Karl Ove Knausgaard, A Death in the Family (My Struggle: 1) (2009, translation by Don Bartlett 2012, Vintage 2013)
When we googled “My Struggle” at the Book Group last month, the top result was Hitler’s Mein Kampf. We were mildly amused by what we took to be a google oddity. But the Norwegian title of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume novel is Min Kamp – a similarity that could hardly be accidental. At the Sydney Writers’ Festival, the man himself told us that the sixth and final volume is a 400 page essay about Adolf Hitler. One has to wonder: if A Death in the Family is point A, how does he get from point A to point Way Off the Chart?
But since only two of the books are available in English so far, that’s a question for later.
Before the meeting: I finished reading A Death in the Family a couple of weeks ago, just after hearing Karl Ove speak at the SWF. I would have moved straight on to the second volume, A Man in Love, if I hadn’t had other more pressing demands on my imaginative faculties. The appeal, for me, is to do with shoe leather.
In the movie business shoe leather is the term for precious screen time wasted on actors walking from place to place. Knausgaard has elevated its written equivalent to a high art. It seems no one ever just gets in a car and drives somewhere: they always turn on the indicator, check the rear-vision mirror and pull out into the traffic, then follow a series of carefully named streets until they arrive at their destination. When a character cleans a book case, it goes like this:
I sprayed the glass door of the bookcase, crumpled up the newspaper and rubbed it over the runny liquid a few times until the glass was dry and shiny. Looked around for more to do while I had the spray in my hand, but saw nothing apart from the windows, which I had determined to save until later. Instead, I went on with the bookcase, tidied everything, starting with its contents.
That man be unremarkable, but so much of the book is taken up with similar attention to detail that how a reader responds to it will have a huge influence on their response to the book as a whole. Early on, there’s a passage about growing up that helps explain what’s happening, as I understand it:
As your perspective of the world increases not only is the pain it inflicts on you less but also its meaning. Understanding the world requires you to keep a certain distance from it. Things that are too small to see with the naked eye, such as molecules and atoms, we magnify. Things that are too large, such as cloud formations, river deltas, constellations, we reduce. At length we bring it within the scope of our senses and we stabilise it with fixer. When it has been fixed we call it knowledge. Throughout our childhood and teenage years we strive to attain the correct distance from objects and phenomena. We read, we learn, we experience, we make adjustments. Then one day we reach the point where all the necessary distances have been set, all the necessary systems have been put in place. That is when time begins to pick up speed. It no longer meets any obstacles, everything is set, time races through our lives, the days pass by in a flash and before we know what is happening we are forty, fifty, sixty.
I read the narrative’s wealth of undifferentiated detail as an attempt to reverse that process: to give priority to specific observations and experiences over any abstraction, to go for immediately apprehended ‘meaning’ over calm, generalisable ‘knowledge’, to avoid our habitual exclusion of some things from consideration. As well as the tiny acts, the brand names, the hyper-specifics, we are given the narrator’s play of mind, apparently unfiltered – memories and meditations that are jogged by the brand names on cleaning products, say, his adolescent worries about the shape of his penis when erect, or the strange feeling he had as a boy about the gravel on the floor of the family garage. And, because nothing is being left out, he tells us things that are just not talked about: how he shakes his little girl when she irritates him, the extraordinarily squalid circumstances of his father’s death, his grandmother’s incontinence. These last things don’t feel deliberately shocking – more like the inevitable result of a decision made at the beginning to put everything in.
Karl Ove has said that the overwhelming emotion he had while writing the novel was shame. He couldn’t believe anyone would read it, and now he is embarrassed to realise that roughly half a million people know all about his failures as a parent and his sexual inadequacies (those are yet to come, perhaps in the second book).
After the meeting: This book provoked as much sustained conversation as any we’ve discussed in the group. One man who spent his childhood in Britain was most deeply struck by the way the weather was evoked: the grimness of the winter and the way spring came as a great relief. This struck a chord with others who had lived in northern Europe for any length of time. Another man, following his daughter’s lead, had been watching a lot of Simon Amstell‘s recent melancholy stand-up and found a striking resonance with this book. Another man was struck by the book’s failure to make him empathise with the narrator – at one stage he thought it might all be total fiction, that Knausgaard the author might be no more Karl Ove the character than Mark Haddon is Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – and in that case it’s a brilliant creation. I don’t know that anyone liked it as much as I did.
As always, the conversation ranged widely, from the sexist bile being showered on Julia Gillard to details of our lives, all to the tune of excellent pasta, grilled zucchini and fennel and tomato salad.