A Death In The Family: My Struggle Volume 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Both inspiring and distracting me
from my own novel...
I sit here, wearing my limited edition Knausgaard t-shirt, immensely grateful to the kind people at Vintage Books for their surprising gift of the first four novels (and aforementioned t-shirt) simply as a result of being able to post a comment on their YouTube Vlog. There may have been a hidden agenda, considering I'm a book blogger (What, interrobang, a book blogger, interrobang and so on...) but I prefer to believe they picked me at random. Because I'm ace. 

Nonetheless, I had no idea what to expect of these books. I did do a little reading, and found lots of very interesting articles about Karl Ove Knausgaard, including this entertaining one in the Wall Street Journal. But in all honesty, nothing prepared me for reading them, and I can see why they cause controversy and consternation wherever they are translated (which is pretty much everywhere).

First off, being intelligent and perspicacious readers as I trust you all to be, you will no doubt have spotted the whole Godwin's Law thing going on, what with the title (in Norwegian and in translation) being a whole lot like that of another book of controversial fiction. You may rest assured however that the similarities begin and end there. The controversy arises from the raw, shameless writing, the unfettered descriptions of a perfidious man (and boy), and of everything that he experiences (that he can remember for he often is at odds with his memory). In book two, his editor, Geir, is reported to say that he was deeply moved by Knausgaard's description of sleeping with a thirteen year-old girl, that he could not believe that he would go so far as to take about such a thing openly. I think that, as a microcosm of the reaction to these books, is pretty much spot on. Not that Knausgaard goes around enjoying statutory rape–he denies in book two having said and performed this particular crime, despite writing about it–but rather that his perceived honesty surpasses any boundaries set by contemporaries or antecedents. Indeed, his form, whilst on the surface is simple, a first person narrator telling of his childhood and youth, his family life, growing up with a father both he and his brother hated, his father's death, his mother's casual distance, his drinking, his inner life, his excesses and restraint, his shame and fear and pretty much everything else, it is a revelation, a freeing of the writer from the constraints of form, which is probably why Vintage are unsure whether this sits in biography or fiction. It is classified as fictive, but I believe only in so far as the narrative of a person's life is pretty much all fiction framed by experience. Of course, people are apt to pigeon-hole things. As such he has been dubbed the Scandinavian Proust.

Meh.

In a way, book one is the chronicle of why this book and the five that follow (only four have made it into English thus far) came about. In it, he talks without censure or censoring, of his childhood with a father who wasn't very nice to him. His father was a teacher, and became a severe alcoholic in later life once he and Knausgaard's mother split up. Karl Ove and brother Yngve lived in fear of him, and yet when he dies, Knausgaard is overwhelmed and completely bewildered by his grief. In the WSJ article he mentions that his father retreated into a bottle in order to be able to deal with his world. He himself decided he had to write instead, that this was his way of coping. And, as a man given to the odd football analogy, I might have to compare his writing to the football philosophy of Jurgen Klopp - it's heavy metal writing, not pretty tiki-taka wordsmithery. In fact, what emerges is multi-layered and massively entertaining: it's part essay: Knausgaard has some insightful and startling views on life, art, fear and death; part simple narrative, sometimes exhausting the reader with his recollections of each situation, each moment; and part stream of consciousness. I lost a good few hours to this book after deciding to read to the end of a passage or line of thought before going to get a cup of tea or heading off to bed (or indeed getting back to writing my own NaNoWriMo novel from which this book distracted me but in equal measure inspired me to continue). I simply devoured it. Knausgaard himself is unsparing with himself as a character too, and in places I found him distasteful, whining, obtuse, ridiculous, but so much like how I see myself that it was liberating–not that I compare myself to him, but rather that by reading of his honesty about his experiences I can see patterns in my own behaviour that I choose to ignore or dismiss, or simply don't understand.
This book, and the three that follow, and my ace t-shirt, were
kindly donated to me by the good people of Vintage Books.

Knausgaard says there is nothing new to be done in literature, but in disregarding trends, forms, the restrictions of taste, concerns about the peccadilloes of any potential audience, he has written a truly liberated novel, foundation-shaking, intense, vital, passionate and most thrillingly, a daring book, but by all accounts the world is lapping it up. It appeals to the common humanity in us all.

I cautioned a colleague, and would extend this to everyone, that if, like me, you have even the smallest suspicion of an addictive personality, steer clear of this first book, or else you can kiss goodbye to evenings, weekends, and relationships with things other than the next three books, and his other fiction (which I'm busy collecting, even risking a pre-Christmas Saturday in the city to pick up a copy of A Time For Everything). 

You have been warned.

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