A DEATH IN THE FAMILY by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Harvil Secker, 2012)
"Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows"
After writing relatively conventional novels, the Norwegian author, Karl Ove Knausgaard declared, as he approached the age of 40, that he was sick of fiction.
He felt that making up stories was essentially a dishonest practice. As an alternative, he decided to tell the story of his own life but this, the first of six volumes, is far from being a conventional autobiography. The original title is Min Kamp 1 (My Struggle) which is, it is to be hoped, an ironic reference to Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
The books could be seen as an exploration of a mid-life crisis with all the doubts, self-loathing and shame that go with the territory. His decision not to change any of names inevitably leaves family, friends and acquaintances exposed too. This is all the more pronounced given the huge success of the books, particularly in his native country where he has achieved a strange mix of celebrity and notoriety.
He writes: “to judge you have to stand outside and that is not where creativity takes place”. Much of his reputation, and repudiation, derives from the fact that he has opted not to omit uncomfortable thoughts or events. He immerses himself in minutiae of his daily life, making a point of not excluding banal activities like shopping or tea making. “I wanted to see how far it was possible to take realism before it would be impossible to read”, he says. Large parts of it are intentionally tedious, boring in the sense that life is often boring.
In the powerful opening section of the book, he writes of how most people live in denial of their own mortality. He describes the “collective act of repression symbolised by the concealment of the dead”. By writing so clinically on the passing of his father, he is in the business of confronting the grisly reality of death, making no attempt to put any romanticised gloss on things.
The fact that his father was a self-destructive alcoholic and died in squalor means that while dealing with the preparations for the funeral, he and his elder brother have to undertake the extremely messy business of clearing out the rooms where he spent his final years.
For Knausgaard this is an emotional experience but one in which he feels more a sense of guilt than grief for the loss of someone he had no love for; his father was, he admits, “someone I wished dead” .
The coldness of these sentiments strike me as brutally honest but ,taken as a whole, this book struck a false note. The question I kept asking myself while reading was : How can he possibly remember so much?
There are dialogues and descriptions that only someone with a photographic memory could possibly recall yet Knausgaard admits that “I remembered hardly anything from my childhood” and “I usually forgot almost everything about people, however close they were, said to me”. It’s not even that he can rely on old diaries as he say he burned these when he was in his mid-twenties.
While considering how to put down my thoughts about this book, I chanced upon a short video of Salman Rushdie in the excellent Big Think series. Rushdie states that, given that the first premise of fiction is that it is not true, we look to literature to meet “people you can believe in behaving in ways that you can recognise”.
It’s seems to me that even though Knausgaard speaks of his writing as a form of social realism, A Death In The Family should be considered as having more in common with fiction than journalism. He must have selected those autobiographical details to make an impact in the same way as a novelist puts together a plot. In other words his intention is, in Rushdie’s words, to arrive “at the truth by the road of untruth”. I don’t think he entirely succeeds but I can relate to and admire the struggle to try.