Updated on July 17, 2016
39. ‘A Death in the Family’ by Karl Ove Knausgaard
I have heard a lot of good, even great, things about this series of books. A Death in the Family is the first volume in Knausgaard’s six-strong Min Kamp (My Struggle) series of autobiographies. Wherever I have read about it, people have raved. The front cover of my copy contains a quote by Zadie Smith: “It’s unbelievable … It’s completely blown my mind.”
This series is so well-known because of the controversy surrounding it. Basically, Knausgaard’s idea was to write about his life and everyone in it completely, searingly honestly. He also wanted to commit ‘literary suicide‘ so that he could stop being an author of literature. He included in his autobiography, ideas that he had for future stories “just to kill them off.” Now he translates and writes essays, and his Min Kamp project appears to have been successful at (deliberately) ending his fiction-writing career. He did this because, he says, “I don’t have what it takes: a capability to fail for years. That is what writing is for me: failing with total dedication.”
However, while the books may have launched him into the midst of widespread public recognition, they have also had a negative impact upon his family. This first volume mainly centres around Knausgaard’s relationship with his emotionally distant/abusive father, and the man’s eventual grisly death from alcoholism. Some members of his father’s family attempted to stop the book from being published, but their attempts failed. Knausgaard says, “I sent a copy to everyone involved … and then I discovered how difficult this was going to be. It was like hell.” Unsurprising when you write about your entire family turning a blind eye to a man’s slow, ugly death; or the fact that you occasionally resent your wife and children for not making you feel fulfilled.
Knausgaard’s honesty is, on the one hand, something to admire. Here is a man trying to be completely open with his art, to “write something from the heart”. But you have to wonder if the fallout has made it worth it, and maybe being 100% honest isn’t entirely fair when you aren’t just talking about yourself. I haven’t quite made up my mind how I feel about this, although it does make me squirm. I’m also probably a hypocrite, because I admit that I picked the book up with a slight sense of gleeful voyeurism about seeing how this writing damaged a real man’s real life. Does that fact mean that I can’t then turn up my nose at how uncomfortable the honesty makes me? I don’t know. Probably.
Anyway, all of this is sort of just background to my main point, which is: I didn’t really enjoy this book. Not because of any of the ethical worries I’ve expressed above, but because I often found it pretty boring. The style was, for the most part, too Murakami-being-boring-esque. When Murakami gets on one about describing what plain t-shirts and beige trousers his characters are wearing, I roll my eyes and wait for the next bizarre encounter with a talking cat. The same overly detailed descriptions popped up here, a lot more often, without the relief of friendly felines. For example, the second half of the book is dedicated to Knausgaard and his brother cleaning up their father’s horribly squalid house, after his death. This was simultaneously moving and amazing, and completely dull. There’s honesty and then there’s telling me about the drive to the shop to buy cleaning products, the cleaning products purchased, the drive home and the unpacking at the other end. I just didn’t really care about a lot of it.
Listen, it’s an interesting book, it has some great moments and some really fantastic writing, but I have to disagree with Zadie Smith. It hasn’t blown my mind. I was on a complete reading binge before this – eating up books in just a few days – and this one ground me to a halt from which I still haven’t recovered. I can’t help but wonder whether the book just seems better than it is because of the furore surrounding it.
“The world was the same, yet it wasn’t, for its meaning had been displaced, and was still being displaced, approaching closer and closer to meaninglessness.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.