HE PULLS US FACEFIRST THROUGH THE HOUSE IN WHICH HIS FATHER DIED
The words pile and topple, pile and topple, describing the smallest acts, the most trifling of exchanges without any apparent gestures towards art. It makes you think about fiction — how its job has always been to swerve around the inconvenient. It makes you think how fiction usually works to stage its sentences, to clear the space around them so their subject appears luminous. In Part One of A Death in the Family, there is nothing luminous; there is only detail of a very lonely teenagehood, a frightening father, a distant mother, an angry older brother.
In Part Two the project begins to make sense. The words have begun to work on us like a silent retreat in reverse — their relentless accumulation, having first made the nerves scream, becomes hypnotic and, finally, induces a kind of meditation.
Knausgaard is about to introduce his great subject, his first dead body. He signals this with a slight shift in tone, a little more art; the author sits in his study near the train tracks, watching ‘‘ the carriages passing through the woods like a row of illuminated rooms’’. He takes us gently towards his father’s death and then, reaching back into his endless store of ordinary sentences, pulls us face-first through the house in which his father died. Our subject here is cleaning; the house, which is still inhabited by Knausgaard’s gentle, slightly senile, alcoholic grandmother, has been left filthy. In each room there are clothes, food, plates, newspapers, rubbish and shit. There is shit on the sofas and shit on the floors. Karl Ove opens the door to the laundry room: In the middle of the floor was a pile of clothes as tall as I was, it almost reached the ceiling. That was where the rotting smell must have come from. I switched on the light. Towels, sheets, table cloths, trousers, jumpers, dresses, underwear, they had chucked it all in here. The lowest layers were not only mildewed, they were decomposing. I squatted down and prodded it with my finger. It was soft and sticky.
Karl Ove and his brother Yngve, moving around the still figure of their grandmother, set to and clean, and we go with them, step by step, imagining the last months of a man who, having broken his leg, lay in a circle of dirty plates and shit, forcing his terrified mother to bring him food and drink, and refusing any medical help. And this was not his death scene; he died months later in his chair in front of the television. Knausgaard’s grandmother thinks she may have left it until the morning to call the ambulance.
There are only two books of Min Kamp English; their translator, Don Bartlett, in is working on the others. I’ve just finished the second, A Man in Love, which uses the same style, but with more digressions into the existential, to describe the author’s home life. Knausgaard and his wife, Linda, have three children, and for the part of his life in which he is not hiding in his studio smoking and trying to write, Knausgaard is taking care of them. He fights his first daughter, 12 months old, as she wriggles out of having her nappy changed.
He marches around Stockholm, his new home, hating the Swedish middle class, hating his ‘‘ feminising’’, ‘‘ undignified’’ job as househusband, with ‘‘ a furious 19th-century man’’ inside him. I take issue with the notion of ‘‘ feminising’’, incidentally. I think Knausgaard is right to see the way we care for children today as undignified, but it has nothing to do with gender. We are undignified because of our intrusion into our children’s lives, because of the way we have colonised their lives and allowed them to colonise ours. It does not, however, reduce a man’s dignity to look after his kids.
Thoughts accumulate as fast as words in these books. I’d like to spend time talking about the differences between Sweden and Norway, one so modern, the other apparently so backward; or Knausgaard’s reading, which is extensive; or his reflections, not always complex, on being a father. The books are drenched in booze and soaked in smoke; not a moment seems to pass without Knausgaard lighting a cigarette. The yellow light in a room in Kristiansand or Stockholm, the snow outside: all these are absorbing, distracting.
Sometimes one is bored, or irritated, or contemptuous of Knausgaard’s project. But it is impossible to feel indifferent to these books. People have been hurt by them, but literature has been transformed. Is it worth it? Perhaps we should listen to William Faulkner, who said, ‘‘ If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies.’’