Definition of irony: reading and blogging about a book called A Death In The Family being delayed by, well, a death in the family.
True story, folks. You should have been reading this post in November 2015 rather than February 2016, but sometimes that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
I’d been wanting to read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle books for a while now. A literary sensation in his native Norway – and not always for straight-forward reasons – translation has slowed down the six-volume series’ migration to an English-speaking (nay, reading) audience. Hence, book five is due to be released early this year – despite Knausgaard’s final instalment in the series having been completed and released years ago at home in Scandinavia.
In Norway, this autobiographical series is known as Min Kamp (even the title, with its similarities to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, caused problems with potential German publishers early on). A published author with a novel under his belt, Knausgaard, then 40, originally started writing his memoirs in the late noughties in an attempt to shake off a case of writer’s block and was not intending to publish them. He showed the finished product to family members, some of whom took umbrage with the contents and portrayal of the clan, forcing some revisions before the eventual final publication.
This is understandable as A Death In The Family is a deeply personal, no-holds-barred memoir. But as unflinchingly hard as Knausgaard is on his family, he reserves his harshest criticism for himself. Still, in a small-ish country of less than five million – and with the author’s family the only Knausgaards who reside there – there was plenty of fuel for the ensuing media fire. Indeed, the inner back sleeve of my 2014 Vintage edition features a quote from the author: “It never occurred to me that it might cause problems – I was just telling the truth, wasn’t I? But I was also being very naïve. I sent a copy to everyone involved before the first volume was published, and then I discovered how difficult this was going to be. It was like hell.”
Nevertheless the series has attracted wide acclaim, with Knausgaard having been dubbed “the Norwegian Proust” (note: never having read Proust, I cannot comment further). English author Zadie Smith – not a writer whose work I enjoy – is one of a slew of Knausgaard’s literary contemporaries who have fallen over themselves to praise his work, famously comparing the My Struggle books to being as addictive as crack. The man himself says they are a record of the “banalities and humilations” of his life.
Andy notes a few issues with the translation in his blog – something we touch on pretty much every time we review a translated work. But overall I reckon the tone – in all its unevenness and the jumping back and forth on the narrative timeline – can’t be too dissimilar to the original. I found the lack of chronology a little annoying – and that’s not something that usually bothers me. The abrupt shifts in the timeline – especially in the first part – particularly bugged me, and I found the long ruminations on the writing process (which admittedly are probably integral to the concept of the series as a whole) at times yawn-inducing. I wanted story and flow. I had to wait till the second part to get it.
Andy also notes a familiarity with the childhood and adolescent experiences of Knausgaard, who is not much older than both Andy and myself. It’s a growing-up-in-the-seventies-and-eighties thing that will particularly resonate with Gen X readers, regardless of their place of origin.
My partner-in-crime did a very good job of summing up the plot line in his post, so I shall be pointing you in that direction rather rehashing it here. I encourage you to read it. In short, the younger boy of two grows up in Norway, goes to school, goes through his oft-estranged parents’ break-up, falls in and out of adolescent-esque love, joins bands, starts writing, publishes a novel and tries to write another one, gets married once, then twice, has a few kids (OK, three), moves to Sweden.
And, of course, he experiences the death of his father with whom he has always had a difficult relationship, for reasons that are not always clear. But certainly the manner in which the death itself reveals a hornet’s nest of familial issues could not help but colour a memoir looking back on the author’s early life. Particularly by the book’s end I was wondering if the rancor and bitterness of Knausgaard’s feelings towards his father that were bubbling under the surface in part one were the result of what transpires in part two, rather than something that had always been present. It’s hard to tell – and whether that be the fault of an inexperienced writer or a clumsy translation, I could but guess. The reader will ultimately be the judge of that.
In summation, I was expecting to really, really love this book. Instead I merely liked it a lot. I will definitely be seeking out book two (A Man In Love) and will take it from there (I’m left wondering what fresh meat Knausgaard can bring to the table in book three – Boyhood Island – that he hasn’t already plundered in book one).
And who knows? One day I might even get around to reading Proust. I said, might …
PS: Stay tuned, faithful blog readers (all two of you) as Andy and I belatedly sum up our unexpectedly truncated reading year of 2015 and unveil what is to come this year. A couple of months late, admittedly, but yeah, bite me (oooh look! Two bites!) (Insert winking emoticon here.)