Karl Ove Knausgaard, “A Death in the Family” (2009) (translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett) (narrated by Edoardo Ballerini) – It must be a real bonanza for small-language translators when a Karl Ove Knausgaard or a Halldor Laxness or an Ismail Kadare comes along, huh? Like all the Norwegian or Icelandic or Albanian translators coming out of the woodwork, getting their big moment…
Anyway, this is the first in a six-novel series where the author, an artsy Norwegian Gen Xer, relates his life in excruciating detail. The series gets a lot of Proust comparisons. I never got into Proust, I should probably try again. I didn’t get into Knausgaard either. I listened to it because every third audiobook I do, I try to listen to “important” “contemporary” literature. I remember when everyone was talking this guy up, and even the official dumb guy in the most prominent “dirtbag left” podcast talks about reading him, so, I figured I’d give it a try.
In the Proustian mode, Knausgaard’s autobiographical novel goes back and forth in time, following eccentric paths of association. For the most part, the first half of this book depicts Knausgaard’s childhood, roughly from age eight to age sixteen. The second half concerns what happens when his dad dies when the author is about thirty and just getting started in his literary career. The dad looms over a lot of the book- he’s a jerk, emotionally abusive, degenerates into alcoholism. But nothing can overshadow the great big I of Knausgaard himself. It’s Karl Ove, his feelings, his inner experiences, his minutely detailed recalling of his experiences: weather, clothes, the little mundane movements of people he converses with, that’s the attraction.
Ego can be a good thing for writers. Arguably, it’s a necessary thing, even for non-memoirists, the idea that your words are worth reading. But here’s the thing: Norwegians might be the most humorless people in the western world. In twenty-two hours of listening, I caught one (1) joke, and it was about Chekhov. Literature doesn’t need to be a laugh-a-minute to be legitimate. But A. Come on and B. Let’s talk tragedy. I know it has different meanings for different people. I’m somewhat old school in that I prefer the oldest meaning I know about- irresolvable conflict, brought on by what’s best in the conflicting bodies. You can argue Knausgaard’s series (called “My Struggle” because he’s a cute little prick, in spite of his perpetual long face) is about the greatest tragedy of all, in that sense, the tragedy of lived existence and its inevitable disappointments, culminating in death.
It was an interesting play, on the part of one faction of modernist writers, to roll the dice and try to sell normal life as tragic. Sometimes it pays off, artistically speaking, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s surely not what the Greeks had in mind, and another strain of modernism, following Nietzsche, went quite the other way in terms of their attitudes towards normal life, with, errr, interesting results. Of course, Knausgaard is a twenty-first century man (and a Gen Xer, if that means much in Norway), so awareness of his own consciousness, posturing and tragedy-seeking, is very much part of his deal.
What does it all add up to? One of my least favorite things in any kind of cultural production is the equation of “tragic” with “sad.” I know some people who do that and I don’t criticize them — they’re on their own journey — but I do not like it, especially from people who should know better. To be fair, Knausgaard is far too canny for that. But he basically only goes one notch above and makes an easy equation between “tragic” and “boring.” He makes pretty clear that this isn’t an abuse memoir. The point isn’t “my dad was an abusive prick and so I can’t enjoy life.” It’s just, “I can’t enjoy life, also, my dad is a prick” (I don’t think he uses the word “abusive” in relation to his father).
Basically, this is a long way around the barn of saying this book was boring. The language was nice. It probably would have bored me more in the hands of a less talented prose stylist. Not to get political, but contemporary Scandinavians are possibly the most comfortable, coddled group of people in human history. I know the Nordics are no utopia — have read enough Swedish crime novels to take that on board — and I know comfort is no guarantee of happiness, but you need to do more than Knausgaard does to make boredom interesting. It is possible. To me, this doesn’t manage it. I may look up the second book one of these days, but I’ve decided against going through the whole series sequentially in my audiobook-literature listening slot. You know, for those of you hanging on my reading selection news. **’