Nordic incontinence

by Chris Bertram on April 9, 2012

I’ve just finished the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s _A Death in the Family_, the first volume of his sequence of autobiographical novels, _My Struggle_ . The novel, if novel is the best word for it, is at once brilliant and horrible. Brilliant, because of Knausgaard’s talents for description and for self-observation; horrible because of the meticulous way in which he sets out the decline of his father and grandmother. In the novel, and doubtless in real life, Knausgaard’s father is an alcoholic, who at the end of his life, barricades himself into the house of his semi-demented mother and drinks himself to death amidst his own waste. The final third of the book consists of the author’s description of himself and his brother cleaning up the mess and preparing for the funeral. Incomprehensible to the author – and to the reader – is his father’s sudden mid-life transformation from being reserved, proper, distant and controlling, first to would-be bohemian and then to hopeless drunk. Though this change provides the organizing principle of the novel, it is only one of its parts. Much of the “action” (if action there is) consists of an alienated Knausgaard recalling his adolescence and observing himself struggling to write somewhere in Stockholm. In the course of this, we get his reflections on art – and what it does for him – his feelings towards his pregnant girlfriend and children (less warm than he thinks they should be), on death, alcohol, music and much besides. I can’t say that it is anything other than compelling, even though simultaneously revolting. Of course we cannot know what Knausgaard holds back, but he gives a good impression of total candour: he notices the difference between what he ought to feel and think and what he does, actually, feel and think, and tells us anyway.
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