A review of A Death in the Family, the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s series, My Struggle.
A couple of things to get out of the way first: although this paperback edition from Vintage calls itself “Fiction” on the back next to the price, the blurb, just above, says “Karl Ove Knausgaard writes about his life with painful honesty.” And so it seems: on page 27 we learn that “I, Karl Ove Knausgaard, was born in December 1968, and at the time of writing I am 39 years old. I have three children — Vanja, Heidi and John — and am in my second marriage, to Linda Bostrom Knausgaard.” Wikipedia agrees on his date of birth, which makes him 50 now and says that he left Linda in November 2016, when they had four children.
Second, you might not be particularly notice the title of Knausgaard’s series, My Struggle, of which this is the first volume if you didn’t realise that in its original Norwegian, it’s Min Kamp, and in German, Mein Kampf. Well, it’s certainly a story of struggle (with life).
When this volume was published in Knausgaard’s Norway, if Wikipedia is correct, it sold almost half a million copies in a country of five million people. That’s one for every ten people. And there are five more books in the series, leaving another 3000 pages to read after this one. Great for those long, dark Norwegian winter nights maybe.
There’s a certain prurient fascination to Knausgaard’s unflinchingly honest writing which may partly explain its popularity: it’s like hearing absolutely everything going on in your neighbours’ house without them knowing that you’re listening. The sheer openness of the writing is compelling. Readers talk about it as “addictive”. It’s like being with a person — well, actually, more than that: it’s like being a person, being Karl Ove in fact. Against that, the story moves slowly, at the pace of life or the pace of thought it seems. There is drama, there’s tension, there are surprising events, but they happen, as in life, as exceptions in a world where looking out of the window, making coffee or popping down to the newsagent for a can of Coke fills most of daily consciousness — or at least, one can imagine, that of a 39-year-old, not yet successful Norwegian writer.
But I don’t want to sound unenthusiastic. Reading the book was like finding a new best friend — albeit one who goes on a bit, mainly about the tragic life and death of his father, and who is a complex mix of open and unexpectedly private (“I no longer drink. I do not want anyone to get close to me, I do not want anyone to see me.”)
So what’s it about — apart from the particulars of its author’s life? Well, it’s about life, death and families. But the way it’s written, as a moment by moment account of the play of the thoughts in the author’s consciousness, it’s also about memory. And more particularly, about how memories fit into our experience of the present. So it flits between current activities and thoughts about times past, or at least, solidified memories, which may be more like myths: “apart from one or two isolated events that Yngve [his brother] and I had talked about so often they had almost assumed biblical proportions, I remembered hardly anything from my childhood.” That thought casts doubt on the lovingly-detailed episodes from childhood that make up the start of the book.
This difference between memory and events as they actually happened is a theme: there’s what happened, there’s what you can remember, there’s how you felt about it then and now, and there’s those all distinctions transposed into the world of dreams, which are a kind of mirror image of the waking world: “when conscious, I hardly remembered anything from my childhood, and the little I did remember no longer stirred anything in me, which of course, created a kind of symmetry between past and present, in a strange system whereby night and dreams were connected with memory, day and consciousness with oblivion.”
Reality and our memory of reality is always filtered through the passage of time, giving the impression of greater understanding as one grows older, but, along with that, an uneasy awareness of a kind of illusion:
“In recent years the feeling that the world was small and that I grasped everything in it had grown stronger and stronger in me, and that despite my common sense telling me that actually the reverse was true: the world was boundless and unfathomable, the number of events infinite, the present time an open door that flapped in the wind of history. But that is not how it felt. It felt as if the world were known, fully explored and charted, that it could no longer move in unpredicted directions, that nothing new or surprising could happen. I understood myself, I understood my surroundings, I understood society around me, and if any phenomenon should appear mysterious I knew how to deal with it.”
Knausgaard’s fascinating gift is to be able to keep stepping back, starting with the recording of mundane daily realities, presenting them through the lens of his consciousness, and then leading us with pin sharp clarity into ever deeper levels of abstraction as he articulates what seem like universal truths about what it’s like to be a person, and what a person can and can’t know. This was also Tolstoy’s gift.
His special subject is the tension between how subjectivity makes own experience overwhelming while our intellect taunts us with our own insignificance — as he remembers when gazing idly at the crowds at an airport: “in twenty-five years a third of them would be dead, in fifty years two thirds, in a hundred, all of them. And what would they leave behind, what had their lives been worth? Gaping jaws, empty eye sockets, somewhere beneath the earth.”
I suspect that Knausgaard’s is a deceptively simple art: it looks as though he just has to keep typing while he thinks and he’ll have a book. It must be much more than that, because for all the unsparing descriptions of kettles boiling, random cars passing in the street and cigarettes being rolled, I was rarely bored. I’m not sure I’m ready for the next 3000 pages. I will probably return at some point. Knausgaard’s achievement is to leave me feeling he’s someone I know, someone with whom I deeply sympathise, someone who’s taken the trouble to share his best thoughts with me. But he’s someone I need a little break from.