Last year I read Knausgaard’s A Man in Love, the second volume in his six-book series, My Struggle, a set of novels that delve into various aspects of his own personal life. I had to jump straight in with book two as it made the IFFP longlist, a list I’d agreed to read for Stu’s Shadow project. Much to my surprise, I found A Man in Love very compelling, and while it didn’t seem to matter that I hadn’t started with book one, I’ve been meaning to plug the gap ever since. A Death in the Family is that first volume in the series, but it turned out to be a very different book to the one I’d expected.
The title A Death in the Family refers to the painful demise of Karl Ove’s father, a man who died before his time in horrific circumstances. At the time of writing this first volume, Karl Ove is forty and living in Sweden with his second wife, Linda, and their three children. He is struggling to balance the demands of family life alongside his burning desire to write something exceptional. For several years he has tried (albeit unsuccessfully) to write a novel about his father. Finally he finds a form that will suit, enabling him to tell it as it is: A Death in the Family is the result.
The book is divided into two very different parts. The first section begins with a short meditation on death: how as a society we tend to draw a veil over the whole subject; how dead bodies are hidden away and stored as close to the ground as possible. It’s as if there is ‘something deep within us that urges us to move death down to the earth whence we came.’ It’s a stark and powerful opening, one that drew me into the opening pages of the book, and I was all set for Karl Ove to disclose the story of his own father’s departure.
Before we get to the meat of the novel though, there’s some scene setting to cover. So for the remainder of the first section, Karl Ove looks back over his childhood and teenage years giving us a sense of the troubled nature of his relationship with his father. Here’s an early memory of suppertime in the Knausgaard household, a passage I found especially revealing and poignant – the plates and glasses are for Karl Ove and his elder brother, Yngve:
If mum was on the evening shift, dad did everything: when we came into the kitchen there were two glasses of milk and two plates, each with four slices of bread plus toppings, waiting for us. As a rule, he had prepared the food beforehand, and then kept it in the fridge, and the fact that it was cold made it difficult to swallow, even when I liked the toppings he had chosen. If mum was at home there was a selection, either hers of ours, of meats, cheeses, jars on the table and this small touch, which allowed us to choose what would be on the table or on our sandwiches, in addition to the bread being at room temperature, this was sufficient to engender a sense of freedom in us… (pg. 15, Vintage Books)
Suppers with mother are relaxed and happy affairs, the children helping to lay the table and chatting away about anything and everything. Karl Ove’s mother is interested in what the boys have to say and doesn’t mind if they make a bit of a mess at the table. By contrast, the boys seem fearful of their father, lowering their voices and sitting up ‘as stiff as pokers’ when he enters the kitchen. I would have liked to hear more about Karl Ove’s mother, but she is largely absent from the story either working or away from the family home for whatever reason.
These early fragments aside, I have to admit to disengaging from large chunks of the first part of this book, particularly the passages covering Karl Ove’s teenage years. During this time, Karl Ove and Yngve’s parent split up. We follow Karl Ove as he develops a love of indie music and proceeds to drift about like a typical teenager, all captured in the minutest of detail. There’s an extremely lengthy passage depicting Karl Ove’s movements and those of his friends one New Year’s Eve: their attempts to procure alcohol and to conceal it from their parents; their efforts to find a party as they mill around from one location to another. My recall of this passage is more than a little fuzzy as my mind was wandering at this point. If truth be told, I find the teenage Knausgaard far less interesting than his adult counterpart. I was waiting for the grip of the narrative to kick in, and it came once I started part two.
The second section focuses on the death of Karl Ove’s father, or more precisely, the aftermath and fallout from this event. At some point following the breakdown of his marriage, Karl Ove’s father moves back to the old family home to live with the boys’ grandmother. He turns to the bottle becoming highly dependent on alcohol to get by, and when Karl Ove hears of his father’s death, there’s a sense that it is not entirely unexpected.
Throughout his life, Karl Ove had tried to impress his father but without success, his efforts failing to gain the recognition he craved. At first he appears to feel very little for the loss of his father; it’s as if there is an absence of any response. But as he travels home to Norway, the emotions flood through his body. When Karl Ove sees his brother Yngve in the airport arrivals hall, the tears come:
He turned his head and met my gaze. I was about to smile, but at that moment my lips twisted, and with a pressure it was impossible to resist, the emotions from earlier rose again. They found vent in a sob, and I began to cry. Half-raised my arm to my face, took it back down, a new wave came, my face puckered once again. I will never forget the look on Yngve’s face. He watched me in disbelief. There was no judgement in it, it was more like him watching something he could not understand, and had not expected, and for which therefore he was completely unprepared. (pgs. 225-6)
I mentioned earlier that this book turned out to be very different to the one I’d expected. I simply wasn’t prepared for the intensity and horror of what Karl Ove and Yngve have to face when they arrive at the family home. Their father must have been living in abject squalor, drinking himself into the ground until death finally arrived. Here’s a tiny excerpt from the scene (it gets much, much worse than this):
Yngve stood in the hall surveying the scene. The blue wall-to-wall carpet was covered with dark stains and marks. The open built-in wardrobe was full of lose bottles and bags of them. Clothes had been tossed all over the place. More bottles, clothes hangers, shoes, unopened letters, advertising brochures and plastic bags were strewn across the floor.
But the worst was the stench.
What the hell could reek like that?
‘He’s destroyed everything,’ Yngve said, slowly shaking his head. (pgs. 255-6)
This second section of the novel is astonishing. It takes the brothers several days to systematically clear and clean each room in the house; the amount of filth and detritus they have to wade through is unlike anything I might have imagined. The writing is raw and candid, giving the narrative an unfiltered feel – nothing is spared. I found the scenes involving Karl Ove’s grandmother especially distressing: a woman quite possibly experiencing the early symptoms of dementia, wasting away to nothing and retreating into herself. She’s been living through it all, and it’s heart-breaking to read.
There is a sense that Knausgaard has written this book as a way of exorcising the ghost of his father. As the house clearance and funeral preparations continue, there are times when he is overcome with emotion, and the tears flow freely. We are left with the picture of a man trying to come to terms with a number of things, not only the death of his father but the misery and pain that has accumulated over many years.
A Death in the Family (tr. by Don Bartlett) is published in the UK by Vintage Books. Source: personal copy. Book 6/20 in my #TBR20.