Filling up with pain
At thirty-nine years of age, Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard found himself arriving rather unexpectedly at a crossroads. The author of two successful novels, married for a second time and raising three children, Knausgaard could feel time slipping away from him. As the demands placed on him by life kept increasing, his time spent dedicated to writing his masterpiece kept decreasing. Faced with the grim realization of his own fleeting mortality, he set out on a quest to reexamine his entire life with the hope that he could find some meaning in it all, that he could arrive at a place of understanding what it all meant by exploring the past and capturing it with the written word.
Soon I will be forty, and when I’m forty, it won’t be long before I’m fifty. And when I’m fifty, it won’t be long before I’m sixty. And when I’m sixty, it won’t be long before I’m seventy. And that will be that.
And so with breakneck speed he embarked on writing his six-volume (!) series of autobiographical novels. Outrageously titled My Struggle in his homeland (that translates to mein Kampf in German for those keeping track at home), this first volume was retitled A Death in the Family in the UK, where it was released in English for the very first time last year as well. In it, Knausgaard spends half his time remembering seemingly every day, ordinary tales from his teenage years, and the other half dealing with the emotional fallout from the death of his father. Both halves feature a concise, almost reporter like use of language, as if the author was reliving his life in an attempt to recreate the circumstances he lived through and the emotions they evoked in order to reclaim them for posterity. It isn’t always pretty. In fact, sometimes it’s downright boring. What makes it interesting, and what ultimately makes it work however, is that Knausgaard holds nothing back.
We all have our own personal hang-ups, our kinks, our quirks. The things that define us, that make us us. Knausgaard isn’t afraid to spend some quality time looking in the mirror and reporting back his findings. He understands that before he can point his potentially poisoned pen at others, he needs to start with himself. He genuinely wants to reach a place of understanding and acceptance, and he’s willing to expose himself first, and then those around him, in a less than flattering light to get there.
The common thread that holds the two seemingly disparate parts of the novel together is the presence of his father. In life, he’s a complicated, flawed human being who can’t make a solid connection with either of his children. In death, he’s an inanimate corpse, unable to think, feel, or talk, yet still holding sway over the lives of his two sons. They need to see the body to accept that his passing is real, but even that confirmation isn’t enough because they’re faced with the realization that they’re left behind to untangle and repair the damage he wrought in life. Not just the physical damage inflicted on house and home, but the mental damage inflicted on them through having survived a lifetime full of both real and imagined abuses.
We live in an age where information has never been more accessible, yet we seem content with hiding death away. It’s almost as if by denying it’s existence that we somehow feel we can be the ones to finally rise above it, to somehow escape the eventual fate that awaits us all.
Knausgaard however doesn’t want to turn his back on the end. He wants to face it. He wants to embrace it. He wants to understand it and assimilate it into our everyday lives. He wants to know that he will eventually die, to feel it every waking moment of every second lived, so that life might be somehow bearable, somehow worth living, somehow purposeful. It’s not a bad goal to strive for.
And if you have to tear apart yourself, your friends, and your family to get there? Well that’s just all the more entertaining.
My Struggle: Book One
By Karl Ove Knausgaard
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett