No one dissects the life of the modern man like Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard. With uninhibited honesty his staggering six-volume autobiography scrutinizes women, sex, drinking, music, being a son, being a father and the workings of the male mind. Nothing is off limits, including his inexperience with masturbation. In this exclusive excerpt from My Struggle: Book Five, published this month by Archipelago Books, Knausgaard goes carousing on a college night out and soon discovers erotic inspiration.
THE MORNING AFTER
A writer remembers a long night of drinking with a mysterious woman—and the sexual awakening that followed.
After lessons on Friday we went out. Hovland and Fosse took us on their obviously well-worn path to Wesselstuen. It was a great place, the tables were covered with white cloths, and as soon as we sat down a waiter in a white shirt and black apron came over to take our orders. I hadn’t experienced that before. Our mood was nice and relaxed, the week was over, I was happy, there were eight of us carefully selected students sitting round the table with Ragnar Hovland, already a legend in student circles, at least in Bergen, and Jon Fosse, one of the most important young post-modern writers in the country, who had also received good reviews in Sweden. I hadn’t spoken to them privately yet, but now I was sitting next to Hovland, and when the beer arrived and I’d had a swig, I seized the opportunity.
“I’ve heard you like the Cramps.”
“Oh?” he said. “Where have you heard such malicious gossip?”
“A friend told me. Is it true? Are you interested in music?”
“Yes, I am,” he said. “And I do like the Cramps. So, yes…. Say hi to your friend and tell him he’s right.”
He smiled, but there was no eye contact.
“Did he mention any other bands I liked?”
“No, just the Cramps.”
“Do you like the Cramps then?”
“Ye-es. They’re pretty good,” I said. “But the music I listen to most at the moment is Prefab Sprout. Have you heard their latest? From Langley Park to Memphis?”
“Certainly have, although Steve McQueen is still my favorite.”
Bjørg said something to him from across the table, and he leaned over to her with a polite expression on his face. Jon Fosse sat beside her and chatted to Knut. His texts had been the last ones we went through, and he was still full of it, I could see that. He wrote poems, and they were remarkably short, often only two or three lines, sometimes only two words beside each other. I didn’t grasp what they were about, but there was something brutal about them, and you wouldn’t believe that when you saw him sitting there smiling and laughing; his presence was almost as friendly as his poems were short. He was garrulous as well. So personality wasn’t the reason.
I put my empty beer glass down on the table in front of me and wanted another, but I didn’t dare call over the waiter, so I had to wait until someone else ordered.
Petra and Trude sat beside me chatting. It was as if they knew each other from before. Petra suddenly seemed very open, while Trude had completely lost her stern, concentrated demeanor; now she had a girlish air, as though a burden had been lifted from her shoulders.
Although I couldn’t really claim to know any of the other students, I had seen enough of them to form an impression of their characters, and even though these didn’t necessarily coincide with their texts, except in the case of Bjørg and Else Karin, who both wrote the way they looked, I felt pretty sure I knew who they were.
The exception was Petra. She was a mystery. Sometimes she would sit quietly staring down at the desk, with no presence in the room at all; it was like she was gnawing at her insides, I thought then, for despite not moving and despite her eyes being fixed on the same point, there was still an aggression about her. She was gnawing at herself, that was the feeling I had. When she eventually looked up there was always an ironic smile playing on her lips. Her comments were usually ironic, and not infrequently merciless, though somehow correct, albeit exaggerated. When she was enthusiastic this could vanish; her laughter might then become heartfelt, childish even, and her eyes, which so often smouldered, sparkled. Her texts were like her, I thought, as she read them, just as spiky and grudging as she was herself, at times clumsy and inelegant, but always full of bite and force, invariably ironic, though not without passion even so.
Trude got up and walked across the room. Petra turned to me.
“Aren’t you going to ask me what bands I like?” she said with a smile, but the eyes she fixed on me were dark and mocking.
“I could,” I said. “What bands do you like?”
“Do you imagine I care about boys’ room banter?” she said.
“How should I know?” I said.
“Do I look like that type of girl?”
“In fact, you do,” I said. “The leather jacket and everything.”
“Apart from the stupid names and all the clichés and the lack of psychological insight, I quite liked what you wrote,” she said.
“There’s nothing left to like,” I said.
“Yes, there is,” she said. “Don’t let what others say upset you. It’s nothing, just words. Look at those two,” she said, motioning toward our teachers. “They’re wallowing in our admiration. Look at Jon now. And look at Knut lapping it up.”
“First of all, I’m not upset. Second of all, Jon Fosse is a good writer.”
“Oh really? Have you read any of his stuff?”
“A little. I bought his latest novel on Wednesday.”
“Blood. The Stone Is,” she said in a deep Vestland voice, fixing me with her eyes. Then she laughed that heartfelt bubbling laugh of hers, which was abruptly cut short. “Ay yay yay, there’s so much posturing!” she said.
“But not in the stuff you write?” I said.
“I’ve come here to learn,” she said. “I have to suck as much out of them as I can.” The waiter came over to our table. I raised my finger. Petra did the same; at first I thought she was taking the mickey out of me but then realized she wanted a beer too. Trude came back, Petra turned to her, and I leaned across the table to catch Jon Fosse’s attention.
“Do you know Jan Kjærstad?” I said.
“Yes, a bit. We’re colleagues.”
“Do you consider yourself a postmodernist as well?”
“No, I’m probably more of a modernist. At least compared with Jan.”
“Yes,” I said.
He looked down at the table, seemed to discover his beer and took a long draft. “What do you think of the course so far?” he said.
Was he asking me?
“It’s been good,” I said. “I feel I’ve learned a lot in a short time.”
“Nice to hear,” he said. “We haven’t done much teaching, Ragnar and I. It’s almost as new to us as it is to you.”
“Yes,” I said.
I knew I ought to say something. I suddenly found myself at the beginning of a conversation, but I didn’t know what to say, and after the silence between us had lasted several seconds, he looked away, his attention was caught by someone else, whereupon I got up and went to the bathroom, which was behind the door at the other end of the room. There was a man peeing in the urinal; I knew I wouldn’t be able to perform with him standing there, so I waited for the cubicle to become vacant, which happened the very next moment. There was some toilet paper on the floor tiles, wet with urine or water. The smell was rank and I breathed through my nose as I peed.
Outside the cubicle I heard water rush into the sinks. Immediately afterward, the hand drier roared. I flushed and went out, just as the two men left through the door, while another older man with a huge gut and a ruddy Bergen face came in. Although the toilet was a mess, with the floor wet and dirty and the smell vile, it still had the same solemnity as the restaurant outside with its white tablecloths and aproned waiters. No doubt it had something to do with its age: Both the tiles and the urinals came from a different era. I rinsed my hands under the tap and looked at my reflection in the mirror, which bore no resemblance to the inferiority I felt inside. The man positioned himself, legs apart, by the urinal. I thrust my hands under the current of hot air, turned them over a few times and went back to the table, where there was another beer waiting for me.
When it was finished and I had started on the next, slowly my timidity began to ease; in its place came something soft and gentle and I no longer felt I was on the margins of the conversation, on the margins of the group, but in the center. I sat chatting first with one person, then with another, and when I went to the toilet now it was as though I took the whole table there with me, they existed in my head, a whirl of faces and voices, opinions and attitudes, laughter and giggles, and when some began to pack up and go home I didn’t notice at first, it happened on the extreme periphery and didn’t matter, the chatting and drinking carried on, but then first Jon Fosse got up, followed by Ragnar Hovland, and it was terrible, we were nothing without them.
“Have another one!” I said. “It’s not so late. And it’s Saturday tomorrow.”
But they were adamant, they were going home, and after they had gone the urge to leave spread, and even though I asked each and every one of them to stay a bit longer the table was soon empty, apart from Petra and me.
“You’re not going to go as well, are you?” I said.
“Soon,” she said. “I live quite a way out of town, so I have to catch the bus.”
“You can crash at my place,” I said. “I live up in Sandviken. There’s a sofa you can sleep on.”
“Are you that keen to keep drinking?” she laughed. “Where shall we go then? We can’t stay here any longer.”
“Café Opera?” I suggested.
“Sounds good,” she said.
Outside, it was lighter than I had expected; the remnants of the summer night’s luster had blanched the sky above us as we ascended the hill toward the theater, past the row of taxis, the ocher glow from the streetlamps as if drawn across the wet cobblestones, the rain pelting down. Petra was carrying her black leather bag and although I didn’t look at her I knew her expression was serious and dogged, her movements rigid and awkward. She was like a polecat: She bit the hands of those who helped her.
At Café Opera there were many vacant tables, we went up to the first floor, beside a window. I got us two beers, she drank almost half hers in one swig, wiped her lips with the back of her hand. I searched my brain for something to say, but found nothing, and drank almost half mine in one swig too.
Five minutes passed.
“What did you actually do in northern Norway?” she said out of the blue but in a matter-of-fact way, as though we had been chatting for ages, while staring into the nearly empty beer glass she was nursing in front of her.
I felt pretty sure I knew who they were. The exception was Petra. She was a mystery.
“I was a teacher,” I said.
“I know that,” she said. “But what made you decide to do that? What did you hope to achieve?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It just happened. The idea was to do some writing up there, I suppose.”
“It’s a strange notion, looking for work in northern Norway so you can write.”
“Yes, maybe it is.”
She went to get some beer. I looked around me; soon the place would be full. She had rested her elbow on the bar, held up a hundred-krone note, in front of her one of the barmen was pouring a beer. Her lips slid over her teeth as she knitted her brow. On one of the first days she told me she had changed her name. Her surname, I assumed, but no, she had changed her first name. It had been something like Anne or Hilde, one of the most common girls’ names, and I had thought a lot about Petra rejecting her first name, because personally I was so attached to mine, changing it was inconceivable, in a way everything would change if I did. But she had done it.
Mom had changed her name, but that was to Dad’s surname, it was a convention, and when she changed it again, it was back to her maiden name. Dad had also changed his name, that was more unusual, but he had changed his surname, not his first name, which was him.
She walked across the floor, half a liter in each hand, and sat down.
“Who do you think will make it?” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“In class, at school.”
I didn’t care much for her choice of word, I preferred academy, but I said nothing.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“I said think. Of course you don’t know.”
“I liked what you wrote.”
“Flattery will get you nowhere.”
“Knut: nothing to say. Trude: posturing. Else Karin: housewife’s prose. Kjetil: childish. Bjørg: boring. Nina: good. She’s repressed, but she writes well.”
She laughed and slyly glanced up at me.
“What about me?” I said.
“You,” she snorted. “You understand nothing about yourself and you have no idea what you’re doing.”
“Do you know what you’re doing?”
“No, but at least I know I don’t know,” she said and laughed again. “And you’re a bit girlie. But you’ve got big strong hands, so that makes up for it.”
I looked away, my insides on fire.
“I’ve always had a wicked tongue on me,” she said.
I took some long swigs of the beer and scanned the room.
“You weren’t offended by that little gibe, were you?” she said with a giggle. “I could say far worse things about you if I wanted.”
“Please don’t,” I said.
“You take yourself too seriously as well. But that’s your age. It’s not your fault.”
And what about you then! I felt like saying. What makes you think you’re so damn good? And if I’m girlie, you’re butch. You look like a man when you walk!
I said nothing though, and slowly but surely the fire subsided, not least because I was beginning to get seriously drunk and approaching the point where nothing meant anything anymore, or to be more accurate, when everything meant the same. A couple more beers and I would be there.
In the room, between all the occupied tables, strode a familiar figure. It was Morten, wearing his red leather jacket and carrying a light brown backpack on his back and a folded umbrella in his hand, the long one I had seen before. When he spotted me his face lit up and he rushed at full speed across to our table, tall and lanky, his hair spiky and glistening with gel.
“Hi there!” he grinned. “Out drinking, are you?”
“Yes,” I said. “This is Petra. Petra, this is Morten.”
“Hi,” Morten said.
Petra gave him a once-over and nodded, then turned and looked the other way.
“We’ve been out with the academy,” I said. “The others went home early.”
“Thought writers were on the booze 24/7,” he said. “I’ve been in the reading room until now. I don’t know how this is going to work out. I don’t understand a thing! Not a thing!”
He laughed and looked around.
“Actually I’m on my way home. Just popped by to see if there was anyone I knew. But I’ll tell you one thing: I admire you writers-to-be.”
He looked at me seriously for a moment.
“Well, I’m off,” he said. “See you!”
When he had rounded the corner by the bar I told Petra he was my neighbor. She nodded casually, drank the rest of her beer and got up.
“I’ll be off now,” she said. “There’s a bus in 15 minutes.”
She lifted her jacket from the back of the chair, clenched her fist and put it in the sleeve.
“Weren’t you going to sleep at my place? It’s not a problem, you know.”
“No, I’m going home. But I might take you up on your offer another time,” she said.
So, with her hand around her bag and a steadfast gaze ahead she walked toward the staircase. I didn’t know anyone else there, but sat for a little longer, in case someone turned up, but then being on my own began to prey on my mind and I put on my raincoat, grabbed my bag and went out into the blustery night.
I woke up at around 11 to rattling and banging inside the wall. I sat up and looked around. What was that noise? Then I realized and slumped back into bed. The mailboxes were on the other side of the wall, but so far I hadn’t slept long enough to know what it sounded like when the postman came.
Above me someone was walking around singing.
But the room, wasn’t it remarkably light?
I got up and lifted the curtain.
The sun was shining.
I got dressed, went over to the shop and bought some milk, rolls and today’s papers. When I returned I opened the mailbox. Apart from two bills that had been sent on to me there were two parcel-delivery cards. I hurried to the post office and was given two fat parcels, which I opened with the scissors in the kitchen. Shakespeare’s collected works, T.S. Eliot’s collected poems and plays, Oscar Wilde’s collected works and a book with photos of naked women.
I sat down on my bed to flick through it, trembling with excitement. No, they weren’t completely naked, many of them were wearing high heels and one had a blouse hanging open around her slim tanned upper body.
I put down the book and had breakfast while reading the three papers I had bought. The main news in Bergens Tidende was a murder that had taken place yesterday morning. There was a picture of the crime scene, which I thought I recognized, and I had my suspicions confirmed when I read the text underneath: The murder had been committed only a couple of blocks from where I was sitting now. And as if that wasn’t enough the suspected murderer was still at large. He was 18 years old and attended technical school, it said. For some reason, this made quite an impression on me. I pictured him at this moment, in a basement apartment, so I imagined, alone behind drawn curtains, which every so often he parted to see what was going on in the street, he viewed it from ankle height, his heart pounding and despair tearing at his insides because of what he had done. He punched the wall, paced the room, considering whether to hand himself in or wait for a few days and then try to get away, on board one of the boats perhaps, to Denmark or England, and then hitchhike his way down through Europe. But he had no money and no possessions, only what he stood up in.
I ogled the long-legged red-lipped woman standing outside,the erotic lines of her body.
I peered out the window to see if anything unusual was happening, uniformed officers gathering, for example, or some parked police cars, but everything was as normal, except for the sunshine, that is, which hung like a veil of light over everything.
I could talk to Ingvild about the murder, it was a good topic of conversation, his presence here, in my part of town, right now, while virtually the whole of the police force was out looking for him.
Perhaps I could write about that too? A boy who kills an old man and goes into hiding while the police slowly close in on him?
I would never ever be able to do that.
A wave of disappointment washed over me and I got up, took the plate and glass, put them in the kitchen sink, together with all the other dirty crockery I had used during the week. Petra was wrong about one thing, and that was that I didn’t understand myself, I thought, looking across the resplendent green park as a woman crossed with a child in each hand. Self-knowledge was the one quality I did have. I knew exactly who I was. Not many of my acquaintances knew as much about themselves.
I went back into the living room, was about to bend down to browse through my records when it was as if my eye was dragged toward the new book. A stab of joy and fear went through me. It might as well be now, I was alone, I had nothing in particular to do, there was no reason to defer it, I thought, and picked the book up, looked over my shoulder, how could I take it down to the bathroom unnoticed? A plastic bag? No, who on earth takes a plastic bag with him to the toilet?
I opened the button of my jeans and unzipped, pushed the book down, covered it with my shirt, leaned forward as far as I could to see what it looked like, whether anyone would realize I had a book there.
What about taking a towel with me? If anyone came I could casually hold it over my stomach for the few seconds the encounter lasted. Then I could have a shower afterward. Nothing suspicious about that surely, going to the toilet and then having a shower.
And that was what I did. With the book stuffed down my trousers and clasping the biggest towel I had I went out the door, crossed the landing, down the stairs, along the corridor, into the bathroom, where I locked the door, pulled out the book and began to leaf through.
Even though I had never masturbated before and wasn’t exactly sure how to do it, I still knew how, the expressions “jerk off” and “beat the meat” had been ever-present in all the wanking jokes I had ever heard over the years, not least in soccer changing rooms, and so with the blood throbbing in my member I took it out of the little pouch formed by my underpants, and as I ogled the long-legged red-lipped woman standing outside a kind of holiday bungalow in the Mediterranean somewhere, judging by the white walls and the gnarled trees, beneath a line of washing, with a plastic bowl in her hand, although otherwise completely naked, while I looked and looked and looked at her, all the beautiful erotic lines of her body, I wrapped my fingers around my dick and jerked it up and down. At first the whole shaft, but then after a few times only the tip, while still staring at the woman with the bowl, and then as a wave of pleasure rose in me, I thought I should look at another woman too, to make maximum use of the book, and turned over the page, and there was a woman sitting on a swing, wearing only red shoes with straps up her ankles, and then a spasm went through me and I tried to bend my dick down to ejaculate into the toilet, but I couldn’t, it was too stiff, so instead the first load of sperm hit the seat and slowly oozed down while later blobs were pumped out, farther down, after I had the great idea of leaning forward to improve the angle.
I had done it.
I had finally done it.
There was nothing mysterious about it after all. On the contrary, it was incredibly easy and quite remarkable that I hadn’t done it before.
I closed the book, wiped the seat, washed myself, stood stock still to hear if, contrary to expectation, anyone was outside, shoved the book back down my trousers, grabbed my towel and left.
It was only then that I wondered if I had done it right. Should you shoot into the toilet? Or maybe the sink? Or a wad of rolled-up toilet paper in your hand? Or did you usually do it in bed? On the other hand, this was an extremely secretive business, so it probably didn’t matter if my method deviated from the norm.
Just as I had put the book down on the desk, folded the unused towel and placed it in the cupboard there was a ring at the door.
I went out to answer it.
It was Yngve and Asbjørn. Both were wearing sunglasses, and as on the previous occasion there was something restless about them, something about Yngve’s thumb in his belt loop and Asbjørn’s fist in his trouser pocket or them both standing half-turned away until I opened the door. Or perhaps it was the sunglasses they didn’t take off.
“Hi,” I said. “Come in!”
They followed me into my room.
“We were wondering if you felt like coming with us into town,” Yngve said. “We’re going to some record shops.”
“Great,” I said. “I’ve got nothing to do anyway. Right now?”
“Yes,” Yngve said, picking up the book with the naked women. “I see you’ve bought a photography book.”
“Yes,” I said.
“It’s not hard to guess what you’re going to use that for,” Yngve laughed. Asbjørn chuckled too, but in a way that suggested he wanted this aspect of the visit over as quickly as possible.
“These are serious pictures, you know,” I said as I put on my jacket, bent over and tied my shoes. “It’s a kind of art book.”
“Oh yes,” Yngve said, putting it down. “And the Lennon poster has gone?”
“Yes,” I said.
Asbjørn lit a cigarette, turned to the window and looked out.