CLS: A Death in the Family, by Karl Ove Knausgaardon September 4th, 2013
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.