Lucy and Todd

A Death in the Family – Karl Ove Knausgaard

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 24, 2012 at 4:13 pm

When someone comes at you with an ‘autobiographical novel’, what are you supposed to think? Is this a plea for pre-emptory forgiveness when art does not happen? Is it begging for mercy when the author can only come up with something like this:

‘I put on some water for another cup of coffee and while I was waiting for it to boil, I skimmed through what I had written so far. The dust hovering in the broad, angled shafts of light anxiously followed every tiny current in the air. The neighbour in the adjacent flat had begun to play the piano. The kettle hissed. What I had written was not good. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good, either. I went to the cupboard, unscrewed the lid of the coffee tin, put two spoonfuls of coffee in the cup and poured the water, which rose up the sides, black and steaming.
The telephone rang.
I put the cup down on the desk and let the phone ring twice before I answered.
“Hello?” I said.’

Uh, hello. John Tydeman, the former head of BBC radio drama, once said that he would throw a script into the trash the moment anyone in it made a cup of tea. He would have got a lot of exercise with Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family, an attempt to find meaning in the minutiae of existence. Hint: there isn’t any. The reading and writing of fiction is a two-way street: the author must attempt to meet us half way – he must make the assumption that we are like him, to some degree. Does Knausgaard think that you, his reader, have never made a cup of tea or coffee? Does he think you have never been lonely, been a teenager, drunk a beer, read a book, had parents? Does he really believe that you have never bought a packet of cigarettes in a corner shop, or had to reverse a car in a tight spot, or flown on an aeroplane or found relationships with other human beings troublesome? Yes. He does.

There’s a man in Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi who is cursed with an astonishingly prodigious memory. ‘Such a memory as that is a great misfortune,’ Twain wrote. He can’t complete a single action or thought in his life, because one thing is just as interesting as, and leads to, another. This dread affliction seems to have infected this book. ‘Karl Ove’ (to whatever extent this narrator is the writer) emotionally and intellectually rejects almost everything. All through the book and all through his life. And this in turn gives everything in this novel the same weight. That is not like life and it is not like art. But perhaps it is like Norway. The point is – from this, who can tell? ‘Two slices of toast lay on a plate. Two more jumped up in the toaster beside them … I spread butter over the toast, it melted at once and filled the tiny pores on the surface.’ This is, starkly and frighteningly, someone who has nothing to write about.

The form of A Death in the Family seems an admission that there is going to be very little said. What, you ask yourself after reading this overly complicated, deadpan book, is this ‘death’? The title may refer to the death of Karl Ove’s archly unnamed father, which finally is described after a lot of unnecessary narrative ducking and diving. It may on the other hand refer to the death of one of the father’s favourite cousins, a girl he loved perhaps more than any other, and which occurred at a point when his own marriage was coming apart. Shortly after this he broke with Karl Ove’s mother and began a new life (is this the kind of ‘clean slate’ which all writers admire?). He then spiralled down into a bleak, sordid drinker’s existence and death. The aftermath of this death is masterfully and unflinchingly described, with Karl Ove and his brother Yngve banding together to cleanse their grandparents’ house of urine, excrement, blood and thousands of empty bottles. There is a wonderful, truly insightful moment when Karl Ove is suddenly convinced that he hears his father re-entering the house, come to berate him for messing about with his things.

The ‘death in the family’ may be Karl Ove’s childhood and adolescence, repressed by the repressed father to the point of … well, what? Not hell, exactly. Just to the point of ordinary teenage pain. At times Karl Ove comes across as a Holden Caulfield, but without the pizzazz. This volume appears to be the first in a series to which Knausgaard has given the overall title ‘Min Kamp’ – ‘my struggle’. Ignoring the crude and insulting use of this title, what does Karl Ove struggle with, exactly? It seems he has an education, but no life. He has only the most tentative opinions on a few important subjects. Why, in this world of Proust and Paustovsky and Marías must we struggle with a writer who has never figured himself out? Karl Ove cries and cries and cries through this book, and he doesn’t know why. But we know why, because we’ve read Freud. Haven’t we. There is some powerful writing here, but one pays the price of many cups of coffee for insights hundreds of miles apart.


The Herald, March 11, 2012

  1. Remember Greg Mortenson (was he Norwegian? Nah. Just Bozeman Montana) ‘Three Cups of Tea’ Even for a fraud, that is the most cups of hot beverage a character in a book can consume.

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