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.”

Karl Ove Knausgaard – image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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.

a death in the family knausgaard

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.

3 Comments on “39. ‘A Death in the Family’ by Karl Ove Knausgaard

  1. Hello Clare
    I read BOYHOOD ISLAND . . . maybe I told you this already? But that’s enough: someone I know well has read them all but life is too short and I am interested but not that interested.
    Boyhood Island resonated to be honest, like nothing I have ever read and I read a lot. It was my life. Growing up, visiting friend’s houses, fancying the girls, playing risky games, a mum who loved me and a father who was cruel and violent. And just like Karl Ove’s father, you never knew what you had done wrong. Early in the book he turns the television on; he is eight-years old and the knob comes away in his hand. No reason. His dad goes ballistic, grounds him for a week without any food and he has to stay up in his room by himself. How cruel is that to an 8-year old?
    Me. All of it. Twisting his ear in pain over the slightest thing. Me. And where the hell was his mother?
    Where the hell was my mother?
    I left home at sixteen: couldn’t get away fast enough and my [younger] brother left as soon as he could and never returned. I did go back for Christmases and holidays but my brother divorced himself. I don’t know what that cost him.
    My mother spent the rest of her life trying to reel us both in, her lost boys gone so soon but she should have intervened then, when it would have made a difference.
    There are as you say boring passages in Boyhood Island where yes a bit like Murakami, he is repetitive. Building a very [unnecessary?] wide canvas but the technique is devastating, I think. The cruelty when it comes so suddenly, after he has scored a goal or a pretty girl agrees to go out with him or he scores well in an exam, is so incongruous, so random, so unjust your heart breaks.

    • Thank you very much for your comment!

      I think the sorts of things you describe were what I was expecting from ‘A Death in the Family’, but this book mentioned the fear Karl Ove had of his father more in passing – I imagine ‘Boyhood Island’ goes into more detail about that. It may be because I can’t identify with that kind of childhood (though I can see how it would resonate with someone who does), but I think it was because the father-son relationship was slightly more oblique in this book that I found it a bit dull (especially as that was advertised as the core idea to the series). I was expecting to be blown away, but I wasn’t. It sounds like ‘Boyhood Island’ might do that, though, so you’ve convinced me to power on and give that one a go :)

      • Clare
        Re-reading this it sounds like a lecture . . . definitely didn’t mean it that way.

        As it happens, I very rarely read biographies: its that life is too short thing again but yes this one really spoke to me. My wife read this first then went on to read one of the others; she found that resonant in much the same way as I found Boyhood Island but I guess [‘cos I haven’t read it] for very different reasons. Her dad left home [three sisters] when she was nine and she felt/feels the impact of that today still. So, what I think is that those who read it/them will find something in their past lives to identify with: yes, that’s how it was for me. That’s why he has a world-wide bestseller on his hands. Of course no-one reads to reflect back what we already know; we would all be reading Psychology of Everyday Life over and over again but occasionally we find a book or a novel with some experience related to our own lives . . . more often than not something to do with a broken heart . . . damage of some kind . . . and we are interested in the how and why and the way in which the protagonist deals with it. Boyhood Island deals is in large part about a cruel father and a weak mother; haven’t come across that much in contemporary literature so that was why I embraced it so strongly. If you didn’t suffer from a similar situation if the TV knob didn’t come away in your hand when you were eight, would you still get something out of it? Dunno. You might find it boring and repetitive, actually.

        Clare, no need to respond to this.

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