A Death in the Family – Andy doesn’t even like vodka

February 9, 2016

Yes. Late again. Bite me, dear readers. (Oooh look! Two bites!)

I read the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ongoing biography, My Struggle, months ago. So I’m afraid A Death in the Family is not fresh in my mind, but I’ll do my best.

a-death-in-the-familyReading part one I assumed this would be what I would write about most. Knausgaard is less than two months older than me, and his snippets of childhood lived in Scandinavia in the mid- to late-70s – as I was living snippets of childhood in Northern Ireland – certainly resonated. Does he mention Eurovision? I think he maybe does. Maybe we both watched Brotherhood of Man win for Kisses For Me! Couldn’t have done that in Australia, not in the ‘70s. Later in part one Knausgaard talks about early to mid adolescence, and his early tussles with girls, and sex, and alcohol. This is interesting enough, and, like most of the book (his translator does let him down a few times too many) well written, but, thanks to my sexuality and my particular upbringing, not something I could relate to terribly closely. Still – interesting enough. The depiction of his parents is also interesting, and the dissolution of their marriage, and his father’s relationship with another woman, and his father’s incipient alcoholism, and Karl Ove’s own burgeoning love of booze, rounds out part one very nicely. This is really good, I thought.

I was surprised to find that, perversely, part two was better.

Part one begins with Knausgaard married to his second wife for a few years, and then flashbacks to his childhood and adolescence. Part two begins with Knausgaard married to his first wife, and trying to write his second novel. And then his dad dies.

This is the bit that makes part two perversely better.

Knausgaard’s approach to his dad’s death is no-holds-barred. His description of what happened apparently caused ruptures within his family, though Netty’s more familiar with that than I am.

Briefly: Dad does indeed, in his second marriage, turn alcoholic. Fathers another child but then his second wife kicks him out and he ends up living with his mother – Karl Ove’s grandma. Dismisses the in-home assistance other family members have arranged for the old lady with assurances that he’ll look after her, closes the door. And a few years later, he’s dead.

Karl Ove and his older brother go to the house, and what they find is horrific. Empty bottles of vodka everywhere – literally everywhere. All over the floor downstairs, upstairs, on the stairs themselves. The stink of piss and shit everywhere. Piles of piss- and shit-soaked clothes left where they fell to rot. Grandma, turned alcoholic herself by her obese, booze-bloated son, blithely pissing herself as she sits in her kitchen chair, smoking her cigarette, drinking her tea.

Knausgaard is unflinching in his depiction of these horrors. He’s also quite unflinching in his depiction of himself confronting this situation, bawling his eyes out on a fairly regular basis while his older brother remains at least a little more stoic.

In hindsight the book is rather more cleverly constructed than you might initially imagine. It opens with a profound, rather intimidating philosophical rumination on the nature of death – god, is it all going to be like this? I remember thinking. No, it’s not, but that profound, rather intimidating philosophical rumination on the nature of death is followed by Karl Ove’s memories of his dad at home in the mid-70s, smoking, stern in the absence of their mother who’s at work, telling them to keep the kitchen window shut … Not bloated, not obese, not alcoholic. Yet. I read the book quite quickly, and quite a few weeks ago, and I suspect it would richly reward re-reading – although I’m more likely to read the other volumes of Knausgaard’s autobiography first. But A Death in the Family was an unexpectedly rewarding choice – of Netty’s – for last year’s reading challenge.


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