HE PULLS US FACE­FIRST THROUGH THE HOUSE IN WHICH HIS FA­THER DIED

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Te­gan Ben­nett Day­light

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.’’

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