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Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Book review: Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle vol. 1, A Death in the Family (2012)

When my mother was in the hospital dying recently I read to her from this book - a part of the narrative where Karl Ove and his brother are cleaning their grandmother's house following the death of their father - and, also later, when she was in the nursing home I read from the book again. On the day of mum's funeral I finished reading this volume in the series. But these things are of no material interest in themselves. I include them only for autobiographical reasons.

Knausgaard has successfully made an industry out of his own life. He has, it is said, alienated a large group of people including certain members of his own family. In the event you wonder if it was worth it. The sales of the books - five have been translated and six written - would suggest it certainly was.

And people talk about Knausgaard because his success is something of a publishing phenomenon. So everyone has their opinion about him. If he is boring, he is still compelling. That is one thing I have heard people say. For myself, I almost stopped early on with this volume in the series because I feared the incipient violence of the father - I shun violence wherever I see it - but a friend suggested that I would enjoy the book. And I did enjoy it. I especially found the modulated tone of the novel a relief. Here there are no sudden rises in the tenor of the writing to disturb you. Everything is at a steady, predictable level, and it is restful to read.

Knausgaard is a clever writer who also embellishes his prose with accurate descriptions of things as varied as the way the sky looks over a town in the summer, or the way a seatbelt is fastened to its clasp. He is not afraid of any challenge, and you feel assured that he will carry you along on the platform of his narrative in a leisurely and steady pace until you reach the end. He is nothing if not stable. Which is sort of nice as there is so much bruising writing around these days. I start a lot of books and I finish a lot fewer. Mostly only books that I finish get reviewed here.

The death in the family is the death, of course, of Karl Ove's father, and most of the story centres around Karl Ove's youth or the point in his life - much later chronologically - when he buries the man. Many young people - myself included - complained (and complain) about their fathers, of course, so the trope is not unexpected. Karl Ove is also just a little bit younger than me so his cultural references are familiar to someone of my age reading the book. So there is a lot in those early parts that is close to home. Although Karl Ove seems to maintain his love of soccer into middle age, whereas I largely abandoned any interest in sport as soon as I became an adult.

All these things are highly personal, and it is true that you do develop a personal relationship with the author/main character, Karl Ove. The way he grows on you is gradual, through the general accrual of detail that goes to make up the narrative. He grows on you bit by bit until you have formed a distinct opinion about him in your mind. You like these parts about his character but you regret that he seems to have certain failings too. But he gets under your skin. The link between the author and the reader is intimate. It's something that will stay with you for a long time. It's something that only literature can make happen. It is its own type of magic.

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