Karl Ove Knausgaard had published two novels before, in a genuine attempt to exhaust everything, he embarked on an ambitious literary projects at the age of thirty-nine: a six-volume series of autobiographical novels that totals around 3600 pages. Not only that, he intentionally wrote the books quickly, in around three years, forsaking style in an effort to stay ahead of his thoughts, to keep himself from stopping whatever was coming. Surprisingly, these experimental, obviously personal books became bestsellers in Norway, and we are now receiving them in English to deserved acclaim. My Struggle: Book One (Min Kamp I, 2009; tr. from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett, 2012) came out in 2012, is on both the Independent Foreign Fiction list and the Best Translated Book Award. The second volume is due out in a couple of months.
What makes such a long and seemingly self-indulgent book worth reading? Well, despite the fact that Knausgaard wrote at a break-neck pace, or perhaps because of this, the book is beautiful as it weaves together thoughts and surroundings from various times in Knausgaard’s first four decades, all with immediacy. We get a strong sense of his urgency, of his struggle, and some of us are taken away. Some are not. The book is not only long but is made so by detailed renderings of the every-day that seem so minute as to be unimportant. But, honestly, I was in from the beginning. Knausgaard is working out his struggle, he’s opened it up for us to see, and by bringing us up close he allows us to feel the heat and energy or to stare in silence.
Due to the controversial nature of the title, in the U.K. this book has been published as A Death in the Family; in Germany, it’s Sterben, or Death. While I think these titles miss out on quite a bit, death is a prominent part of the book as Knausgaard grapples with many of its facets and implications, especially those that may be uncomfortable, those that we normally don’t like to think about. In fact, the book begins with a brief discussion of the strange fact that we try to push death out of sight.
A town that does not keep its dead out of sight, that leaves people where they died, on highways and byways, in parks and parking lots, is not a town but a hell. The fact that this hell reflects our life experience in a more realistic and essentially truer way is no consequence. We know this is how it is, but we do not want to face it. Hence the collective act of repression symbolized by the concealment of our dead.
But the book, while it will delve back into death again and again, is about more than death. It’s about this life, about relationships, about the passage of time, about trying to find some kind of meaning in it all, about trying to be happy when everything seems to be going well but you still feel sad.
After these brief thoughts on death, Knausgaard takes us back to 1976 when he was eight years old. We follow him through a day, observe the details with him. It’s obvious early on that he is drawn to his father though he is also terrified of the man. Probably it’s that terror that makes him think of the man so often. Nothing really happens on this day in 1976. There’s no violence, no real drama, but by the end of the passage I was so tense I couldn’t sleep after I put the book down (and so I picked it back up and kept reading even later into the night). The details — beautiful, and all rendered in prose that seems to float around you — build up so it almost felt like my own memory.
In the end, when nothing much has happened, the young Karl Ove suffers a shock that no one else witnesses. In fact, so internal is the source of this shock that even if you were looking right at him and observing everything going on in the room you’d never know what happened. Having gone through it with him, it makes sense. It fills him with shame, and Knausgaard gives this to us perfectly, in a string of details that, strangely, are not actually even registered by the young boy:
The force of the sudden shame was the sole feeling from my childhood that could measure in intensity against that of terror, next to sudden fury, of course, and common to all three was the sense that I myself was being erased. All that mattered was precisely that feeling. So as I turned and went back to my room, I noticed nothing, I know that the window in the stairwell must have been so dark that the hall was reflected in it, I know that the door to Yngve’s bedroom must have been closed, the same as the one to my parents’ bedroom and to the bathroom. I know that Mom’s bunch of keys must have been splayed out on the telephone table, like some mythical beast at rest, with its head of leather and myriad metal legs, I know that the knee-high ceramic vase of dried flowers and straw must have been on the floor next to it, unreconciled, as it were, with the synthetic material of the wall-to-wall carpet. But I saw nothing, heard nothing, thought nothing.
I think that is an exceptionally accurate depiction of the sudden onset of shame, and the list of details makes it all the stronger.
We move from here to the present day, when Knausgaard is sitting down to write this book. He’s now 39 years old, married for the second time, and has three young children with his second wife. He’s written two successful novels, yet he remains emotionally scarred and, though doing nothing out of the ordinary, though doing everything a responsible husband and parent should, he still feels self-loathing and shame. He’s not happy. He knows he should, but he can’t find any meaning in any of this, and the way he experiences the passage of time now that he’s a parent has something to do with it:
A lot happens in our little everyday life, but it always happens within the same routine, and more than anything else it has changed my perspective of time. For, while previously I saw time as a stretch of terrain that had to be covered, with the future as a distant prospect, hopefully a bright one, and never boring at any rate, now it is interwoven with our life here and in a totally different way. Were I to portray this with a visual image it would have to be that of a boat in a lock: life is slowly and ineluctably raised by time seeping in from all sides. Apart from the details, everything is always the same. And with every passing day the desire grows for the moment when life will reach the top, for the moment when the sluice gates open and life finally moves on.
In some small way — a way that does not at all excuse his father — Knausgaard can see his father differently.
My picture of my father on that evening in 1976 is, in other words, twofold: on the one hand I see him as I saw him at that time, through the eyes of an eight-year-old: unpredictable and frightening; on the other hand, I see him as a peer through whose life time is blowing and unremittingly sweeping large chunks of meaning along with it.
What an exceptional way to open up a six-volume autobiography/novel entitled My Struggle. And it is a great way to open up this particular volume that meanders through the first part (that primarily deal with Knausgaard’s childhood as his parents drift apart and finally separate when his dad is around forty) until it really digs in and we see his father’s dead body toward the beginning of the second part. His father had never been a big drinker, but after leaving the family (he couldn’t find any meaning either, perhaps) he moved back in with his own mother and literally drank himself to death.
After 200 pages of Knausgaard’s childhood, usually with this man on the periphery but always aware of his terrible potential, the man is dead, and Knausgaard spends the next 200 pages trying to work his way through that. In the process, he makes us spend a lot of time with him, doing menial tasks like boiling water or simply waiting for the next thing to happen. He describes what is going on in great detail. And when above I said he wanted to be exhaustive, I meant that besides going through these episodes in something resembling a straightforward narrative, Knausgaard also rifts on art, writing, music, and culture.
Sometimes that detail leads to beautiful diversions filled with insight, such as this one when Knausgaard, not long after hearing his father is dead, begins to have a good memory:
Typical that I would conjure up one of the times when he was good. That my subconscious would select a situation where I had warm feelings for him. It was an attempt at manipulation, obviously intended to smooth the path for irrational sentimentality, which, once the floodgates were open, would brim up without constraint and take possession of me. That was how the subconscious worked, it clearly saw itself as a kind of corrective force on thoughts and desires, and undermined everything that might be considered antagonistic to the prevailing common sense. But Dad had got what was coming to him, it was good that he was dead, anything in me that said otherwise was lying.
Often, though, the details and memories remain banal. But even the banality of it all fits and is necessary for the book to have the effect it does. We do not see that which we see all the time. And most of the time it is in the banal that our lives are played out. That’s where we work out our feelings. This is shown well in the last 200 pages, around 70 of which are spent cleaning the home Dad died in, completely trashing it in his rapid pace to the end. The house is filled with rotten food, human waste, empty bottles, and Grandma, still in shock at having found her oldest son dead, might now be an alcoholic as well. Yet how do we work through all of this and the death of Dad (he wanted his dad to die, “so why all these tears?”)? The answer: while we clean, letting the thoughts come and go as they will.
In the end, for me, this is a tremendously powerful and personal work of art. I’m thrilled there are still five volumes left for us. Yes, it is long and at times even tedious (though it really never felt this way to me), and, yes, maybe some of the detail is excessive and could be taken out. But I wouldn’t want it that way. This is raw and the struggle is beautiful, and the tedium is meaningful — it may hold the most meaning of all.
Why should you live in a world without feeling its weight? Were we just images?