“My Struggle: Book 1 (A Death in the Family) by Karl Ove Knausgaard
(First publication: 2009 / This edition: Vintage Books 2014)
Taken on a Saturday stroll in the Old City, with a coffee stop at Blue Whale Maharaj
For humans are merely one form among many, which the world produces over and over again, not only in everything that lives but also in everything that does not live, drawn in sand, stone and water. And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor. (pg.490)
I had seen this book floating around social media and seen it on “Highlights” shelves in bookstores numerous of times before I finally decided to get it.
It had always caught my attention—the cover reminds me of Sirius Black, in his Azkaban days. The thought that it maybe his autobiography or memoir actually flitted across my mind a few times. I didn’t want to take it into further consideration though since, well, I had no idea who this Karl Ove Knausgaard was and the “A Death in the Family” part was just… not really so appealing to me.
I got it about two weeks ago when Joe Kamm recommended it to me (*do check out his book here.) He said that the style “is cool and beautiful in a weird way”. Well, that got me curious. I took a trip to Kinokuniya the following day.
It’s definitely an interesting book. I just finished it last night and am still trying to digest it.
I guess the first thing that comes to mind is that it reminds me of “Stoner” by John Williams. Not that the two books have similar storylines, but… this one makes me think of what Tom Hanks said about “Stoner”: “It’s simply a novel about a guy who goes to college and becomes a teacher. But it’s one of the most fascinating things you have ever come across.”
This book is Karl Ove Knausgaard telling you about snippets and episodes of his life, from his childhood, his teenage years, his fresh-out-of-school years, his wife-is-pregnant year, and so on. And of course, the most significant (in this book): the death of his father.
So… a lot actually happens, but at the same time, it feels like nothing really happens. Just like in “Stoner”. But then you feel so heavy and so… in pain, for the lack of better words. It was definitely an intense read.
My favorite parts of the books were his childhood and teenage years though, which were mostly in the first half of the book. I enjoyed reading about his life in Scandinavia. I guess it’s partly because it’s a life that you don’t really encounter in literature—most books I’ve read are usually set in New York, London, Tokyo, California, or some other more popular settings. I haven’t come across Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen, Malmo, etc, and all that often. It was much to my delight though as I went to those cities a little less than a year ago—so it put me in my travel-nostalgia mode.
It was interesting to look inside a window and see his childhood and teenage lifestyle. He explains his thoughts and his feelings—exposing everything, from moments of pride to moments of vulnerability. And I think that’s what makes it so beautiful—how raw he is when he tells his story. I particularly enjoyed his first encounters with girls—things that go on in his mind when he’s nervous, excited, curious…
The parts related to dealing with his father’s death was pretty intense and difficult to get through—as it was so blunt and honest (which I do appreciate). But I guess it’s kind of disturbing when you’re reading such clear and personal descriptions about a death of a person you don’t know. I felt chills now and then and felt averse to some chunks of details about the death. But that’s just what life is, and I admire Karl Ove Knausgaard for getting that point across straight-forward and in a beautiful, melancholic way.
Now, the second half on the book… I didn’t enjoy it too much. I think it was just the nature or the style of the story-telling, where he just pours out his experiences and his thoughts—sometimes with no particular order. It’s like combining a lot of events and thoughts together. And since I had a very busy week and could only read on the commute, oftentimes I would just zone out while reading and then realize after 2-3 pages that I have no idea what was going on. And I’d go back a few steps, re-read, and then find out that, again, I have no idea what was going on. And this kept happening over and over again to the point where I wished that the book would just finish already.
It’s a shame because I can appreciate the style and I admire his beautiful, descriptive, and honest way of writing. I guess I just needed something a bit more captivating or something that can really hold my attention and make me escape reality for a while, when a bazillion other things are going on in my head these days.
One thing for sure though, he makes me appreciate life and accept life as it is; to not demand so much, to not expect so much, and to not be so anxious about what is to come.
I’m definitely planning reading the other books in this series. I’ll probably leave a bit of time before Book 2 though. I feel like they’re the type of books you’d want to go to when you need some inspiration or need a fresh, harsh dose of reality—like when you’re in the mood to watch a long, drama movie based on real-life people.
Here are some of my favorite lines from the book:
It was odd that, twenty years later, after so much had changed, the smell in the house should be the same. It is conceivable that it was all to do with habit, using the same soaps, the same detergents, the same perfumes and aftershave lotions, cooking the same food in the same way, coming home from the same job and doing the same things in the afternoons and evenings. If you worked on cars, there would be traces of oil and white spirit, metal and exhaust fumes in the smell. If you collected old books, there would be traces of yellowing paper and old leather in the smell, but in a house where people had died off, and those left were too old to do what they used to do, what about the smell in these houses, how could it be unchanged? Were the walls impregnated with forty years of living, was that what I could smell every time I stepped inside? (pg.472)
As your perspective of the world increases not only is the pain it inflicts on you less but also its meaning. Understanding the world requires you to take a certain distance from it. Things that are too small to see with the naked eye, such as molecules and atoms, we magnify. Things that are too large, such as cloud formations, river deltas, constellations, we reduce. At length we bring it within the scope of our senses and we stabilize it with fixer. When it has been fixed we call it knowledge. Throughout our childhood and teenage years, we strive to attain the correct distance to objects and phenomena. We read, we learn, we experience, we make adjustments. Then one day we reach the point where all the necessary distances have been set, all the necessary systems have been put in place. That is when time begins to pick up speed. It no longer meets any obstacles, everything is set, time races through our lives, the days pass by in a flash and before we know that is happening we are fort, fifty, sixty… Meaning requires content, content requires time, time requires resistance. Knowledge is distance, knowledge is stasis and the enemy of meaning. My picture of my father on that evening in 1976 is, in other words, twofold: on the one hand I see him as I saw him at that time, through the eyes of an eight-year-old: unpredictable and frightening; on the other hand, I see him as a peer through whose life time is blowing and unremittingly sweeping large chunks of meaning along with it. (pg.11)
The only thing I have learned from life is to endure it, never to question it, and to burn up the longings generated by this in writing. Where this ideal has come from I have no idea, and as I now see it before me, in black and white, it almost seems perverse: why duty before happiness? The question of happiness is banal, but the question that follows is not, the question of meaning. (pg.39)