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Karl Ove Knausgård: Min kamp. Første bok (UK: A Death in the Family; US: My Struggle)

When this book was first published in Norway, it caused a certain amount of controversy. Firstly, the Norwegian title Min kamp is a direct translation of Mein Kampf. Secondly, Knausgård’s book is intensely autobiographic, sparing few details. His family were horrified at what he said, particularly about his father and grandmother. His uncle tried to have publication blocked and then did manage to have the names changed. The father is called simply Dad or referred to as my father throughout the book. Knausgård’s ex-wife prepared a response which was broadcast on Norwegian radio. Even his current wife was somewhat concerned. Despite or, maybe, because of this, the book became a massive best-seller in Norway and has been or is being translated into many languages and has received much positive critical comment abroad. The book is quite simply his own story. As the English (UK) title of the first volume shows, the death of his father (and his relationship to his father) is key.

Knausgård has said that he was very much influenced by Proust and while this book is very different from Proust, the idea of a stream of autobiographical story-telling is key to both authors. While Proust’s story is famously prompted by dipping a madeleine in a cup of tea, both parts of the first volume of this book are about death. The first part of the book is about death in general, focusing on what it means biologically and then wondering why we are so eager to remove dead bodies once people die, instead of leaving the corpses around to a more convenient time. The second part of the book is equally unpleasant, with Knausgård’s father’s death in fairly unpleasant circumstances, followed by details of the clean-up Knausgård and his older brother, Yngve, have to do, as well as details of the funeral arrangements. He mentions many other influences as well, particularly Aksel Sandemose.

The first part of the book is, indeed, his own autobiography when he was a child. The Norwegian title, which translates, as in the US title of the first volume, as My Struggle, may be somewhat tongue in cheek, as his childhood is not particularly arduous. He is involved with many of the things other teenage boys are involved in. He has a love of rock music, particularly British and US bands, and plays the drums (badly) in a group. He likes football and plays for a local junior team. He drinks alcohol and, when still under the legal age, tells of his attempts to buy alcohol illegally and conceal it from his parents. And, of course, he is interested in girls and we follow his first fumblings in that area. As with Proust, this could be intensely boring but, fortunately, Knausgård is such a fine writer and seems to hold nothing back so that we are drawn into the life of the young Karl Ove and follow his life with the same interest as he does. Of course, there are problems, particularly his parent’s marriage. His father is a teacher and fairly stern but also, surprisingly for a teacher, fairly anti-social. He will later take to drink and become an alcoholic. Gradually the parents drift apart. The father moves out and though Karl Ove and his brother live with their mother, Karl Ove spends some time with his father, where the relationship is mixed, sometimes good and sometimes less so. Eventually, the parents divorce and Karl Ove drifts away from his father, Yngve having already done so.

The second part of the book is devoted entirely to the death of his father and the immediate aftermath. Karl Ove and Yngve have to arrange the funeral, clean up the house and spend some time with their grandmother, who is going slightly but certainly not totally senile. Not a great deal happens but again it seems to work. We are told of the reminiscences of the two sons as well as Karl Ove’s own reminiscences about the father. That Karl Ove was, despite everything, very much attached to his father, is clear. The precise details of the death of the father are difficult to come by, not least because of grandmother’s senility but it is clear that the last few weeks of his life were not happy ones.

I am not sure that I would want to read all six volumes of this work but there is no doubt that this first book is an excellent novel and well worth reading. Like Proust, it works because the writing is so good. Knausgård is certainly more intense than Proust and obviously not concerned with Society in the way Proust is but, like Proust, he keeps us engaged throughout the book.

Publishing history

First published 2009 by Forlaget Oktober
First published in English in 2012 by Harvill Secker/Archipelago Books