First Encounter: Karl Ove Knausgaard

For years I felt behind the curve because I had not yet read the two prime examples of European autofiction: Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard. It seemed like everyone was raving about them, calling their work revelatory and even compulsive (Zadie Smith has famously likened Knausgaard’s autobiographical novels to literary “crack”). Well, my first experience of Ferrante (see my review of My Brilliant Friend), about this time last year, was underwhelming, so that tempered my enthusiasm for trying Knausgaard. However, I had a copy of A Death in the Family on the shelf that I’d bought with a voucher, so I was determined to give him a go.

I read this first part of the six-volume “My Struggle” series over the course of about two months. That’s much longer than I generally spend with a book, and unfortunately reflects the fact that it was the opposite of compelling for me; at times I had to force myself to pick it up from a stack of far more inviting books and read just five or 10 pages so I’d see some progress. Now, a couple of weeks after finally reading the last page, I can say that I’m glad I tried Knausgaard to see what the fuss is all about, but I think it unlikely that I’ll read any of his other books.


Written in 2008, when he was 39, this is Knausgaard’s record of his childhood and adolescence – specifically his relationship with his father, a distant and sometimes harsh man who drank himself to an early death. And yet at least half the book is about other things, with the father – whether alive or dead – as just a shadow in the background. I found it so curious what Knausgaard chooses to focus on in painstaking detail versus what he skates over.

For instance, he spends ages on the preparations for a New Year’s Eve party he attended in high school: acquiring the booze, the lengths he had to go to in hiding it and lugging it through a snowy night, and so on. He gives a broader idea of his school years through some classroom scenes and word pictures of friends he was in an amateur rock band with and girls he had crushes on, but these are very brief compared to the 50 pages allotted to the party.

Part Two feels like a significant improvement. It opens at the time of composition, with Karl Ove the writer and family man in his office in Sweden – a scene we briefly saw around 30 pages into Part One. I like these interludes perhaps best of all because they make a space for his philosophical musings about writing and parenthood:

Even if the feeling of happiness [fatherhood] gives me is not exactly a whirlwind but closer to satisfaction or serenity, it is happiness all the same. Perhaps, even, at certain moments, joy. And isn’t that enough? Isn’t it enough? Yes, if joy had been the goal it would have been enough. But joy is not my goal, never has been, what good is joy to me? The family is not my goal, either. … The question of happiness is banal, but the question that follows is not, the question of meaning.

Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows. That is what writing is about. Not what happens there, not what actions are played out there, but the there itself.

At about the book’s halfway point we finally delve into the title event. About a decade previously Karl Ove got a call from his older brother, Yngve, telling him that their father was dead. Almost instantly he found himself trying to construct a narrative around this fact, assessing his thoughts to see if they had the appropriate gravity:

this is a big, big event, it should fill me to the hilt, but it isn’t doing that, for here I am, staring at the kettle, annoyed that it hasn’t boiled yet. Here I am, looking out and thinking how lucky we were to get this flat … and not that dad’s dead, even though that is the only thing that actually has any meaning.

Karl Ove Knausgaard at Turku Book Fair, 2011. By Soppakanuuna (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
He and Yngve met up to make funeral arrangements and view their father’s body, but the majority of this section – about 175 pages with the exception of flashbacks, many to earlier moments in his relationship with his brother – is about cleaning up the house where his father died. Their grandmother, who was in an early stage of dementia, still lived there and was barely in better shape than the property, littered as it was with empty bottles and excrement.

What puzzles me, once again, is Knausgaard’s fixation on detail. He describes every meal he and Yngve shared with their grandmother, their every conversation, what he ate, how he slept, what he wore, what he cleaned and how and when. How could he possibly remember all of this, unless the journal that he mentions keeping at the time was truly exhaustive? And why does it all matter anyway? Does this slavish recreation fulfill the same role that obsessive action did back then: displacing his feelings about his father?

This is all the more unusual to me given the numerous asides where the author/narrator denigrates his memory:

I remembered hardly anything from my childhood. That is, I remembered hardly any of the events in it. But I did remember the rooms where they took place.

nostalgia is not only shameless, it is also treacherous. What does anyone in their twenties really get out of a longing for their childhood years? For their own youth? It was like an illness.

Now I had burned all the diaries and notes I had written, there was barely a trace of the person I was until I turned twenty-five, and rightly so; no good ever came out of that place.

Why did I remember this so well? I usually forgot almost everything people, however close they were, said to me.

The best explanation I can come up with is that this is not a work of memory. It’s more novel than it is autobiography. It’s very much a constructed object. Early in Part Two he reveals that when he first tried writing about his father’s death he realized he was too close to it; he had to step back and “force [it] into another form, which of course is a prerequisite for literature.” Style and theme, he believes, should take a backseat to form.

Ultimately, then, I think of this book as an experiment in giving a literary form to his father’s life and death, which affected him more than he’d ever, at least consciously, acknowledged. Even if I found the narrative focus strange at times, I recognize that it makes for precise vision: I could clearly picture each scene in my head, most taking place in an airy house with wood paneling and shag pile carpeting matching its 1970s décor. Maybe what I’m saying is: this would make a brilliant film, but I don’t think I have the patience for the rest of the books.

My rating:


Whether or not you’ve read Knausgaard, do you grasp his appeal? Should I persist with his books?

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29 thoughts on “First Encounter: Karl Ove Knausgaard

  1. I must admit I expected to hate Knausgaard’s struggle, but found myself won over once I started reading. However, I did wonder whether such detailed descriptions of house-cleaning would have been published if the novel had been written by a woman. In fact, I almost wish there could be a spin off tv show, where Knausgaard visits filthy homes armed with a bucket and mop and gives them a make-over.

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      1. I fully intend to read the others but haven’t got round to them yet. Also, before I do, I’m desperate to read his book on football (I love football. And Knausgaard). The trouble is, I already have a copy but I’m almost scared to read it because then I won’t have it to look forward to anymore! *sigh*

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  2. We shelve Knausgaard in fiction; he falls in the same category, for me, as the book What Is the What, by Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng. I’ve never felt moved to pick him up though!

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    1. I realized I had this shelved under “memoirs” on Goodreads so changed it to just “lit in translation” instead. I do wonder what you’d make of Ferrante and Knausgaard. They’re both odd and not entirely satisfying for me. (That’s one of the handful of Eggers’ books I haven’t read…)

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      1. I think you just might. I wasn’t hugely keen on Swing Time myself, but in my review for BookBrowse I recommended it to fans of Ferrante, for the psychological insight into a female friendship that changes over time.

        I can understand the general impulse to resist the hyped books that everybody else seems to be reading, though. That’s my strategy most of the time.

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  3. If it makes you feel any better, I’ve yet to read either Ferrante or Knausgaard. I actually doubt I will ever read Knausgaard; somehow I don’t find what I’ve read about his work compelling, even though so many people rave about it. (I gave my mom the first in Ferrante’s trilogy and she’s a BIG fan now, so I know she’ll make me read her books eventually.)

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    1. I fully expected to LOVE both Ferrante and Knausgaard, so was disappointed when I just…didn’t. Maybe I like my memoirs and my fiction to be separate things that don’t bleed into each other?

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      1. Oh, okay! I guess there’s so little in the way of traditional plot that you can easily skip over volumes, or the Internet can always fill you in on the intervening events in his life. What ‘happens’ in #4?

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    1. D’oh! Well, 3.5 is still a pretty solid recommendation, is it not? I couldn’t really go any higher for a book that took so much time and bloody determination to read, but in the end it was worth reading. I’m still waiting for someone to convince me to move on to Vol. 2, though.

      I’ll be keen to see how you get on with them someday.

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  4. Hmm. You haven’t sold it to me. As my opinion of Ferrante seems to meld with yours (I finally borrowed her third book from the library the other week, and quickly abandoned it in favour – perhaps – of reading them in order) I’m trusting your opinion of Knausgaard too. Even though you seem sort-of glad to have read him.

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  5. I’m not keen on either and haven’t read either. I don’t really like modern fiction, it seems too knowing and Dave Eggersy and tediously clever for the sake of it and self-referential. So I’m leaving them alone for the time being.

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    1. Ha ha! I like how you use Dave Eggers as a representative of all modern fiction 🙂 I actually quite enjoy a lot of his work, and the way he blends fiction and nonfiction, whereas on the evidence of Ferrante, Knausgaard and Lily Tuck I am not too keen on the new wave of ‘autofiction.’ I share your distaste for metafiction and overly clever stuff, though.

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  6. I enjoyed the Ferrante trilogy, though it began to wane towards the end, last summer I read Days of Abandonment which was incredibly tense, but fabulous. It felt like it could happen, that it could be how a woman of a certain ilk might touch the limits of madness and I applaud her for the exploration of that. Knaussgard I can’t bring myself to read, something about him just repels me, I once read an article he wrote about a visit to Nova Scotia I think it was, too much detail about his bathroom habits, no thank you, unlikely to indulge him any further.

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    1. I’m going to be reading my first Rachel Cusk novel soon and I’ll be interested to see if I prefer her work to Ferrante’s. I know it’s not quite the same sort of thing, but they both fall into that autofiction bracket.

      Ha ha! There is one scene here where he’s having a wee and says something like “time to whip out the sausage,” which I just hated. (I couldn’t figure out where to quote it here without it being a total non sequitur!) I couldn’t decide if it was an example of poor translation, or if that’s literally what he said. The tone of it felt so off.

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      1. Hah! Well, I’m glad you included it in the comments as I got a good giggle out of it. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your thoughts on this experience; I haven’t tried yet, but I’ve heard so many interviews that I kinda feel like I have read him already. There is a certain mood in which I can imagine trying, but I’m not sure when/if that will strike!

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  7. Knausgaard sounds like a typical wordsalad alcoholic, albeit still more photogenic than you average self-involvd wordsmith. He does not sound like he is an inventive writer, or one with much artistic discipline; more of a blogger, whatever-I-think-of-next kind of dude, because it’s all important because it’s about Moi. I dont care what he ate with grandma 20 years ago. I dont care that his Dad was a drunk. Join the club, Karl. I do care about an imagined world that tells me something about the one I live in. Under 300 pages. This American critic shredded him in the Nation:
    https://www.thenation.com/article/why-has-my-struggle-been-anointed-literary-masterpiece/

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    1. Your comment amuses me, though I’m inclined to cut him a bit more slack than that. You have to be impressed by his confidence in putting across whatever details of his life that he wants and trusting (as has been proved right in many quarters) that readers will eat it up.

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