang to tell us they had a place free we didn’t hesitate. It was called Lodjuret and was a parents’ cooperative. That meant that all the parents had to put in two weeks’ work a year on the staff, as well as filling one of the many administrative or practical posts. How far this nursery was to eat into our lives we had no idea; we talked only of the advantages it would bring: we would get to know Vanja’s playmates and, through the duties and meetings, their parents. It was normal, we were told, for the children to go home together, so soon we would have some relief when we needed it. Furthermore, and this was perhaps the weightiest argument, we didn’t know anyone in Malmö, not a soul, and this was an easy way to make contacts. And it was true: after a couple of weeks we were invited to one child’s birthday party. Vanja was really looking forward to it, not least because she had just got a pair of gold-coloured party shoes she was going to wear, while at the same time not wanting to go, understandably enough, since she still didn’t know the others very well. The invitation lay on the shelf in the nursery one Friday afternoon, the party was a week later on the Saturday, and every morning that week Vanja asked if it was Stella’s party that day. When we said no, she asked if it was the day after tomorrow; that was about the furthest extent of the future horizon for her. The morning we were at last able to nod and say yes, we were going to Stella’s today, she jumped out of bed and headed straight for the cupboard to put on her golden shoes. A couple of times every hour she asked whether it would soon be time to go, and it could have been an unbearable morning of nagging and scenes, but fortunately there were activities to fill it with. Linda took her to a bookshop to buy a present, afterwards they sat at the kitchen table and made a birthday card. We bathed the girls, combed their hair and put on their white stockings and party dresses. Then Vanja’s mood suddenly changed – she didn’t want to wear stockings or a dress, there was no question of her going to any party, and she threw the golden shoes at the wall – but after patiently sitting through the few minutes the outburst lasted we managed to get her into everything, including even the white knitted shawl she had been given for Heidi’s christening, and when at last the girls were sitting in the buggy in front of us they were again filled with expectation. Vanja was serious and quiet, her golden shoes in one hand and the present in the other, but when she turned to say something to us it was with a smile on her lips. Beside her sat Heidi, excited and happy, for although she didn’t understand where we were going, the clothes and preparations must have given her an indication that something unusual was in the offing. The apartment where the party was to take place was a few hundred metres up the street where we lived. It was full of the bustle that marks late Saturday afternoons, the last heavily laden shoppers mingling with kids who have come to the town centre to hang around outside Burger King and McDonald’s, and the stream of traffic passing is no longer purely with a purpose in mind, families on their way to and from multi-storey car parks. Now there are more and more of the low shiny black cars with the bass throbbing through the bodywork driven by immigrant men in their twenties. Outside the supermarket there were so many people that we had to stop for a moment, and when the skinny wizened old lady who usually sat there in her wheelchair at this time of day caught sight of Vanja and Heidi she leaned towards them, rang the bell she had hanging from a stick and beamed a smile that was clearly meant to be engaging but to the girls must have been terrifying. But they said nothing, just looked at her. On the other side of the entrance sat a drug addict of my age, with a cap in his outstretched hand. He had a cat inside a cage next to him, and when Vanja saw it she turned to us.
‘When we move to the country I want a cat,’ she said.
‘Cat!’ Heidi said, pointing.
I steered the buggy over the kerb onto the road to pass three people walking so damned slowly, probably thought they owned the pavement, walked a few metres as fast as I could and steered back onto the pavement after we had passed them.