I read it just after my own dad had died and before his funeral. So, given its subject matter, it was a strange experience.
It is amazing. After a page long paragraph in which he describes the scientific process of dying, Karl Ove (never Karl!) tells us about incidents in his life as a boy, and the relationship he had with his father, in incredible detail. This is a documentary look at life and every wrinkle is recorded (including the shape of his penis). I have not yet read A Las Recherche du Temps Perdu by Marcel Proust but I believe it is equally detailed; certainly Karl Ove's obsession for chronicling the tiniest of things makes James Joyce's Ulysses seem like a crayoned drawing next to an etching. And Knausgaard's book is, or at least purports to be, utterly and starkly factual.
This of course makes the book difficult to read. It is exhaustive and exhausting. This isn't helped by some very long paragraphs. And of course it also means that Karl Ove has to select one or two incidents in his growing up on which he will report:
- Aged eight he thinks he sees a face in the water on the television news report about a drowning; he rushes to tell his father (whom he fears) about it and that night he has to secretly creep into the lounge where his parents are watching the news to see if they will see the face.
- As a young teenager he lives in a flat on town on his own, shopping, cooking and caring for himself, with occasional visits from and to parents and grandparents. This section of the book dealt with his early attempts at making out with girls, an abortive career as Norway's worst rock group, and a hilarious attempt to celebrate New Year at a 'meaningful' party with beer. This last episode acts as an interesting counterpoint to the end of the book; it also reveals that Karl Ove was rather selective in his friends and very concerned with his street cred status (not an unusual feature of adolescence); this also tells us that Knausgaard is prepared to reveal his own personality warts and all (or is this just a smoke screen?). There is a wonderful moment when he is with Hanne, a girl who is friends with him and nothing more (though he wishes she was; unrequited love!), and watches her as a bad boy, comes into the room: "Even though I was there she opened herself to him. Laughed with him, met his gaze, even parted her knees at the desk where she was sitting, when he went right up to her. It was as if he had cast a spell over her." (p 186)
- Then he is an adult, his father is dead and he goes to the house with his brother to take care of the funeral. His father was living with his grandmother, they were getting drunk every night and the house is full of bottles and filth, there is urine and faeces all over the place and some of the clothing is rotting. This is a nightmare image and Karl Ove and Yngve his brother set to work to clean. And although Karl Ove hated his father ("dad had got what was coming to him, it was good that he was dead, anything in me that said otherwise was lying." (p 265)) he is the one who repeatedly spontaneously bursts into tears.
Some assorted moments
- "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." (p 32)
- "Nothing in the winter landscape presages the scent of sun-warmed heather and moss, trees bursting with sap and thawed lakes ready for spring and summer, nothing presages the feeling of freedom that can come over you when the only white that can be seen is the clouds gliding across the blue sky above the blue waters of the rivers gently flowing down to the sea, the perfect, smooth, cool surface, broken now and then by rocks, rapids and bathing bodies." (p 183)
- "Why should you live in a world without feeling its weight?" (p 261)
- "he would have to plough his own furrow, live his own life, die his own death" (p 268)
- "Had I ever initiated a conversation with a stranger?
- No, never.
- And there was no evidence to suggest I ever would." (p 278)
- "Feelings are like water, they always adapt to their surroundings." (p 288)
- "he could be more malicious to me than anyone else" (p 358)
- "This is what girls I have tried my luck with have seen in my eyes. Too much desire, too little hope." (p 365)
- "so young and no cleverer than three sparrows" (p 376)
- "He no longer poached air, because that is what you do when you breathe, you trespass, again and again you trespass on the world." (p 389)
- "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?" (p 401)
- "She was like a vampire that had finally got a taste of blood ... life was returning to her, filling her limb by limb." (p 435)
This is an astonishing book. It is so truthful and so meticulous that I am not sure that I know what to make of it.
My reading group considered the book on 14th March 2017. Three of us enjoyed it (though only one was looking forward to reading further volumes on the series; the other two found it hard going but appreciated the craft); one absolutely hated it. If we reached any sort of insight about this book it was that Knausgaard tends (and we were divided as to whether this was a deliberate technique or revealed Knausgaard's lack of emotional intellignece) to write about what happened rather than speculating on why it happened. For example, there was no attempt to explain why Knausgaard could simultaneously be glad that his father had died and yet burst into spontaneous bouts of weeping. Nor did we understand why his father aroused such feelings of animosity in Knausgaard; what precisely did the man do that was wrong? Nor did we understand his affection for a mother who appears more or less completely absent from his life. This then led to the thought that perhaps the book is more revealing in the things it does not say than in the things it did.
It was also interesting that we liked different parts of the book. I had most enjoyed the funny quirkinesses of Knausgaard's adolescence, the very part that the reader who most liked the book liked least.
One thing we could conclude from our long, at times intense, discussion: we had all been deeply impressed by the characters in the book whether we liked them or not.
March 2017, 490 pages
Other memoirs reviewed in this blog include (in order of how much I enjoyed them, favourites first):
- Memoir of the Bobotes: by Joyce Cary: a brilliantly written memoir of the author's time as a medical officer during the Balkan Wars (pre World War I): the writer became a novelist and his craft shows; full of humour and keen observation
- My Family and Other Animals (and the sequels) by Gerald Durrell: Beautiful descriptions and hilarious accounts of an eccentric family living on the Greek Island of Corfu between WWI and WWII
- A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble: a well-written, frequently humourous account of Pacific paradise
- Bus Stop Symi by William Travis: the account of three years spent on the remote and at the time unspoilt Greek island of Symi: well-written, charming and amusing
- Surprised by Joy by C S Lewis: an account of the famous author's life, mostly from the perspective of his Christianity: beautifully written
- A Death in the Family by Karl-Ove Knausgard: the first volume of a series in which the author, in the guise of writing novels, portrays real people with real names: the writing is brilliant
- Beautiful People by Simon Doonan: The story of a young gay man: well-written with moments of marvellous humour
- Teacher Man by Frank McCourt: the third volume in the series that started with Angela's Ashes
- The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice by Polly Coles: a reasonably well-written account of a year spent living in Venice
- A Detail on the Burma Front by Winifred Beaumont: a nurse's story from one of the theatres of World War II: more compassion and humour: reasonably well-written
- Whatever Happened to Margo: Margaret Durrell's account of running a boarding house in Bournemouth: sometimes muddled but often funny
- Rabbit Stew and a Penny or Two by Maggie Smith-Bendell: an interesting and reasonably well-written account of a Romani Gypsy childhood
- Not for the faint-hearted by John Stevens: the autobiography of a senior police officer; probably best for those most interested in this sort of story
- Forty Years Catching Smugglers by Malcolm Nelson: the memoirs of a senior customs officer; probably best for those most interested in this sort of story