A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard

A Death in the Family is the first of a six-volume autobiographical novel, The Struggle. This book is about Knausgaard’s relationship with his father and focuses mainly on his childhood and early adulthood.

I rushed at this novel with a sense of hunger: the great reviews and the general reverence for Knausgaard’s writing were enticing. What I found does excite and inspire me, but it also reminds me of everything I find difficult to swallow about the canon.

Comparing Knausgaard to Proust makes a lot of sense. A Death in the Family tackles the maze of memory, how sensory triggers from the current moment create an insurgence of the past that in turn influences the present. There are passages where the words sing, creating a shared sense of experience, paragraphs which give legitimacy to banal and inappropriate thoughts one might otherwise have been ashamed of. But, and this is a significant but, I feel the constant presence of Knausgaard’s ego with the same distaste in which I feel Proust’s.

There is a chauvinism, a delight in feeling, which almost tips into the sentimental, that overwhelms any proclivity or desire for the other. Other people are considered, indeed thought in depth about, worried over, but for me at least, the writing lacks empathy for anyone other than Knausgaard himself.

Yes, I want to turn the corners of many pages to mark passages that speak to me about the way our world works or that echo my own thoughts, but collectively and as a whole there is a sense of mid-life crisis, a sense of self-importance that I simply can’t ignore. Whether this is a dramatized version of the reality of authorship in general is something I should really ask of myself. However, this self-centered self-aggrandizement is also the reason why the writing is so moving.

The book is a portal into another person’s mind, where Knausgaard’s experience of life is painstakingly recorded and recreated for us to experience alongside him.

It’s a love/hate thing. A mirror of the kind of relationship he has with his father and the kind of relationship I have with literature with a capital ‘L’. How do you acknowledge the father, bare witness to him, battle for equality (if not supremacy) with him, without giving the self an idolatrous dominion? How do you tackle the subjects of death and the desire to force life into some coherent shape without asserting the ego? These are questions I long to solve in my own work and if Knausgaard’s writing is really about the desire to understand the self and its origins he is indeed writing the novel whose insights we would all like to use to unlock our own identities. As a record of what it means to live in privileged Western Europe in the late 1900s and early 2000s, A Death in the Family feels significant regardless of the ego involved.

I will read more of these novels but I will enter them armed with the knowledge that while I admire the writing I can’t always say that I admire the man.

Next week (this week!), I’m reading Love’s Dilemma by Walije Gondwe.