A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard – Review

This review is of the first book ‘A Death in the Family’ of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s series ‘My Struggle’

Karl Ove Knausgaard created a storm in Norway when he first released his series My Struggle. The series of six books describe the life of Knausgaard in vivid detail. His family, friends and the people he meets are all part of the story and all the elements are left intact. Knausgaard’s willingness to divulge his personal life in such detail has come at a cost, alienating himself from friends and family and causing difficulty and pain in his personal life. In a sense, Knausgaard, who thoroughly confesses his insecurities has left no stone un-turned.

A Death in the Family- Karl Ove Knausgaard
“Knausgaard’s writing is sharp and detailed, his observations of everyday life intriguing.” Image Credit: Beowulf Sheehan/PEN American Center. Originally published in The New York Times ‘Sunday Book Review’.

Whilst some regard My Struggle as a memoir the book doesn’t present itself as a re-imagining of the past. Rather, it is a seething analysis of life and desire, self-loathing and regret. Knausgaard has in no way taken the opportunity to gloss over the more disturbing aspects of his psyche. On the contrary, My Struggle is at times confessional and cathartic. Writing has in itself a reflective quality and you get the sense from My Struggle that Knausgaard has in some way come to know himself better through the process. Whether or not he likes what he finds you can discover. Knausgaard however has built up his defence. Arguing that it is the telling of his story. Knausgaard’s writing is often deeply reflective. He recalls mundane every day activities in detail and then reflects philosophically, at times brimming with passion and resolve. This contrast makes the writing both relatable and intriguing.

A great novel is often based on its truth. A writer cannot pretend to write about something they don’t know. Yet one of the wonders of fiction is its ability to conceal truth, or present it in such a way that layers its impact, creating a delicacy and nuance that allows it to penetrate deeper levels of thought. Knausgaard has in some ways taken the opposite approach. Rather than veil the truth, he has decided to expose it. Yet Knausgaard is concerned with the essence of things. Although this process of documenting one’s life may seem selfish and at times narcissistic, Knausgaard, it seems, is most critical of himself, and if he were truly self-absorbed, he wouldn’t have written so openly about his insecurities and sense of worthlessness. In describing a self-portrait by Rembrandt, Knausgaard speaks knowingly of the depths of his humanity. That thoughts and feelings constitute at the same time more and less than the sum total of their expression. They are the window through which, we can see the soul. Ultimately Knausgaard is scrutinising his very being, not just his daily actions and routines:

For as Rembrandt’s person is concerned, his good habits and bad, his bodily sounds and smells, his voice and his language, his thoughts and his opinions, his behaviour, his physical flaws and defects, all the things that constitute a person to others, are no longer there, the painting is more than four hundred years old, and Rembrandt died the same year it was painted, so what is depicted here, what Rembrandt painted, is this person’s very being, that which he woke to every morning, that which immersed itself in thought, but which itself was not thought, that which immediately immersed itself in feelings, but which itself was not feeling, and that which he went to sleep to, in the end for good. That which, in a human, time does not touch and whence the light in the eyes springs.”

In some ways, Knausgaard’s willingness to write down every detail appears ruthless. He is open, honest and straightforward but often at the expense of others. Careless though this may be, it is something we can relate to assuming that we, like Knausgaard, have a reserve for our true thoughts and feelings as well.

The first book is titled A Death In The Family and deals primarily with the death of Knausgaard’s father. He recounts the complicated relationship he had with his father. Where he had at times no relationship with him, whilst at others, was incapable of denying the bonds that connected them. Whilst the first half of the book describes Knausgaard’s childhood and adolescence, in part two he and his brother travel to their grandmother’s house to clean away the mess and destruction of their father’s final years. Arriving at the house they are shocked and disgusted by what they find. Yet, in his reflections of death, Knausgaard is equally, if not more concerned with life.

It might thus appear that death is relayed through two distinct systems. One is associated with concealment and gravity, earth and darkness, the other with openness and airiness ether and light.”

Knausgaard’s writing is sharp and detailed, his observations of everyday life intriguing. The connection between his detail and his clarity is gripping. But it seems that there is an undeniable distance between reality and literature. Knausgaard’s books are, after all, the creation of an object separate from the events themselves. In a way then, Knausgaard books capture life. The telling of ordinary events in such detail and the connotations they imply reflect the narrative of our own lives.

Originally published with the title Min Kamp in 2009 by Forlager Oktober, Oslo. Now published in English by Vintage, 2013.

Jared Catchpoole

Jared Catchpoole is a young writer based in Melbourne. He spends his time reading and writing and working on short stories, essays and his first novel which he hopes to finish one day. He has finished a creative writing certificate and is currently completing a Bachelor of Journalism.

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