‘A Death in the Family’ by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Review – IFFP 2013, Number 6)

The next stop on our IFFP magical mystery tour is Norway, where we’ll be looking at a book that has provoked a lot of discussion in literary circles.  It is different, a little unusual, it seems to have been very popular as well – but is it any good?  Let’s find out…

A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgård (translated by Don Bartlett – from Harvill Secker)
What’s it all about?
A Death in the Family is the first part of Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle, a cathartic, six-volume, autobiographical novel.  Knausgård is a family man, living with his second wife and their three children in Sweden.  Approaching middle age, he feels the pressure of needing to come up with a work of art and is frustrated that his family life may well be depriving him of this opportunity (so far, so creepily familiar…).  So he decides to write about his life – in great detail…

This initial volume is divided into two parts.  In the first, the focus is on Karl Ove’s childhood, a rather unusual one spent shuttling between a physically-absent mother and a mentally-absent father, one who appears to be shutting himself off from the world.  The second is centred on the father’s death at a young age, an alcohol-fuelled demise which turns out to be messier and more damaging than you could ever have imagined.  In a very Proustian style of writing, Knausgård examines the aftermath of his father’s death in laborious detail, exposing the reader to many things they would rather not see – in a good way, of course.

We sense that Knausgård is using his writing to try and make sense of his life.  A repeated idea is that childhood is a golden age, where all is new and the possibilities are endless.  However, once we move into adulthood, and particular middle age, the end is nigh, visible on the horizon, and despite knowing this, we are doomed to repeat the same tedious days over and over again until the grave.  While we are supposedly individuals, in the grand scheme of things we are merely anonymous parts of the machine, interchangeable and completely replaceable.  He’s a cheery soul, is Karl Ove…

The dominant figure of the novel is, of course, Knausgård’s father.  He is a strange character, a man seemingly trapped in a marriage and family he cares little for, spending as little time with his ‘loved ones’ as possible.  It is inevitable that he will eventually go off the rails (although only the biggest pessimist could have predicted the manner of his spectacular demise), and it is every bit as inevitable that his son will wear the scars from his relationship with his father.

You see, another Proustian connection here is that Karl Ove (just like Proust’s fictionalised Marcel) is not a particularly nice person.  When you paint a complete picture, warts and all, that can hardly come as a surprise, but the writer comes across as an arrogant, selfish (expletive deleted).  He prioritises work over his family (at one point leaving his heavily-pregnant wife in bed at five in the morning to go off and do – or not do – some writing).  As he says near the start of the book:

“I have always had a great need for solitude.  I require huge swathes of loneliness, and when I do not have it, which has been the case for the past five years, my frustration can sometimes become almost panicked, or aggressive.  And when what has kept me going for the whole of my adult life, the ambition to write something exceptional one day, is threatened in this way, my one thought, which gnaws at me like a rat, is that I have to escape.”
p.28 (Harvill Secker, 2012)

I suppose his success has justified his methods, but still…

A Death in the Family is definitely a fascinating work, but I’m not sure it’s for everyone.  While some bits are enthralling (including the infamous seventy-page section where Karl Ove and his brother attempt to erase the squalid signs of their father’s last days), others are equally dull.  One part I found extremely tedious was the story of a New Year’s Eve party Karl Ove attempted to attend in his teens, a good chunk of my life I won’t be getting back.

Another question I have about the book is what it actually is – is it even fiction?  As far as I can tell, it’s completely autobiographical and as honest as it gets, so what actually makes this fiction?  The style of writing?  A clue to the answer to my question may lie in a comment the writer makes when talking about paintings:

“Thus there was always a certain objectivity to them, by which I mean a distance between reality and the portrayal of reality, and it was doubtless in this interlying space where it ‘happened’, where it appeared, whatever it was I saw, when the world seemed to step forward from the world.  When you didn’t just see the incomprehensible in it but came very close to it.” p.199

Knausgård’s version of reality is not reality itself, but a close copy, one that allows us to see reality more clearly.  It may be art, but I’m sure it has come at a cost – Knausgård’s family reunions must be a lot of fun 😉

Do you think it deserves to make the shortlist?
I’m really not sure.  It definitely deserved to be recognised in the longlist, but it is a little patchy (inevitable for the kind of style Knausgård attempts), and as I mentioned above, I’m not even sure if it is really a work of fiction.  I didn’t recommend last year’s Proustian effort (Peter Nádas’ Parallel Stories) for the shortlist, and I think this one will be just outside my top six too.

Will it make the shortlist?
How could it not?  This is the book that everyone seems to have read, and I feel that there is an expectation that it will still be around when the main prize is given out.  Having been longlisted for both the IFFP and the BTBA (the American equivalent), it’s a book which will give some weight and glamour to the shortlist – so it’ll probably make it 🙂

That’s all from Norway.  Next time we’ll be heading south and west, with a brief stop in the Nertherlands before reaching our next destination – Wales.

No, really, Wales.  Honest…

8 thoughts on “‘A Death in the Family’ by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Review – IFFP 2013, Number 6)

  1. Tony – I am eagerly awaiting volume 2 of Knausgaard's opus, as I really thought this was a stunning book. I had a different take on the lengthy section dealing with the New Year's Eve party, which I initially found not dull, exactly, but rather baffling in its length and minutiae. It's only later that the passage seemed to make sense as a remarkable rendering of the directionless, drifting nature of adolescent life, the way in which one can be dependent upon later, concrete events to make sense of what one has lived: indeed, a good chuck of life none of us will ever get back, and therein lies the great poignancy of it.


  2. Seraillon – I like your take on the section, but it's not one I necessarily share 😉 The book has inspired a variety of reactions, even among the mostly positive reviews. Some loved it from the very start, others thought it only came into its own in the second part. I'd say that I liked it on and off from the start – he managed to win me over and lose me again several times in Part 1! I'd like to read the next volume too as I suspect that the first one might contain a few teething issues with the style – I'd expect the next one to be better…

    I feel a little ashamed though that I'm likely to finish this series before Proust's original…


  3. Gary – Not sure if this might be the reason you're having trouble finding the book, but the British edition is entitled A Death in the Family, while in the U.S. it's published by Archipelago Books under its more precisely translated title, My Struggle.


  4. Stu – Definitely one of the favourites for the title. Even though I didn't love it, I can see it doing well, and I'm interested enough to want to read the next part of the story.


  5. Seraillon – I'm surprised the US version didn't follow the Britsh one with the title – I would have though the Nazi undertones of the title would have been very obvious over there too…


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