Zola vs Knausgaard – Round 4


Hello everyone! Leeeeeett’s get ready to ruuuuummmmmbbbbleee!

I am now reading Boyhood Island, so all Karl’s trials in this volume are from his childhood. I am also still reading Germinal, as I don’t like it much so I’m reading it slooooowly, methodically, just to get to the end. It’s the book equivalent of a pile of boiled cabbage.

Comparing young Karl with the children in Germinal is instantly going to put Karl on the back foot. He has food to eat, no one is sending him down a mine, and he has no physical deformities. And while the teenagers in Germinal are all allowed to run off and have sex with who they want, getting pregnant is expected and no one is forced to get married (no wonder Victorian Brits looked down their pince-nez at the French) as the mother of a teenage girl, I’m never going to see all that free-luvin’ as a good thing.

Also, I feel for Karl, as I see a lot of his father in mine. Those perma-angry grumps whose wife and kids are always tip-toeing about. They may not abusive in a dramatically illegal way, but they are hard work to live with. Maheu may be a firey Frenchman, but his children are cheeky monkeys who don’t seem constantly scared of him.

On the subject of clothes, Maheude takes a couple of her kids off to see the mine owner to beg for money, and she is given some old clothes instead that the children are happy with. Meanwhile, just under hundred years later in Norway, Karl is about to start school and has a new outfit and satchel for his first day. He is over the moon with these purchases, but feels he can only try it all on and practise walking with his satchel when his father is out.

On the subject of food, Maheu’s children are often hungry. However, when there is food, it is enjoyed noisily by all. In Norway, Karl’s mum has gone off to work and left his dad to supervise breakfast. Karl quietly eats cornflakes trying not to gag, scared to point out to his father that the milk is spoiled. When his father comes to eat his, he is flabbergasted his child didn’t complain. Karl can’t win.

On the subject of television, Karl’s grandparents are visiting, and Karl turns on the TV for them. The set chooses that moment to die, and no picture appears. Karl is punished for breaking the television, as he hadn’t asked permission to turn it on (honestly, as if his dad has a magic finger that can stop an appliance giving up the ghost. If that were the case I’d hire him to turn on my errant washing machine) but he had thought as it was guests, it would be okay. It was not. Meanwhile, back in France, the miners don’t have a television. Their only entertainment is sex, alcohol, revolution and desperation.

I’m going to let Karl have this one, as I think if Maheu had televisions, satchels and cornflakes, his kids would gleefully run riot with them. And when he disciplines his children it’s probably along the lines of an impersonal passing dunt for being too loud, too slow, etc, and with about as much malice as herding naughty sheep, but for Karl, there’s real fear.


I’m not really a scary dad, I’m just played by Gerard Depardieu, it’s not the same thing!

Which brings me to an unrelated point, which is little-boy Karl is scared of everything. Anything he can find to be anxious about, he is. Plumbing noises, dogs, reflections, let alone actual scary things like skeletons. I was over the moon to read this. I was terrified of almost everything until I was about ten. I routinely worried about nuclear war, ghosts, death, homelessness, diphtheria (I’d read about it, that an polio were big concerns of mine. I didn’t want to be like the plastic model collection-box-children with calipers on their legs outside shops) and I gave over at least twenty minutes a day to dwell on premature burial and cremation. I am still a worrier, but no longer have a post-nuclear bomb plan written in felt tip in an exercise book always to hand, so things are better.


A short-haired picture makes it easier for me to believe someone has weathered as Karl was ever a boy.