Thursday, April 24, 2014

The exquisitely banal A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard

It's taken me too long to get around to reading this but I'm so glad I did. Everybody and his dog seems to raving about it.

This is the first volume in a mammoth six book project by the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard. Hugely successful in Norway, the first three books have now been beautifully translated into English by Don Bartlett. 

This is autobiography laced with fiction. It's the story of Knausgaard's early years as a child, a teenager and a young man. It centres around his problematic relationship with his authoritarian, distant father, who, in his son's words, was 'an idiot'. His father, socially inept, friendless, divorced, eventually becomes a drunken slob and dies slumped in a chair. 

What distinguishes this 'novel' is that it challenges and, frankly, bores the reader with page after page of sheer banality. It's banality writ large. It's a forensic analysis of the unremarkably quotidian. There's nothing particularly special about Knausgaard's family, his school or his friends. He's a smart, good-looking kid, and the girls rather like him. He likes to party, get drunk and smoke. Gee.  

The book occasionally comes to life with delicious passages of social and political observation, but they are unfortunately too rare. He 'detests', 'despises', 'opposes' all sorts of important and trivial things - from the way people dress, to what they think, to their dumb political ideas.

Two thirds of the way through, after having fallen asleep yet again, I couldn't decide whether this book was the most boring thing I've ever read, or a sublime meditation on the magic of the mundane.

It's often just plain irritating. At one point the author and his brother suspect that their father may not actually be dead after all. It can't be taken seriously, as it's meant to be. Then there's the time shifts - there's always time shifts! - but they add nothing. There's no meaning enhancement going on.* 

And the brothers spend days cleaning the filthy, putrid, faeces-strewn house where their father finally expired. Why didn't they hire a professional cleaner FFS? 

There's no irony, no wit, no distance, no judgement, no critique. Knausgaard takes himself so fucking seriously.

In all the detail and precision I wanted someone, sometime, to go to the toilet, and even take a shower! Right at the end Knausgaard actually does both. Thank god.

But the longer you spend immersed in these 400 densely typeset pages the more you realise you are coming under their spell. And that Knausgaard's overriding preoccupation with death, decay and transience is sucking you in. And his portrait of Norway and its physical beauty - its landscapes, its cities and towns, its friendly people, its strong social life - all this is overpowering and resonant.

So a recommendation: if you start this journey, which you should, then stick with it. Yes, I will read the next five volumes.

* there are run-on commas galore too. Ugh!

No comments:

Post a Comment