CLS: A Death in the Family, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

I read about 50 pages of this, and gave up for very familiar reasons, although there were times, as they often have been during all of this contemporary literature survey, when I imagined I might read the entire book.

Knausgaard’s struggle is frequently compared to Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, largely – it seems to me – because it’s a) long, b) spread over several books, and c) involves a narrator reflecting on his past and trying to find meaning there. His work is hardly ever compared, on the other hand, to Henry James’ A Small Boy and Others, or George Moore’s Memories of My Dead Life, although these two books, which I happen to be reading at the moment, are also memoirs told by narrators reflecting on the past and trying to find meaning there. (They are not long, however, unless you consider Moore’s book as part of a collection of autobiographical works he wrote). In fact, most memoirs are probably of this type. In all four books the narrator narrates in the present both present things and things of the past, wondering about the past and its nature.

Knausgaard’s book then is a long, multi-book autobiography, such as have often been written by people. A book which, in particular and like most modern books, doesn’t have long sentences in it. The style is very plain. Let us call it realism. The kind of domestic realism, concentrating on the minutiae of everyday life, which we are used to from most other contemporary literary novels we have read. In the first 50 pages, the narrator has seen a face in the sea on TV and talked to his father and brother; he has established a relationship between himself and his father and his brother, and he has mentioned a few friends, and his mother has just appeared for the first time. And very little else. It might, in these passages, be any other novel. There is nothing notable about it. These episodes are also (as far as I can recall) told in a plain manner – they are recounted in a sort of “objective” fashion, as if the events were actually happening, in a sort of factual way; and not from the point of view of a narrator looking back on his past. There is no intrusion (of comment, uncertainty) into the telling. (If this latter isn’t completely true, it is at least largely true. The James I’m reading is the other extreme).

I open the book at random to give an idea of the style:

That morning I went down to the canteen, bought a bun and a Coke, then took my place and consumed my snack while flicking through a book, as the classroom around me slowly filled with pupils, still sluggish in both movement and expression after a night’s sleep. I exchanged a few words with Molle, he lived in Hamresanden; we had been in the same class at our old school. Then the teacher came, it was Berg, wearing a smock, we were going to have Norwegian. Besides history, this was my best subject. I was on the cusp between an A and an A star, couldn’t quite make the top grade, but I was determined to try for it at the exam. The natural sciences were of course my weakest subject, in maths in was on a D, I never did any homework, and the teaching was already way above my head.

Here is a passage of Proust again taken completely at random:

Mme Swann, who had already “named” me, as she called it, to several of her guests, suddenly, after my name, in the same tone that she had used in uttering it (and as though we were merely two of the guests at her luncheon who ought to each feel equally flattered on meeting the other), pronounced that of the gentle Bard with snowy locks. The name Bergotte made me start, like the sound of a revolver fired at me point blank, but instinctively, to keep my countenance, I bowed: there, in front of me, like one of those conjurers whom we see standing whole and unharmed, in their frock coats, in the smoke of a pistol shot out of which a pigeon had just fluttered, my greeting was returned by a youngish, uncouth, thickset and myopic little man, with a red nose curled like a snail-shell and a goatee beard.

No, not entirely alike; perhaps they seem more so when both translated into Norwegian – though I somehow doubt it. (“The Proustian style engages”, Time Out).

There were some passages, however, which I enjoyed a lot more: these were the episodes written by the narrator about his present life. He has a wife and some children, and is trying to write a novel while his wife goes to work and he looks after his children. I admit, on the face of it, this doesn’t sound any more promising than the rest of the book; but you see, in these passages, the narrator becomes a lot more reflective about things: he does not simply recount things that happened, but actually puts together some thoughts about them, which are often quite interesting and insightful. Unfortunately, these episodes were few and far between; Knausgaard seems far more intent on recounting his childhood as dully as he can.


7 thoughts on “CLS: A Death in the Family, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

  1. The best part of the book is the second half, when he and his brother set about cleaning the chaos that is his dead father’s house. Here, the piling on of minute detail after detail really works. I agree though that Proust is merely a lazy comparison – albeit a very popular one…

    I got enough out of it to borow the second part from the library anyway, and (with luck) I’ll be onto that in a few days 🙂

  2. Yes, lots of these types of books I give up on seem to get better later on. It’s a pity, I suppose, that I’ll never get to read them.

    The Proust comparison certainly is popular; it’s mentioned about seven times in the blurb on my copy; and Knausgaard even mentions it himself in the novel, in case we hadn’t got the idea. Almost like it’s a marketing strategy, rather than anyone’s actual opinion.

  3. I have enjoyed what I have read of Knausgaard so far but not nearly at the same level of many critics. The Proust comparisons reveal more about the critic than anything else…

    It is a fun read at times and there are very insightful moments. And plenty of moments that aren’t. His strength lies, I think, in telling a tale. Here’s a note I made in the comments of my blog that captures a story, with plenty of ‘side stories,’ just after the point you quit reading:

    He begins telling about a New Year’s Eve party on page 59 and the night doesn’t end until page 140. So you’ve got 80 pages on one evening, right? Not exactly–he weaves in his early experiences with girls, his band, his grandparents, and the neighbors. At the end the reader is somewhat disappointed in the quick denouement of the evening, but it matches his own disappointment in the story. (end quote)

    He reminds me of a Charles Marlowe type in the way he can tell a tale and keep you enthralled. Well, obviously not you. But when he’s on, it’s fun to enjoy the ride. I think it’s a matter of how much you enjoy the other moments as to how much you’ll enjoy the work.

  4. I’ve read both volumes published in English so far, and finished each within two days of receiving it. I don’t find the Proust comparison illuminating (“lazy” as Tony calls it, sounds right), but I’ve never read anything that so limns a contemporary life the way that Knausgaard does. What should be crushingly mundane (my favorite example: three sentences devoted to opening a can of Coke) somehow becomes mesmerizing and luminous. And there are moments – especially in that section on the cleaning out of the father’s home – where Knausgaard’s extreme realism just seems to punch right through one’s awareness of reading a book and become manifest as something one is actually witnessing. As Dwight notes above concerning that 80 page diversion about an adolescent party, what’s striking at the end is the concurrence of the reader’s disappointment with Knausgaard’s. It’s not autobiography so much as it is Virgil leading Dante on a tour. I can’t think of anything I’ve read that better conveys the frustrations of aimless adolescence. And I can’t believe I have to wait an entire year for the next volume. I could learn Norwegian in that time.

  5. I tried to go on, thinking I’d read the party episode at least, but my will collapsed again after a further seven pages. I cannot find it anything other than badly-written and uninteresting. My disappointment in the episode I’m afraid is considerably in anticipation of Knausgaard’s.

  6. It took me an hour though, to read those seven pages.

    Besides, this is nothing compared to my intolerance of films. Many, many films I switch off after less than five minutes. – And why, anyway, shouldn’t books be entertaining from the beginning?

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