A Death in the Family. Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Knausgaard, Karl Ove. A Death in the Family. English translation by Don Bartlett. Harvill Secker, London 2012 (first published in Norwegian as Min Kamp, Forlaget, Oslo 2009. Retrieved as digital for Kindle.

My attention was caught by a review of this in The Economist, which cast the author as doing something completely new and different. My cousin Diane independently recommended it, so I bit. The form of this story (autobiographical including relatives and others by name) got author into some local critical hot water, which can’t have hurt his notoriety. And yes, the writing is as transparent and nearly as emotionally surprising as anything I’ve read lately. Allowing for translation that sometimes messes with mood, my only problem was with what came across as foolish philosophizing. Otherwise it’s a jewel of a human story of fatherhood but set in sparklingly detailed description. I’m considering going for the rest of his series.

Is the father good, is he bad, why is he so important? Maybe I will have as illuminating a reflection on love in the next installment as I did in this one on Dad.

Author under his real name describes events as a child, then a teenager, and then a young middle-aged writer, which eventually focus on the death of his father. Old Knausgaard is pretty close to the worst dad you could imagine short of intelligent premeditated satanic abuse. The book starts with reflection on hypocrisy in respect of death (we don’t mind and even like talking about it in the abstract but boy do we ever sweep it out of the way as soon as it happens. Not the idea, the corpses), combined with heavy frozen Scandinavian inevitability. Both themes persist.

For me the section on adolescence stands a bit apart. It’s realistic and filled with the same transparency and contrasts we see everywhere else, but really the only thing that holds it together with the story of the older man is drinking. The teenager getting drunk with all its consequences, and the father eventually drinking himself to death.

Unless I’m having worse than usual hearing aid trouble, there were several patches of silliness, although these could have been a lot less awkward in the original language. Although there is a vague connection with one of the fundamental themes, I couldn’t quite stomach:

This meant that the great beyond, which until the Age of Enlightenment had been the divine, brought to us through the Revelation, and which in Romanticism was nature, where the concept of revelation was expressed as a sublime, no longer found any expression. In art that which was beyond was synonymous with society, by which is meant to human masses, which fully encompassed his concepts and ideas of validity.

…but I don’t think I ran across more than a couple of sections of that sort of cribbed philosophy 101.

The most exciting and beautiful thing I found here was a controlled explosion of emotion in rendered human events using a seemingly detached description of the physical setting. In a conversation between the brothers which by its content illuminates their relationship, suddenly

He didn’t answer. The silence, which in the first few seconds was charged, drifted into mere silence. I surveyed the scenery, which was sparse and wind-blown here so close to the sea. A red barn or two, a white farmhouse or two, a tractor or two with a forage harvester in a field. An old car without wheels in the yard, a yellow plastic ball blown under a hedge, some sheep grazing on a slope, a train slowly trundling past on the raised railway track a few hundred meters beyond the road.

In context that bucolic scene, then random garbage, then the weight and movement of the train (which is just stream of consciousness) sets the relationship against what the storyteller finds in the background, as seen while reflecting on what’s going on between the two of them.

Apropos, we also get a dose of imagination and art as reality, which never hurts:

For it was not the case that language cloaked reality in its moods, but vice versa, reality arose from them. (… from language’s moods, presumably)

Helping along with the prevailing mood of things just happening along with awful human reality toiling away underneath, there’s lots of good old European existential meaninglessness. To an adult as distinct from a child it’s:

... (t)he same with the taste of salt that could fill your summer days to saturation, now it was just salt, end of story.

But of course the story doesn’t end there. Knausgaard looks to me like a calm unaffected master of contrast. He switches without reflecting from a relationship to background, from superficial banality to overwhelming undertow of emotion, but also in separate scenes between for example the perfectly fake order and emotionless façade of the funeral home and the wildly hideous nightmare of his father and grandmother’s alcoholic nest of garbage and excrement.

So what’s it all about Alfie? There is death, ambiguity, alcohol, contrast, coming-of-age… but I have to go with fatherhood. Parenthood, if you like. There’s never any question that the dad was both a bad parent by any standard, and an extreme alcoholic. Most of the emotion, and for me it didn’t quite reach my heart of hearts (although maybe it should have) comes from the fact that he’s gone. Not that he was wonderful, not that the author didn’t forcefully and intentionally stay the hell away from him as soon as he could, and not even that he’s missed opportunities, but that “it was a question of the something not existing… as I sat down to write… the tears poured forth.”

All that feeling, several times, comes from facing a blank wall or just a void as it applies to any remedy, or improvement, that could give it meaning. It’s the finality of past events. Accidents of history as frozen and unchangeable as a physical constant.

Father, you caused all this! Made me, and then proceeded to make me over again in your image (or some negative version of it you ill-advisedly cooked up). I could have stopped your and Mum’s DNA from colliding about as easily I can retrospectively prevent the Big Bang. And then I was for those soft formative years just subject to your and her omnipotent influence, just as my kids were to mine.

I have occasional fairy tales about getting to go back and be say 16 again: all the things I could fix! But imagine if I could have sat down with both of my parents as older teenagers and explained how important they were. To me, I mean.


About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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