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.