I started writing reviews in the year Josipovici's review was published (1996) and had not read a book by an author entirely new to me that I believed was a masterpiece. As I read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, I thought that this is perhaps the closest I will ever get. Such is the reach of the word masterpiece beyond craft and industry considerations, my instinct was not to review at all but to thrust the book into the hands of friends for whom reading is absolutely central to their lives (not many).
But I must write something. Reading My Struggle was often like reliving fragments of my own life – an intensity resonating in a void – and a review would mean explicating this in formal terms, and that wouldn’t be right. Yet the terms available seemed too personal, something to be shared only by handing the book over in silence. How then to recommend? This is perhaps the gift of reading: others can open doors. Josipovici spends most of his Sebald review describing a twenty-page short story rather than racing through a summary of all four:
Like all good art, the form and the style bring into being what would otherwise have remained in darkness and silence for ever, so that a mere account of what the story was ‘about’ would not have begun to do it justice.This is good advice for any reviewer: stick to what you believe is important. My Struggle (published in the UK as A Death in the Family) is 471 pages long and is ‘about’ the relatively normal, middle-class life of a Norwegian male born in 1968, so even an extended account would say very little (almost nothing), and while Knausgaard’s ability to make the unremarkable resound means the detail is vital, it is its framing that brings the book to vivid life.
Knausgaard has explained how his difficulty in writing led to the specific form of the book: “I was looking for language ... to tell the story about my father.” His father had left his family, began a new relationship and then became an alcoholic. Before Knausgaard had “tried to write a kind of regular, realistic but fictional work about his death. Nothing worked.” Then he found the solution: “Eventually I just started to write it as it was. I gave up all ambition, I didn’t try to be clever or anything: I just tried to write as fast as I could.” Except the book does not begin with regular memories or, as in so many careless novels nowadays, drops the reader in medias res into a voice-world providing its own alibi. Instead it begins with a confrontational prologue about dead bodies in modern society. Death, he writes, is all around us and we even consume media in which violent death is the main attraction, yet its physical reality is repressed.
A town that does not keep its dead out of sight, that leaves people where they died, on highways and byways, in parks and car parks, is not a town but a hell. The fact that this hell reflects our life-experience in a more realistic and essentially truer way is of no consequence. We know this is how it is, but we do not want to face it. Hence the collective act of repression symbolised by the concealment of our dead. What exactly it is that is being repressed, however, is not so easy to say.He contrasts the physical reality of bodies in basement mortuaries with their digital abstraction: “One is associated with concealment and gravity, earth and darkness, the other with openness and airiness, ether and light.” The images of death, no matter how graphic, “have no weight, no depth, no time and no place, and nor do they have any connection to the bodies that spawned them. They are nowhere and everywhere.” What is the purpose of this severe opening full of examples with which we are all familiar? Knausgaard finally includes one we're unlikely to know, a news report of a fishing boat lost off the coast of Norway in which the crew of seven drown, which he then blends seamlessly into a childhood episode because he saw news footage from a helicopter flying over the scene (with his emphasis):
I stare at the surface of the sea without listening to what the reporter says, and suddenly the outline of a face emerges. I don’t know how long it stays there, a few seconds perhaps, but long enough for it to have a huge impact on me. The moment the face disappears I go to find someone I can tell.The only person nearby at the time is his father, a stern man, a head teacher after all, who tells him not to give it another thought. For many, not giving it another thought is no problem, and My Struggle will probably leave them nonplussed (the allusive title is likely meant for those who may regard the whole enterprise as arrogant and self-indulgent), but for Karl Ove Knausgaard it is the beginning of thought. What did he see?
Throughout the book there are variations of the face-in-the-sea incident and for Knausgaard and the reader each one has the promise and terror of an imminent revelation, which never in fact occurs (much like Roberto Bolaño's 2666, though the similarities end there). From a distance, they can appear banal. Sometimes he is able to identify windows on the experience and provide an interpretation. Looking at a book of Constable’s paintings for instance:
I didn’t need to do any more than let my eyes skim over them before I was moved to tears. So great was the impression some of the pictures made on me. Others left me cold. That was my only parameter with art, the feeling it aroused. The feeling of inexhaustibility. The feeling of beauty. The feeling of presence. All compressed into such acute moments that sometimes they could be difficult to endure.Another is when the elderly poet Olav H. Hauge reads a poem on his driveway to a youthful Knausgaard and his mates. He finds it in music, having at one time a poster of John Lennon – “the apostle of impassioned sincerity” – over his desk. The epithet suits Knausgaard himself and Don Bartlett’s translation is especially convincing and memorable in evoking such passion and sincerity.
The immense and visceral detail describing Karl Ove’s family and friends has contributed to the news media controversy surrounding the book and will no doubt detract from the necessity of its form, as will summarising the face-in-the-sea experience as “religious” or “mystical”. Like his grand amour for a girl called Hanne, it is the everyday unknown. Also in the same movement of distraction, Proust is invoked as the main precursor, though only Boyd Tonkin has singled out the reason as Knausgaard’s “microscopically detailed account of how [the book] came to be written”. The other major influence would seem to be Thomas Bernhard, whose father also died in mysterious circumstances and who also describes each turn of his life with preternatural precision. The collective title of his great five-book memoir Gathering Evidence is a good pointer as to why, as well as Knausgaard’s expressed admiration. The author’s need to understand his father’s trajectory from family man to squalid drunk requires access to the unknowable, to the physically dead, and the only alternative he discovers is to piece together evidence of his own experience – experience of his father and of everything else – and, now as his father’s equal in age and social position – to try to pinpoint the origin of the descent. Only then might something remarkable emerge from darkness and silence. And it does.