My Struggle: Volume 1 (A Death in the Family)–Karl Ove Knausgaard (2009, 2012 English translation by Don Bartlett)

Say what you will about air travel these days, but it has for me one great virtue: it’s great for reading. In fact, planes are some of the only places I ever see anyone reading anymore. I should say, though, that since moving to Arkansas I hardly ever spend any time in public space anymore. If I lived somewhere else, somewhere where I wasn’t in the car all the time, I might find that reading hasn’t quite shriveled away entirely.

Distractions are fewer in the quasi-public space of the plane. And by “distractions” I mean phone and email. That’s all changing, alas, but for now I relish the sustained reading time I sometimes get on a long plane ride.

That deeply immersive reading experience gives me some of the same satisfactions of a long run, that same mile-eating, page-turning lope. Of course, immersive reading can happen at other times and in other places. And our life situations have everything to do with whether it does. Children sure make it hard. (Everything I’ve said about reading on planes refers to flying without children.) But when immersive reading happens, it’s quite memorable. I remember a particularly snowy January in Halifax, my Sophomore year of college, reading Absalom, Absalom! and S/Z in long bouts on my futon on the floor. (Every time I looked up it seemed to be snowing some more.) I remember reading Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost late, late into the night in our tiny bedroom in our tiny dormer apartment in Haverford, PA. (I love to read when everyone else is asleep). And I suspect I’ll long remember reading the last two-thirds of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family on the plane back from a vacation in Iceland last month.

If I were Knausgaard, I’d tell you everything possible about that reading experience: the glimmer of seatback screens all around me, the increasingly drunk and loud elderly Icelanders in the rows just ahead of me, the delicious and laughably expensive Icelandic beer I’d just finished myself, as accompaniment to the delicious and even more laughably expensive mango curried chicken I’d purchased for dinner. I’d need to lull you into a pleasant stupor that is almost boredom, to send you into a readerly slipstream in which sentences and pages follow one another easily. Then I’d segue from this mass of material detail—often banal, often about consumption—into more abstract meditations, always based on autobiographical experience, meditations on grander concepts, the grandest in fact, the most provocative, the most important, the most open to bombast and bluster: sex, money, work, family, and death, death especially. Some of these conclusions would be a bit superficial, betraying what Knausgaard, at least the Knausgaard who narrates this text, would be the first to say is a haphazard reading of the European philosophical and literary tradition. But most of these meditations would in fact turn out to be shrewd and thought provoking, even beautiful. And you would keep turning the pages, you would completely under my spell, and you wouldn’t care about whether what I had to say was original or subtle or intellectually formidable. You would just want more.

We could compare my imagined Knausgaardian description of a place ride with the one that actually appears in his book. He gives plenty of detail, including a long paragraph, more than half a page, describing just the events of boarding the plane, walking down the jet bridge and finding his seat. But the narrator’s plane ride is different from most, different certainly from the one I took home from Iceland. It’s taken neither for pleasure nor for business. It’s taken because of death, the death in the family referred to in the book’s title, the death of the narrator’s father.

The narrator spends much of the flight weeping openly—to his shame but also, interestingly, to his delight. The lengthy descriptions of his emotional state and its discomfiting effect on his fellow passengers lead to a meditation on an unusual and fruitful topic: the things the people we know well don’t do, the activities they avoid, the predilections they express negatively. The narrator’s father never went to the barber; he cut his own hair. He never traveled by bus. He never shopped at local shops where he might have to talk to someone. He never attended any of the narrator’s soccer games—except once, and then, the narrator heartbreakingly relates, only to berate his son for missing a scoring chance, knowing neither the final score of the game nor that the narrator scored two goals, including the winner. The zig-zags of this section—from the description of minutiae to an abstraction born of them and back to the personal anecdote—are typical of the book.

 

A Death in the Family is the first volume of a six-volume autobiographical series—published to acclaim in Norway and throughout Europe, and now making its way into English translation—a series provocatively named Min Kamp. The echo of Hitler’s autobiographical screed Mein Kampf is surely deliberate, but I’m not sure to what end. Maybe that will become clearer in later volumes. Be that as it may, it is already clear that the title allows for considerable irony. Knausgaard ironizes the very of idea of comparing his comfortable bourgeois social-democratic life to Hitler and the project of National Socialism. He ironizes the very idea of being daring enough to do so, as if he were aging enfant terrible. He also ironizes Hitler, specifically his megalomania in making himself exemplary, of making (overstated) autobiographical struggles the basis for a (distorted) political world-view.

We might say that Knausgaard wants to take the idea of struggle back from Hitler. Yes, he seems to be saying, there is something embarrassing and false about calling a middle-class comfortable life a struggle, but there is something true about it too. And in reminding us that the struggle of life ends in death, Knausgaard offers us a politics based entirely in reality, and thus miles away from Hitler’s.

Here I am writing about Hitler—hardly what I’d intended. But in making this digression perhaps I’m more like Knausgaard than I’d dared hope. For the structure of his writing, at least in this volume—apparently he wrote two novels before the series; they seem, rather drearily, to be about angels and metaphysics—can seem wayward and formless. Not disorganized, but also not organized. This of course is an illusion, one that Knausgaard points to, both overtly, in his repeated fascination with what art means for contemporary artists, and obliquely, in the practicing of his craft, that is, in his struggle with form.

The result is a book that has plenty of shape despite seeming rather shapeless. I’m not entirely sure how that works, but my sense is that it has to do with the tropes I keep turning to in writing about him: immersion, hypnosis, submergence. This book casts a spell. It seems appropriate that these are all ambivalent terms, states we are drawn to but suspicious and even frightened of. I’m not sure I’d call Knausgaard a nice writer.

Just as the hypnotist needs some time to murmur soothing words to us before we go under (you are getting sleepy, very sleepy), so too does Knausgaard need time to cast his particular spell. And time, in reading, is connected to length. Page numbers translate into minutes, hours, weeks, even years of our lives. Immersion takes time, and takes time away. Something I hope to figure out as I read the rest of these volumes (the second and third are now in English with the rest to follow) is whether Knausgaard’s use of scale—of time-consuming length—is different from other writers’. After all, the premise of My Struggle is hardly original. A six volume, nearly 3000 page autobiographical novel that tells the story of how a sensitive boy became the writer of the text at hand: sound familiar? In case it doesn’t Knausgaard lards the opening volume with references to Proust. A long meditation on the persistence of things, even or especially things we’ve lost, could with only a few changes come straight from the Recherche:

The smell of short, freshly watered grass when you are sitting on a soccer field one summer afternoon after training, the long shadows of motionless trees, the screams and laughter of children swimming in the lake on the other side of the road, the sharp yet sweet taste of the energy drink XL-1. … You could still buy Slazenger tennis rackets, Tretorn balls, and Rossignol skis, Tyrolia bindings and Koflach boots. The houses where we lived were still standing, all of them. The sole difference, which is the difference between a child’s reality and an adult’s was that they were no longer laden with meaning. A pair of Le Coq soccer boots was just a pair of soccer boots. If I felt anything when I held a pair in my hands now it was only a hangover from my childhood, nothing else, nothing in itself. … The world was the same, yet it wasn’t, for its meaning had been displaced, approaching closer and closer to meaninglessness.

There is surely a socio-political dimension to this passage that regrettably I don’t know enough about to comment on usefully. (What I know about Norway comes from crime novels. Possibly not entirely reliable sources.) It does strike me, though, that the notion of permanence presented here must have something to do with Norway’s social and economic stability and prosperity. (Not everyone’s childhood memories will be so connected to sporting equipment; not every place has all its houses still standing).

But there is also a literary-historical component to the passage that I do know something about, specifically in its relation to Proust. Knausgaard is working over similar topics, especially about the relation of the past to the present. But the sentiments aren’t quite the same. Proust would agree that the adult world is no longer meaningful in the same way as the child’s. But he would emphasize the connections between the two worlds. Proust’s famous “involuntary memory”—the experience buried in things, waiting to be ambush us in chance moments of sudden recovery—isn’t Knausgaard’s interest here. Rather he is concerned, as in the passage’s final turn, with the idea of loss, disenchantment, even meaninglessness. Given later events in the book, specifically the death of the father and the meditations on mortality it provokes, I think meaninglessness here means something like the primordial inertia Freud imagines in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. But Knausgaard shares Proust’s emphasis on the experiencing subject. Proust makes clear that as long as the experiencing subject is present, the world remains meaningful. And Knausgaard implicitly agrees, since that’s what the book is—hundreds of pages of the narrator’s subject experiencing… well, the stuff of experience.

One last comparison to Proust: Knausgaard is less coy than Proust about the identity of his narrator. The shadowy Marcel (mostly he is known only as “I”) of the Recherche is replaced here with the undisguised Karl Ove. Although first person narrators—even ones that have the same name and biography as their authors—are never the same as their authors, Knausgaard makes no attempt to confuse the issue. (No dizzying Philip Roth games here.) The book could be a memoir, I suppose, but it’s clearly not, it’s clearly fictional, even though it doesn’t seem concerned to be so. I’m not sure why this is, and if anyone has any ideas I’d like to hear them.

Like Knausgaard, Karl Ove is born in the late 60s, and grows up in southwestern Norway in the 70s and 80s. His father is a teacher, his mother a nurse. Like the mother in Proust, she is the boy’s nurturing parent. The father is stern, rigid, a little frightening, abusive in an undramatic but effective way. Karl Ove is a little afraid of him but at the same time wants desperately to be recognized by him. His mother is often away for work. For a time Karl Ove lives almost by himself in his grandparents’ house. Eventually the parents divorce, the father remarries, seems transformed, open, warm, generous, but it’s all too much, his newfound conviviality is really only a function of drink. What is first confined to boozy weekends begins, in the way of all addictions, to motivate everything in the father’s life, and it’s not long before he’s a full-fledged alcoholic who, after leaving the second wife, moves into his mother’s house and steadily, sordidly drinks himself to death.

The father’s demise happens later in Karl Ove’s life, he’s already a teenager when his parents divorce. Before that, despite whatever is unusual in the family situation, Karl Ove has an ordinary middle-class Norwegian childhood: school, sports, books, girls. He has an older brother, Yngve, who won’t have much to do with Karl Ove at first and is then away at school later on, returning only to bring Karl Ove word of new music and movies, inspiring Karl Ove to take up music (there’s a funny and painful scene describing the band’s only gig, at the opening of a shopping mall, where what could only with great charity be called their DIY punk aesthetic is an ignominious failure). Later, though, Karl Ove and Yngve become much closer, especially when Karl Ove follows his older brother to university in Bergen.

The first half of the book is episodic, skipping over many things, but giving us certain scenes from Karl Ove’s childhood in detail, such as his dogged determination to buy some beer to take to a New Year’s party that he trudges miles through the snow to reach, mostly because there’s a girl there he likes, a girl who, predictably, barely knows who he is. So far, so conventional, and the least likeable parts of the book, for me, were these laddish ones, always teetering on the verge of the misogynistic.

But the book’s narrative structure makes things interesting. It doesn’t just give us the conventional Bildungsroman trajectory of sensitive soul trying to find his way in the world (will a girl love him, will he be able to create art of any kind that’s any good?). Instead it takes us always back to the scene of the writing of the book, the older Karl Ove’s daily life with wife and three small children, and the never-ending, thoroughly banal but all-encompassing and (at least to its participants) engrossing contortions of daily life in a family with working parents and small children. Knausgaard is great on the sticky overlap of love and resentment that makes up parenting. He also gives us a brief overview of the dramatic story behind this marriage—out of nowhere one day Karl Ove decides to leave his first, Norwegian wife, moves to Stockholm, and, before long, falls in love with the Swedish woman he is married to in the novel’s present. Unfortunately, neither of these women is presented in any depth. Surely there will be much more of them in the later volumes.

The first half is fine, occasionally much better than fine. The set piece with the New Year’s party is pretty great, for example, and Knausgaard is good on relentless northern winters and the miracle of their ending. But the second half is extraordinary. Karl Ove, only recently married to his first wife, has had his first novel accepted for publication. One day, when he is avoiding working on the revisions, his brother calls to say that their father has died. The brothers travel to their grandmother’s home to make arrangements for the funeral, which is where they discover the full extent of the father’s depravity in his final years. It turns out that he and his mother—their grandmother, a fleeting but appealing character in the first part of the book, a resonant and pitiable one in the second—have been living in a spiraling descent of mutual alcoholism. The last third or so of the book tells the detailed story of how the brothers, together with an uncle, prepare for the funeral—mostly by tackling the accumulated filth in the old house.

There’s so much to take in in this book, some of it a bit banal, even risible, but much of it remarkable. And actually, thinking about it now, what I find really remarkable is how the remarkable is the twin of the banal. It’s hard to quote just little bits of Knausgaard. Here’s an example from that last third or so. The narrator and his brother tackle the rooms of the grandmother’s house in turn, each grimmer than the last. Shit, vomit, piss, mold, dust, grime, decay, rust: the house is a ruin that two desperate people have drifted through for years, like sullen, separate castaways in a flimsy boat. The narrator’s task is to clean the stairway:

I filled the bucket with water, took a bottle of Klorin, a bottle of green soap and a bottle of Jif scouring cream and started on the banisters, which could not have been washed for a good five years. There were all sorts of filth between the stair-rods, disintegrated leaves, pebbles, dried-up insects, old spiderwebs. The banisters themselves were dark, in some places almost completely black, here and there, sticky. I sprayed Jif, wrung the cloth and scrubbed every centimeter thoroughly. Once a section was clean and had regained something of its old, dark golden color, I dunked another cloth in Klorin and kept scrubbing. The smell of Klorin and the sight of the blue bottle took me back to the 1970s, to be more precise, to the cupboard under the kitchen sink where the detergents were kept. Jif didn’t exist then. Ajax washing powder did though, in a cardboard container: red, white, and blue. It was a green soap. Klorin did too; the design of the blue plastic bottle with the fluted, childproof top had not changed since then. There was also a brand called OMO. And there was a packet of washing powder with a picture of a child holding the identical packet, and on that, of course, there was a picture of the same boy holding the same packet, and so on, and so on. Was it called Blenda? Whatever it was called, I often racked my brains over mise en abyme, which in principle of course was endless and also existed elsewhere, such as in the bathroom mirror by holding a mirror behind your head so that images of the mirrors were projected to and fro while going farther and farther back and becoming smaller and smaller as far as the eye could see. But what happened behind what the eye could see? Did the images carry on getting smaller and smaller?

Do you see what I mean about how a fascinating but also numbing accretion of banal details (every kind of cleaning supply, everything he does with them) becomes a more abstract meditation (here on the idea of recursion, an important idea in this book which, like Proust’s always reminds us of the process of its being made)?

It is true that I have an inordinate fondness for at least the idea of cleaning, of decay being overturned. (As a child, I thrilled to the section in Dr. Doolittle where the animals are taken to a lovingly scrubbed farm.) Maybe this sort of thing isn’t for everyone. Knausgaard tells us about every trip to the corner store for cigarettes and coke, every little detail that a more conventional narrative would skip unless it saw them as symbolic, or put them in service of some dramatic plot point. For whatever reason, though, I find this recitation riveting, maybe because Knausgaard convinces me that there is an important connection between prosaic materiality and abstract reflection.

One payoff of all this detail is that we really feel the labour of cleaning the house. (What is more boring and exhausting and time-consuming than cleaning, especially when we know things are just going to get dirty again?) Taking a break on the deck one morning, Karl Ove has a vision of the house’s rebirth, symbolized by a glamorous and joyful wake they will hold there after the funeral. He becomes obsessed with the idea, and we thrill to it, even as we also know it’s an impossible fantasy. After all, when this house is scrubbed and made inhabitable again, it is still shabby at best.

But I guess what I enjoyed most about this book was the feeling that Knausgaard ends up earning his poetic, resonant conclusions, his little arias of analysis, not least in the passage that concludes the first volume, when Karl Ove returns to the chapel where the body of his father awaits burial:

Now I saw his lifeless state. And that there was no longer any difference between what had once been my father and the table he was lying on, or the floor on which the table stood, or the wall socket beneath the window, or the cable running to the lamp beside him. For humans are merely one form among many, which the world produces over and over again, not only in everything that lives but also in everything that does not live, drawn in sand, stone, and water. And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor.

That last line, especially, reminds me of the “Time Passes” section in To the Lighthouse, where Virginia Woolf supplants the death of her human characters with the decay of inanimate objects. Not having the book at hand, I can’t check to see if she includes a leaky pipe, but I know she mentions ominous branches and clothes that slip off their hooks. I’m reminded, too, by the most aphoristic line here—the one that begins “For humans are merely one form among many…”—of W. G. Sebald’s invocation in The Emigrants of the dead and how they are ever returning to us.

These allusions—intended or not—suggest that My Struggle isn’t unlike anything you’ve read before. But it has a unique power nonetheless, in the way relentless description of minutiae (Knausgaard gives us not just the table but also the floor, the wall-socket, the cable, and the lamp, too) abuts abstract, high-flown (not yet sententious) commentary.

 

I can’t wait to see what Knausgaard does in the rest of the series. The next volume, I see, is about love. Where does love fit into the philosophy of evanescence expressed here? The book’s on my nightstand, ready for my next flight.

 

 

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5 thoughts on “My Struggle: Volume 1 (A Death in the Family)–Karl Ove Knausgaard (2009, 2012 English translation by Don Bartlett)

  1. Pingback: Am I Reading this Book? | Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

  2. I’ve been thinking of reading this book since I saw a review in “The Economist”. Your review might just prompt me to go buy it. Though I really ought to reading up on fixed income securities.

    • I hope you do! I’d be really curious what you think. No reason you can’t read it *and* about fixed income securities, right? What else are you reading these days?

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