Karl Ove Knausgård: First reactions

I’m still contemplating the phenomenon that is Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle: Volume I, or A Death in the Family as the UK edition is titled. For several months I’ve read references on social media to the series, which comprises six volumes of autobiographical fiction, and refused to pay much attention despite the plaudits of several readers whose opinions I value and respect.

Several factors deterred me: I’m chary of reading overweight Bildungsroman, almost exclusively written by middle-aged men with a tendency to prolixity; I’m immediately wary of any of those writers hinting of Proustian influence (see first point); I have trepidation about literary realism because in the hands of most writers it is as dull as celebrity culture (I’ll read Flaubert or Turgenev, but I’m fucked if I’ll ever open another page of Balzac or Maupassant). So when presented with the option of reading another realist Bildungsroman, which does suffer from moments of prolixity, and openly acknowledges its Proustian roots, I was in no hurry to open the copy that napped on my shelf.

Once I did start reading A Death in the Family on Saturday morning, I was unavailable for anything except snacks until I completed it on Sunday afternoon. And it is a very ordinary, in the sense of unpretentious, and extraordinary, in the sense of superbly good. I immediately ordered Volume 2.

Beyond the superficial reference points, it wasn’t the Proustian resonance that immediately sounded, but in the way Knausgård foregrounded the set pieces (the themes are love and death, are there others?) were echoes of Virginia Woolf’s conception of an elemental structure to life, an aesthetic order, like a recurring theme in a musical piece (Verdi keeps coming to mind). I’m reminded of the “mist between the people she [Clarissa Dalloway] knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself.” Knausgård perceives of a similar connection between other people and things, which is how his narrator tries to make sense of everyday life. His sense of this connectedness is entirely secular and, as Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own, is an erratic and undependable reality found throughout an utterly mundane world.

Knausgård ultimately whetted my appetite for Woolf, and I dipped straight back into her diaries and autobiographical writings. This morning I found this paragraph (from Woolf’s Moments of Being), which captures so much more eloquently than I have been able the pattern that Knausgård seems to be exploring:

From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we – I mean all human beings – are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are music; we are the thing itself. And I see this when I have a shock.

Once I’ve read enough Woolf, I’ll read the second volume of Knausgård’s monumental outpouring. Perhaps I’ll like the narrator more than in the first volume, though it matters little. I might then have something to say with greater lucidity.

16 thoughts on “Karl Ove Knausgård: First reactions

    • I am not at all sure that I did like it, though I can recognise that it is superbly good, enough that I want to see where Knausgård takes it in the next volume. Believe me, when I worked out it was an overweight realist Bildungsroman, I didn’t expect to get past page 40.

      I’m filling in gaps in my reading of Woolf this year: letters, diaries, essays, and first and last of her novels.

      • Like was a rather middlebrow word for me to use to be honest. Did I “like” Satantango? I’m not sure that’s quite the right word, and if I did I didn’t like it in the same way I do say PG Wodehouse. Still, it was the best book I read in 2012 and by no small margin.

  1. I’ve been hesitating for similar reasons, but (partly thanks to your comments on Twitter) already added both volumes to this year’s to-read list. Now I think I’ll move it up the list, as it seems to fit perfectly in my plan to read “Mrs Dalloway” and “A Writer’s Diary” later this month. Thank you.

    • My pleasure and thanks for commenting. I’d read Woolf over Knausgård any day, particularly the two titles that you mentioned, both of which are dearly loved favourites, though my special love is reserved for To the Lighthouse. I’ve also been enjoying flicking through Moments of Being for months now and must settle down to reading it properly. I’d love to know what you think of both Woolfs and Knausgård when you’ve read them (will you blog about them?).

      • “To the Lighthouse” is wonderful, I read it twice (in different languages) in 2012. She is one of the writers I always go back to.
        I do plan to blog about books again (but not exactly to review them, in the way I attempted last year), so, hopefully, you’ll be able to read about my impressions.

      • I don’t review books either, gave up that attempt a long time ago, like you I’m just trying to capture a few fleeting initial impressions.

      • I know and I like your approach, perhaps because it corresponds well to the framework in which I tend to observe the world and literature.

  2. It’s interesting to read the array of reactions to Knausgård’s work. It’s gotten to the point where I find it impossible to predict the potential responses of people whose reading taste I thought I had a handle on. I read the first book and while I acknowledge his skill as a writer, I found it lacking in the level of insight I look for in realist writers nowadays. Like you I’d prefer to read Woolf over Knausgård any day, but he didn’t capture my interest enough to make me want to read further.

    Moments of Being is splendid. I particularly love ‘A Sketch of the Past’, with her words on the ‘sledgehammer blows’ we can find amidst the cotton wool of everyday life.

    • Now I am mid-Woolf binge, it may be a while before Knausgård’s second gets my attention, but I will definitely read on. I surprised myself, as I fully expected to abandon after 40 pages.

  3. How refreshing, to bring Virginia Woolf to bear on Knausgaard. They really do both share that effort to pin down the moment, to create a kind of freeze-frame of life as it flashes past. I’ll be curious to read your further reactions to Knausgaard’s saga.

  4. I’ve been so curious about this and I haven’t known anyone who read it yet. You’ve made it sound really good and interesting so now I think I might have to try it myself sometime.

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