on 27 April 2013
Novels are often autobiographical, and memoirs usually have as much fiction as fact. So what is Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle? It's clearly his personal story, told in a hyper-realistic manner. When I saw him in conversation with James Wood in September 2012 at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, he said yes, of course this is a novel, not a memoir: he uses the techniques of a novelist. But it's something simpler than that: it's an extremely effective piece of storytelling, the elemental kind that is how we make sense of our lives.
Why should readers care about the story of Karl Ove's life? It's not that it's in any way remarkable, though it certainly has its personal dramas. No, it's the almost guileless realism that drew me in--all the small details that make up our everyday lives that rarely get acknowledged in books, but which completely resonates at some deep inner level. And while there are passages where the writing is plain--no other word for it--often Knausgaard is employing the careful wordcraft of a skilled writer more concerned with telling his story than showing off his chops. In doing so, he gets to the heart of being in all its everyday ordinariness.
Knausgaard spares no one in his family in this portrayal, least of all himself. We see family scenes from his childhood, a long section from his teenage years that's blissfully free of moralizing or wallowing in self pity: it's simply life itself.
But ultimately the book is about death, and what that means for the living. My Struggle opens with a meditation on life's end, and the heart of the book recounts Karl Ove's week after learning of his father's death, most of it spent at his grandmother's fetid home in Kristiansand, a town on the southern coast of Norway. It was here that his father spent the last years of his life, slowly drinking himself to death. Karl Ove and his brother Yngve slowly clean out the stinking house, tossing reeking clothes and furniture, scrubbing for hours on end, and trying to understand their grandmother, who found their dead father, her dead son.
It doesn't sound like promising material, and should by rights be downright depressing, but it's not. Every detail is described with care; the story is more like a painting of an old Dutch master, rich in intricate and mundane detail, sparing nothing, engrossing us, leaving us wanting more.
Why does this book work so well? Why did I look forward to reading another 20 pages every evening? I think somehow Knausgaard has managed to make his struggle universal through all the small details that accumulate into the larger whole. That includes his own follies and failures, his self doubt and fears, and yet also a confidence that he will make it through to the next day, the ultimate struggle for all of us.
Each little moment he describes is a moment of awareness of the present. Perhaps that's why it captivated me: all too often, we go through our days unaware of the moments that make up our lives, lost in thought, focused on the future or the past. Knausgaard describes a relentless present, something that we mostly forget in our own daily struggles.
This definitely isn't a book for everyone; if you want plot development and action, look elsewhere. But for me it was rich, rewarding, thought-provoking, and ultimately moving.
on 5 January 2013
I would rarely use the word "masterpiece" to descrive a contemporary novel, let alone an autobiography, but this book deserves this title.
You have to admit he has guts: writing a six - part autobiography and calling it "My struggle" (in German translated as "Mein Kampf") is a daring enterprise. But Knausgard succeeds with brio: he is a brilliant story teller and explores the human condition with such honesty and candour that it just leaves you gasping for breath (and wanting to read more and more).
The scenes at the end of the book (his father, his grandmother, the house, the bottles, ....) still haunt my mind.
Apparently Knausgard has achieved a kind of rock star status in Scandinavia: as far as I am concerned he deserves it.
The second book of the series "A man in love" has already appeared in the Dutch translation and is a little bit disappointing after the sheer brilliance of the first, but that is only to be expected. This book is to be released in April in English. By that time I will have read part three of "My Struggle" and it is already marked on my calendar that I have to get the moment it comes out.
Seriously, this is a reading experience not to be missed!
on 3 June 2013
I can not decide whether or not I like this book. I found it self-indulgent, and I at times felt that the author was incredibly arrogant. The book appears to have been written as self-therapy, to cleanse the author of his feelings about his father. We never really find out why the author hated his father so much, nor do we discover much about what seems to have been a very good relationship with his mother. The style of the book is sometimes very difficult to read: there are whole pages without a single paragraph break, and there is little flow of narrative. You could start reading this book at any point and not lose the flow.
This book definitely is not as good as the praise at the front of the book suggests. But at the same time, I did want to read it. Although not likeable, the author's character is intriguing; his observations of human nature are fascinating, his descriptions of the things he sees brings them alive. And yet he appears to have no ability to interpret his own behaviour. It has bee suggested that the author may be somewhere on the autism spectrum; he is highly intelligent, but seems unable to truly relate to others.
I can't say I enjoyed the book. I can't say I would recommend it to others to read. But I am glad I took the time to read it.
`A Death in the Family' (My Struggle: Vol 1) takes the autobiographical novel to the extreme. Knausgaard has written the truth, this is his reality. The frankness of his 6 Volume work has alienated him from half his family and he admits that the scandal accompanying its publication has contributed to its bestselling status in Norway where it has become a national obsession.
The central figure is his father, an ordinary school teacher who became an alcoholic and drank himself to death. There is no plot or formal structure and Knausgaard moves around freely in time as a particular event reminds him of something that happened in the past. It is about his struggle to write great literature while having to contend with the banality of everyday life including looking after his children, he loves them but is brutally honest about the fact he also resents the time they take up in his life. At times it can be almost uncomfortable learning about one man's life in such detail, but it is fascinating. Although it is a personal narrative about the struggles of a writers life it also explores the struggles universal to us all.
There are no chapters and frequently a single paragraph can take up several pages which may sound daunting but the compelling narrative kept me going. Memories and events in his life are described in minute detail, for example, the time that he and his brother clean their grandmother's house after their father died there; having wrecked the place. In spite of the detail of the mundane `A Death in the Family' is not boring, although Part 1 is the hardest to get through but it really takes off in Part 2 leaving me wanting to read the second volume.
It has frequently been compared to Marcel Proust, has been hailed as a literary masterpiece all over Europe and it will be interesting to see how it is received in the UK. `A Death in the Family' is amusing, tragic and very controversial; a very literary book but compelling and highly readable; thanks in no small part to Don Bartlett's translation, Scandi crime fans will recognise the name as he translates Jo Nesbo. The question is has Knausgaard sold his soul for fame?
"For the writer, life is simple: he writes for as long as he can. And then he stops."
Aside from these words, the screen of my laptop is completely blank. I push my chair back from my desk and I turn away. For five years now, here in this shabby studio flat in Gothenburg, in a gloomy side street between the Grottninnggatan and the Schittirelsenresidentiat (turn right at the all-night chemist and then up the iron fire escape to the left of the OK USA adult video shop), I have been trying to complete my review of A Death in the Family, and yet somehow the book's essence still lies tantalisingly just beyond my grasp. Distracted now, I unscrew the lid of the coffee tin, place two spoonfuls of granules in a chipped and slightly stained Marimekko cup with a red floral design, pour in some boiling water, and observe as the cup fills with foaming black fluid, as black as the waters beneath the ice of the Oslofjord that night in February 1978, when I was taken fishing by my father along with my sister Yngvwydd, as tiny filaments of ice formed in the braids of her hair and small clumps of snow clustered on the threads of her taupe cable-knit woollen sweater... and I wonder whether my review might have made better progress if I were not so easily sidetracked into lengthy digressions.
I inherited my propensity towards digression from my father. I remember a party he once threw at his old flat, back when he was a secondary school teacher in Trondheim. There were two dozen bottles of Danish lager on ice in the kitchen sink, plus a flagon of aquavit, and there was black bread topped with liver paste and sweet brown goat-cheese. Skyppye was there, and Yngve, and Vlaarsnot, and Hekkilde, and Sloppi, and Horrydwygge. Who were these people? It hardly matters: I scarcely knew them at the time, and I recall them now with neither affection nor interest.
But Hanne was there, I know that: Hanne with whom I would secretly walk home from class in 1981, even though she already had a boyfriend. I vividly remember each day of that long, cold summer...
[147 pages are now omitted from the original Norwegian review]
..and even though I passed much of that summer fondling her breasts behind the kipper-canning factory in Stavangerfjord, I never quite overcame my feelings of utter indifference towards her, and I recall her now with a complete absence of emotion.
My review lies half-written before me. I turn back to my laptop and I try again: "The heart cares not for whom it beats; the writer cares not for whom he writes." Was that it? Was that what I was trying to say? Or was it what I thought I should try to say? Or what it what I thought my editor was thinking? Frustrated now, I flick distractedly through a book of 18th century engravings, and immediately my eye lights upon a sketch by Fragonard of a courtesan in a flounced skirt adjusting her garter. And I am overcome by the immediacy of this depiction of a long-dead reality. With a tear in my eye, I think: should I whip out my frankfurter and pull myself off? No, for Christ's sake, I'm supposed to be writing a review.
My wife, Agnethafalskog, comes up behind me and whispers in my ear, "Come to bed, Karl Ove." I love the sound of my name on her lips almost as dearly as I love the sound of my own voice. I slip between the warm Egyptian cotton sheets, which we'd purchased from the Ikea store on the southern tip of the Bergen ring road, exactly two years and three months after that morning in Narvik when Agnethafalskog had had a half-eaten herring snatched from her mittened hand by a swooping seagull, and yet I cannot settle. I get up again, unscrew the lid of the coffee tin, place two spoonfuls in the chipped Marimekko cup, fill the cup with boiling water, and pick up my dog-eared and heavily annotated copy of Marcel Proust's A La Recherce Du Temps Perdu. For the next three hours I immerse myself in Proust's world of lost time - time which, once squandered, can never be recaptured - a feeling with which my readers must be all too familiar.
It reminds me of that time at my grandparents' summer cottage in Grymmheim when I was eight years old...
[the next 3,478 pages are omitted]
on 12 June 2015
I’ve never read such an open and full account of a person’s life.
Karl Ove combines pure honesty with a focused writing skill to reveal himself to the world completely.
We get a richer and deeper impression of him than any character from fact or fiction I’ve ever read.
He is a suburban family man who has laid down his worries, his anxieties, his troubles without sentimentality or self-pity, from the painful relationship with his father to admitting being bored playing with his children and questioning his “I love you too” to his wife.
There is even meaning in the small details of making a pot of coffee or a walk to the shops which give it an existentialist touch.
The earlier parts of the book on his school years dragged a bit but most of it, especially as a married man around the time of his father’s death, were utterly absorbing.
Through his sheer honesty he shows how an ordinary person and an ordinary life are full of humanity and meaning.
It’s a simple concept delivered with powerful style and it’s no surprise he has won awards in his native Norway.
on 11 December 2014
This isn't the edition I received, and I would have much preferred this cover to the red and black shiny thing, but that's beside the point. Before I read it I thought I wouldn't be able to stomach a man's account of his adolescent life and his small world of beer-drinking, father-resentment, skulking, witnessing of his parents' break-up, accounts of school and so on. Surprisingly, I couldn't put the book down. Was this to do with the fact that there are virtually no chapters, and only very inconspicuous breaks in the text? It is a continuing narrative which only changes direction when we jump over the years to the father's death in the most sordid of circumstances - so sordid that your stomach will turn. The other main character is the author's grandmother, whose old age is equally dispiriting as her grandson slowly realises that she has dementia and is alcoholic. A continuing sick-making component of the memoir is the endless smoking, the piles of cigarette butts, stubbed-out everywhere and anywhere. If you hate the smell of cigarettes, this will be too much. Then some curious puritanical Norwegian attitudes to drink, seen as much more shocking than the putrid smoking. The death in the family, of the title, and probably the central image of the entire series, is horrible, the account of the funeral parlour and directors realistic and salutary, the relationship of the two brothers convincingly sharp in spite of it being undemonstrative... A true biography, a brilliant recall? I have heard that some critics regard this as the particular achievement of the book. As an unknown someone who has written an insignificant autobiography, I cannot help thinking that anyone with the smallest talent for writing and a half-decent memory, could draw out endless detail and atmosphere just as successfully if he thought there would be anyone to listen to or read it. For once you begin, the memory becomes a bottomless pit, capable of surprising eruptions. A life cannot be recorded in a mere single volume. Proust would have benefitted from editing. The atmospheric additions are implanted in all our minds, and have only to be attached to the text - a fly humming, a bird landing, a light flickering - but most of us would leave out these touches for the sake of brevity and conciseness. Not so Karl Ove Knausgaard. He has succeeded in hoodwinking a large public into thinking his talent is rare. Is it not his boldness of endeavour which is rare ?
on 3 September 2014
I am totally hooked on Karl Ove's writing as I don't think any other writer I have ever read could write about the most mundane of life's trivialities and make them actually fascinating, possibly D.H. Lawrence.
I am already half way through his second book and loving that too. However I can understand why he is a bit of a "marmite" writer and why some people give up on him, nothing happens in his books and yet everything does, death,love,birth and what is more dramatic than these things but sometimes it takes great writer, and Karl Ove is a great writer, to get us to see the drama in everyday life.
This book, the first in a series of six autobiographical works, is written by a controversial Norwegian author. His first novel, "A Time for Everything" was the first debut to win the Norwegian Critics Prize for Literature. His 'My Struggle' series has caused discussion and controversary, not only for the 'Min Kamp (Mein Kampf)' title, but because it exposes the private lives of his friends and family. However, the author, who now lives in Sweden has created a publishing sensation, which now has the first two volumes translated into English.
It is hard to pinpoint what is so compelling about this book. Karl Ove Knausgaard begins with his childhood. Much of this first volume concentrates on his relationship with his father. We read of his schooldays, early drunken adventures, his parents divorce and his family. Born in 1968, Karl Ove also discusses his life now (or, at least, at the time of writing this book), as a thirty nine year old man, in his second marriage and with three children. He muses on writing, life and death. If much of this book is mundane, or uncomfortable, to read about - it is also strangely fascinating. Although I can understand why members of his family objected, it is fair to say that he does not spare his own failings when relating his life. It is certainly interesting to read the first volume of a series which has been such a huge success and created such discussion in the authors home country. If you are looking for something different, this is certainly it and you may find that you are unable to stop reading on...
It wasn't until I looked up the name 'Karl Ove Knausgaard' that I realised I had already read one of his books, 'A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven', which didn't impress me and I barely made it halfway through. After finding that out I approached this book with caution - which turned out to be unfounded.
The first book in the fictionalised memoir series 'My Struggle' ('Min Kamp' in Norwegian or 'Mein Kampf' in German) mainly deals with the death of Karl Ove's father. Along the way he digresses on death, life, growing up and the act of writing. He moves backwards and forwards through different times seamlessly and he uses no stylistic quirks - this is a story told in a straightforward 'flat' style and no chapters. All of this adds up to what has to be on of the best contemporary novels I have read in a long time and to call it a page-turner would not be a critiscism.
Quite simply this is a contemporary version of Proust - something I didn't think a modern writer would attempt again - and I am equally looking forward to the next chapter in Karl Ove's 'struggle'.