Tag Archives: Norway

A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard (review)

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.

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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.

Several other bloggers have reviewed this book – they include Stu, Tony Malone and Tony Messenger. Helen has written about the series.

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.

The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik, tr. by Deborah Dawkin

Peirene Press do a fantastic job in unearthing contemporary European novellas, many of which are written by women writers. Peirene curate their books by theme, and The Blue Room is the second in their Coming-of-Age: Towards Identity series.

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Hanne Ørstavik, an award-winning Norwegian author, has published several books, but The Blue Room is her first to be translated into English, skilfully translated here by Deborah Dawkin. The story is narrated by Johanne, a young woman in her early twenties who lives with her mother in a small apartment in Norway. The novel begins on the morning when Johanne is due to leave Oslo for a six-week trip to America with her boyfriend Ivar, a trip her mother seems very reluctant for Johanne to take. When Joanne wakes, she finds herself locked in her room, alone in the apartment and unable to break free on her own. As the young girl waits, she soon realises she must let go of her excitement and hopes for everything that might happen in her relationship with Ivar. Instead, Johanne’s thoughts coalesce around a number of recent experiences: how she came to meet Ivar at University (where she’s studying to become a Clinical Psychologist), the role of religion in her life, and her relationship with her mother.

Johanne’s reflections reveal a recent sexual awakening, but also internal conflict between the different demands and influences in her life. On the one hand, she’s attracted to Ivar and is keen to explore her desires and sexual fantasies; but at other times, feelings of guilt and pain flood into her mind:

I lay on my side with my head on the pillow and looked out of the window; the blue of the sky was so clear it almost hurt. I felt it come again. I didn’t cry much, just a few tears rolling down, wetting my eyes. I wondered about the cause. My thoughts lay embedded in sinews and skin, beyond my reach. Those of you who believe yourselves to be clean, without sin, without guilt, may cast the first stone. I saw myself under a heap of stones. (pgs. 46-47, Peirene Press)

These conflicting forces play a part in Johanne’s reactions towards Ivar. As an example, here’s Johanne as she thinks back to an early stage in their relationship, and we see how quickly her thoughts change; what starts with the hope and promise of the first flushes of love suddenly flips into a mood tainted by fear and a sense of danger:

What I wanted most was to go for a walk in the forest, just the two of us, talking, alone, with the sun coming through the trees at an angle, looking at it together, getting to know each other. Ivar took a folded piece of yellow paper out of his pocket. Here’s the address and time and stuff, he said. He looked at me with his head to one side. He was serious. His lips moved a fraction, I observed the breath between them, and his freckles. He’ll kiss me now, I thought. My lips were tingling, but nothing happened. He just looked at me, his face very close. It was if we’d made a promise to each other, exchanged a vow that had no outward expression, because it was unvoiced, but it would live on inside me for ever, real and genuine. Pure. I think Ivar felt it too. Like the words I love you. But then why, I wondered, hadn’t he kissed me? Did he think I was ugly? Repulsive? What was he after? A basement party somewhere near the Akerselva river, late at night. What did he intend to subject me to? Why me? Men always accost me when I’m in town or on the train, alcoholic kids, guys who are out of their heads, or who need someone to confide in. There must be something about me, something they see. Perhaps I’m marked. Perhaps I have a wound that everybody can see but me. Something wrong? Ivar asked, putting a hand on my arm. I still hadn’t answered him about the party. His grasp was firm. A strong, warm hand on my arm. That’s how it starts, So-called concern, I thought later. Just another word for manipulation. (pgs. 94-95)

As the story develops, we can’t help but feel that Johanne’s fears about Ivar’s intentions stem from her mother’s ideas about men and their motives in general:

Men are so simple. Controlled by sex and power. Like robots, she said. (pg. 51)

The claustrophobic, almost stifling setting for Johanne’s confinement reflects the nature of her ties to her mother. It’s a very unsettling, unnerving read, especially when disturbing visions of a sexual and intense nature flood into Johanne’s mind like bolts from the blue. But it’s a subtle book, too; I found myself reading each line quite slowly, looking behind the words on the page for hints and clues about events in Johanne and her mother’s past that might shed light on various elements within the story. And the ending is quite chilling; it’s one that left me trying to imagine what might happen to Johanne in the hours and days to come.

As with all the Peirene novellas I’ve read to date, I’m sure a second reading of The Blue Room will reveal additional nuances and insights. That’s one of the things I like about Peirene books – there’s always something new to discover when one returns to a Peirene story, even if The Blue Room might be an uncomfortable place to revisit.

A number of other bloggers have also reviewed this book – if you’d like to read their thoughts, just click on the links: Claire at Word by Word, Lindsay at The Little Reader Library and Naomi and The Writes of Women.

The Blue Room is published in the UK by Peirene Press. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publishers.

A Man in Love (My Struggle: Book 2) by Karl Ove Knausgaard, tr. by Don Bartlett

A Man in Love begins by pitching us straight into the action, into a bit of a ‘domestic’ in fact, as we join Karl Ove Knausgaard in the middle of a summer holiday in Tjorn, near Gothenburg. The time is July 2008 and these opening scenes paint a candid picture of the reality of Karl Ove’s family life with Linda, his second wife, and their three children (Vanya, Heidi and John). All the tensions of trying to occupy and manage the needs of their three young children are centre stage:

…so twenty minutes later we found ourselves on a high, narrow and very busy bridge, grappling with two buggies, hungry, and with only an industrial area in sight. Linda was furious, her eyes were black, we were always getting into situations like this, she hissed, no one else did, we were useless, now we should be eating, the whole family, we could have been really enjoying ourselves, instead we were out here in a gale-force wind with cars whizzing by, suffocating from exhaust fumes on this bloody bridge. Had I ever seen any other families with three children outside in situations like this? (p. 5)

It’s a compelling opening and one that immediately captured my interest. The book starts at this point and returns to these scenes towards the end. In between these bookends a number of other strands run through the narrative all of which come together to form the crux of Karl Ove’s story.

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In one sense – perhaps unsurprisingly given the book’s title – this is a story of how Karl Ove falls in love with Linda. At this point, the timeline flips back to the early 2000’s. Having upped and suddenly left Tonje, his wife and partner of eight years, Karl Ove moves from Norway to Stockholm and reconnects with Linda, a writer he first encountered at the Biskops-Arno writers’ workshop. They meet several times for coffee, the occasional drink in a bar, and while it’s clear they are attracted to one another, they seem unable to express their real feelings in order to move beyond mere small talk. Unable to deal with this paralysis any longer, Karl Ove decides to pour out his heart in a letter to Linda:

I wrote down what she meant to me. I wrote what she had been for me when I saw her for the first time and what she was now. I wrote about her lips sliding over her teeth when she got excited. I wrote about her eyes, when they sparkled and when they opened their darkness and seemed to absorb light. I wrote about the way she walked, the little, almost mannequin-like, waggle of her backside. I wrote about her tiny Japanese features. I wrote about her laughter, which could sometimes wash over everything, how I loved her then. I wrote about the words she used most often, how I loved the way she said ‘stars’ and the way she flung around the word ‘fantastic’. I wrote that all this was what I had seen, and that I didn’t know her at all, had no idea what ran through her mind and very little about how she saw the world and the people in it, but that what I could see was enough. I knew I loved her and always would. (p.194)

I won’t reveal exactly how these two get together, but clearly they do. Here’s Karl Ove in the glow-zone of the first flushes of love:

For the first time in my life I was completely happy. For the first time there was nothing in my life that could overshadow the happiness I felt. We were together constantly, suddenly reaching for each other at traffic lights, across a restaurant table, on buses, in parks, there were no demands or desires except for each other. I felt utterly free, but only with her, the moment we were apart I began to have yearnings. (p 201)

As time passes, however, the heightened intensity of the first flushes of love fades away. Children arrive and A Man in Love taps into Karl Ove’s search for meaning in his everyday existence: 

Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, not something that was meaningful or made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change nappies but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it, and always had done. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts. (p. 59-60)

In some sense, I think part of what Knausgaard is trying to do here is to find a way of navigating normality, those flat periods between the peaks of intensity that life throws his (and our) way. We experience periods of extreme emotional sharpness in our lives. Our teenage years where everything is hyper-intense, falling in love, the birth of a child, the adrenaline rush from moments of success, a death in the family. But it’s trying to find meaning and fulfilment in the everyday that presents a challenge for Karl Ove, despite the fact he clearly loves and feels great tenderness towards his family:

At the traffic lights across from us a car was revving, and when I turned my head I saw the sound was coming from one of those enormous jeep-like vehicles that had begun to fill our streets in recent years. The tenderness I felt for Vanja was so great it was almost tearing me to pieces. To counteract it, I broke into a jog. (p. 54)

For Knausgaard, perhaps the key to all this is being able to free up sufficient space and time for his work as a writer…and this topic forms another stand within the narrative. Here, an interview with a journalist causes him to reflect on his frustrations as a writer and difficulties in being able to devote sufficient time to his calling:

I had one opportunity. I had to cut all my ties with the flattering, thoroughly corrupt world of culture in which everyone, every single little upstart, was for sale, cut all my ties with the vacuous TV and newspaper world, sit down in a room and read in earnest, not contemporary literature but literature of the highest quality, and then write as if my life depended on it. For twenty years if need be. (p. 459)

And yet the minutiae and demands of his family life are stopping him, and he lays bare his feelings for the reader to see:

But I couldn’t grasp the opportunity. I had a family and I owed it to them to be there. I had friends. And I had a weakness in my character which meant that I would say yes, yes, when I wanted to say no. no, which was so afraid of hurting others, which was so afraid of conflict and which was so afraid of not being liked that it could forgo all principles, all dreams, all opportunities, everything that smacked of truth, to prevent this happening. (p. 459-460)

This is my first experience of Knausgaard and I found it utterly compelling and addictive. I’ve been reading this year’s IFFP longlist (along with a group of bloggers led by Stu) and as I didn’t have time to start with A Death in the Family – My Struggle: Book 1, I pitched straight in with A Man in Love (book 2 in the series).

I’m finding it a little hard to pinpoint exactly why I found this book so gripping, but I think a large part of it has to do with the sense that these are real people Knausgaard is showing us here. Real people with real names and real lives, that’s how it appears to me. And he’s laying himself bare, exposing his emotions with extreme candour. He holds nothing back, flaws and all. Even though he internalises many of his own emotions and avoids conflict in social situations, we, the readers, gain access to his innermost thoughts right down to their essence.

Maybe there’s also an element of my recognising many of the demands and challenges he describes in raising three small children, all very close to one another in age. I’ve seen the exhaustion and mix of emotions this can trigger in friends and family in similar circumstances.

Part of the appeal (for me) also stems from the way the narrative unfolds. It doesn’t follow a conventional narrative arc and as a reader there’s the allure of not knowing quite where Karl Ove is going to take us next. Alongside the story of Karl Ove and Linda’s family life, children’s parties and wandering around Stockholm with a buggy, he spins off into topics including existential discussions on the meaning of Holderlin’s poems, cultural differences between Sweden and Norway and many more. We meet various friends and family members, all vividly painted in such a way that conveys their distinct personalities and demeanours.  There are flashes of painful humour, too; the acute embarrassment and humiliation Karl Ove feels when dancing with Vanya at baby Rhythm Time class; his irritation at Swedish middle-class parents for plying children with wholesome vegetable crudités at a toddler’s party; his encounters with the neighbour from hell. It’s all here.

A Man in Love deserves its place on the IFFP shortlist, and I’m sure I’ll track back and read A Death in Family, along with forthcoming instalments as they appear…I suspect I’m in for the long haul now.

Other members of the IFFP shadow group have also reviewed A Man in Love: Stu, Tony Malone, Tony Messenger and David Hebblethwaite – just click on the links to read their thoughts. This review was first published as a guest post on Tony Malone’s blog (18th March 2014) and Tony has kindly granted his permission for me to republish my review here.

A Man in Love is published in the UK by Vintage Books. Page numbers refer to the paperback edition. Source: library copy.