Harvill Secker, £17.99, 393pp. £16.19 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
A Death in the Family, By Karl Ove Knausgaard, trans. Don Bartlett
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Friday 09 March 2012
I first heard about Karl Ove Knausgaard's six torrential volumes of autobiographical fiction in the cosy book-lined cabin where Per Petterson writes, just next to his farmhouse in eastern Norway. The author of Out Stealing Horses – a much less prolix kind of writer – gestured to a line of matching spines and told me with admiration about the 3,000-page deluge of confessional writing that had set the country talking and arguing after the first episode appeared in 2009. As if Knausgaard's sustained assault on every conventional divide between the novel and memoir were not enough, he had called his epic sequence "My Struggle". In Norwegian, that's Min Kamp. You can see that Karl Ove does not exactly shun controversy.
Across the North Sea, British readers can – I think should – set to one side the wrangles over Knausgaard's strip-mining of his own life, and family, for raw material. At this distance, we can simply treat A Death in the Family – the opening volume – as an imaginary portrait of the artist as a young man. Yes, the dates, the places, the people may correspond exactly to the author's youth. Yet for readers here - as opposed to those in Tromoya and Kristiansand, the island and port where he grew up – this monumental Bildungsroman has to make its way into our minds, and hearts, as fiction.
This first act pivots on the early death of Karl Ove's morose father, a teacher who left his wife, took to drink and retreated to booze, and to die, at his mother's seaside home. "He's destroyed everything," laments the narrator's beloved, super-competent brother Yngve, now a graphic designer. After the discovery of Dad's body, cold in a chair, they gather to survey the hideous (and quite brilliantly described) squalor into which father and grandmother had withdrawn.
Why this slow suicide, and how does this self-destruction relate to Karl Ove's testy, troubled love? This hidden father not only kept his distance but – as the opening scene tells us – could put down his younger son to the point where "shame" (a crucial term) makes Karl Ove feel that "I... was being erased". Well, antidotes to early-years erasure do not come much stronger than a 3,000-page wall of "autofiction". This motif of vindication is never far away for Karl Ove, who "wanted so much to be special" as a gauche teen. So "the ambition to write something exceptional" takes root and drives his narrative. It partners a more oblique and fitful inquiry into a family's breakdown, and a father's misery.
As in Proust's In Search of Lost Time – the obvious reference-point, and acknowledged as a source as early as page 26 – the whole vast work becomes a microscopically detailed account of how it came to be written at all. As with his great mentor, adherence to a strict chronology matters less to Knausgaard than crafting a mosaic of glittering scenes, framed by recurrent images and memories. Don Bartlett deserves the highest praise for a translation that, with pace, rhythm and agility, registers every swing and swoop of mood and tone. This prismatic, recursive approach to childhood and adolescence means that Knausgaard offers much less in-your-face intimacy than the hype suggests. His mother and both wives hardly appear except as background shadows, although it's a move to Sweden with the second - and a baby due - that fuels the urge to capture forever the perceptions that moulded his youth.
So, via a succession of close-focus episodes, we experience an early life illuminated in lightning-flashes just as mesmeric – and hair-raising – as a summer storm in Kristiansand. Excited petting with an early girlfriend, in the "vale of rotating tongues", leads to a sudden sense of nausea. A rare gig for his dismal Deep Purple- and Led Zep-influenced band at the shopping centre - it's the mid-1980s, when the heavy-metal cult of his peers clashes with his own punk-indie aesthetic - ends in feedback hell and the fury of a blazered manager. A New Year's Eve party with forbidden beers (this is often a story about the wonders and terrors of that "magic potion", alcohol) traverses gatecrasher's purgatory before a paradisal glimpse of midnight fireworks. At the climax, the drawn-out cleansing of the ruined house – a tour de force of prose – winds back to the excruciating question. "And to me, what had dad been to me? Someone I wished dead. So why all the tears?" This volume begins an answer; the others will surely deepen it.
Along the way, Knausgaard (always the Proustian) digresses into the vocation of art and the solace of nature. He can be enraptured by the "inexhaustibility" of a sketch by Constable, enchanted by springtime light with its promise of "all the happiness, all the beauty, all the future that resides in everything", thrilled at the memory of a Christmas fish-market and the "marvellous adventure" of sea-creatures, or intrigued by how cherished brands of childhood lose glamour, "no longer laden with meaning". It would be otiose to note that he can play the long-winded narcissist. Take that as read. Equally, he can touch any topic with gold, "for my world, in all its unbearable banality, was radiant".
In scattered fragments, Knausgaard sets out his own stall as a writer. During his teenage guitar-bashing days, he had despised Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" as "the antithesis of cool". Yet, in the end, his own art goes to war on irony and detachment. In essence, he sets off in search of the sublime, an arch-romantic who passes through the modernist domain of pastiche, subversion and allusion, and yet comes out on the other side.
"I wanted to open the world by writing", he says, and to seal in words those "sudden states of clear-sightedness" that rescue reality for a hyper-intellectual era, "enclosed around itself, enclosed around us". Karl Ove seeks, as Nordic visionaries often have, the "beyond": this book's refrain. And for wealthy, protected Westerners, "death is the great beyond" - the last taboo, the ultimate truth. If you wished to classify Knausgaard's rhapsodic pursuit of everyday transcendence, you might label it Mortuary Realism. Death makes existence mean and matter. Sometimes overblown, quite often as sublime as its author hoped, this first installment of an epic quest should restore jaded readers to life.
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