Category: Author spotlight

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?

Girl at War Paperback Release

Next Thursday, the 24th, marks the UK paperback publication of Girl at War by Sara Nović, which I reviewed last year for BookBrowse (a subscription-only site, but you can see an excerpt of my review here). It was #3 on my list of last year’s best fiction, so I’m delighted that Little, Brown Book Group got in touch asking me to help publicize the paperback release. They created a shareable image with a snippet of my NetGalley feedback.

Girl at War Review Quote publicize Mar-17

This pitch-perfect debut novel is an inside look at the Yugoslavian Civil War and its aftermath, from the perspective of a young girl caught up in the fighting. If you haven’t already read it, I encourage you to seek it out soon.

Paulette Bates Alden: An Underrated Author

I first came across Paulette Alden’s work last June, when she contacted me to ask if I’d like to review her new short story collection, Unforgettable. It’s a self-published book available through Kindle, and in all honesty, given my experience reviewing self-published material for Kirkus and Foreword, I wasn’t expecting much. What a pleasant surprise, then, to find that these were excellent, literary short stories with a strong voice and sense of place. Since then I have read two more Alden books: Crossing the Moon, her memoir of infertility, and Feeding the Eagles, her first short story collection, which shares a protagonist with Unforgettable. Here, in the order in which I have read them, are Alden’s published works:

Unforgettable

(This is a shortened version of my original Bookkaholic review.)

unforgettableNine linked stories focus on the life of Miriam Batson, a writer and adjunct professor at a Minnesota college. Now in her late forties, Miriam faces the challenge of caring for her aging mother. Indeed, the final five stories are inspired by Alden’s experience as a caregiver for her late mother, who suffered from dementia. Although it is intriguing to ponder just how autobiographical these stories might be, ultimately it makes little difference to a reader’s enjoyment. The close third-person perspective creates such intimate knowledge of the main character that one cannot help but feel sympathy for her professional and personal struggles.

The opening story, “The Student,” is among the strongest. Miriam learns that Brian, one of the students in her advanced short story class, has attempted suicide – in three different ways. Horror cedes to compassion as she realizes how he must have been suffering, even while keeping up a cheerful exterior in class. As she visits Brian in the hospital during his recovery, Miriam is taken aback by her feelings for him. Hesitant to borrow spiritual language, she still senses that she and Brian have a soul connection. At the same time, she realizes that no relationship is entirely one thing or another; their teacher-student dynamic may resemble a parent-child link, but sex keeps creeping in unexpectedly.

In “Sorrow,” told in the present tense, Miriam learns of the death of one of her black nannies and returns to South Carolina to pay her respects. Filled with memories of segregation, this story shares the social conscience of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. “Enormously Valuable” returns to the first story’s academic setting, with Miriam receiving notification that someone else – a less experienced man – has gotten the teaching job she applied for. She decides to take legal advice to determine whether this is a case of sex discrimination. This story tips over into melodrama slightly, but is still an affecting look at career disappointment. The themes of bureaucracy and petty infighting in a university English department recall John Williams’s Stoner.

“Swimming, Snow” was commissioned as the Minnesota Center for Book Arts’ 1993 Winter Book. Miriam slowly starts to heal after her father’s death, thanks to the therapeutic effects of activities like massage, classical music, and sex. This one is a perfect segue into the collection’s last five stories, which together reflect on Alden’s experiences as a caregiver during her mother’s final years with dementia.

The title story, the last in the collection, does indeed have a stand-alone feel, combining all the emotions of the previous four into the most shrewdly crafted of the tales, rich with symbolism. It opens with Miriam driving to a monastery for a writing retreat. Although it is April, it is snowing, and Nat King Cole’s song “Unforgettable” is on the radio. Ironically, that title is also the name given to her mother’s nursing home’s remodeling campaign. Miriam has been taking beginner’s Italian lessons; her bewilderment is an echo of her mother’s confusion about language. In addition, Easter is coming up the following week, and the symbology of death and restoration plays a significant role. Miriam can no longer deny that her mother will be dead soon, yet she feels that she will live on – perhaps even through Miriam’s work: “Writing is her religion, her resurrection. Long after her mother is gone, she will have this moment. Her mother will rise from the dead and live again in those words.”

Alden tenderly conveys the overwhelming difficulties and small joys of being the primary caregiver for a loved one with serious health problems. You do not have to share any of Miriam’s experiences to value her insight and admire her courage. I daresay every reader will find at least one aspect of these stories to be, as the title suggests, simply unforgettable.

My rating: 4 star rating


crossing the moonsCrossing the Moon

Frank and tender, this is a wonderful memoir about women’s reproductive choices – or the way life sometimes takes those choices out of your hands. Alden was happily married, with a beloved cat named Cecil and her first short story collection coming out soon. At age 39, she still hadn’t thought all that much about motherhood, but suddenly decision time was on her. Despite her ambivalence (“I might never have a child, and the irony is not lost on me, that I’m not even sure I want one”), she went ahead with multiple rounds of infertility treatment, only conceding defeat and grieving her loss when she was 42.

All along she was resisting multiple voices: that of her Southern upbringing, which said all women were supposed to have children; that of feminism, which told her she wasn’t supposed to want what all women are supposed to have. There was also her own inner suspicion that the life she already had was the one she wanted. “From the very start, I had seen writing and motherhood as mutually exclusive.”

I found this a very touching story of learning to love the life you have. “It came to me that it really was a choice between two good things – having a child and not having a child. Our life without a child seemed good to me. I caught a glimpse that it was what was right for us, for the best.”

My rating: 5 star rating


feeding the eaglesFeeding the Eagles

Miriam Batson first appeared in this 1983 collection published by Graywolf Press. Of the 11 stories here, seven are in the third person and four in the first person. They dart back and forth in time: sometimes Miriam is married and back in South Carolina visiting her parents and sister; other times she’s a young graduate student on the way back to California. It was particularly interesting for me, having read Alden’s memoir, to trace the autobiographical roots of many of the stories. I even spotted a couple of lines taken word for word from life: “‘I’ll tell you what I think,’ [Miriam’s] mother says slowly. ‘I think people who don’t have children are the most selfish people in the world.’”

These stories are strong on symbolism and often have memorable endings. For instance, the title phrase seems odd but in context is a beautiful image of turning failure into a positive. Miriam and her husband Ted have gone out fishing from their Minnesota cabin. Ted throws a big fish back, hoping the hook injury wasn’t too deep, but a while later they see it floating on its side. They’re feeling a little guilty – until an eagle drops in and snatches the dead fish. “‘Now you don’t have to feel so bad,’ Ted says. ‘We’re feeding the eagles.’” Elsewhere, Miriam’s grandmother’s wig is a peculiar token of family inheritance, while a snake encountered at a campground is a reminder of excessive sensuality.

Paulette Bates Alden
Paulette Bates Alden, from her Goodreads page.

As in Unforgettable and Crossing the Moon, the overarching theme of the book is a woman’s identity and how this shifts through life. Miriam is a daughter, a wife, a grown sister, a writer. She is not a mother, a decision that defines her as much as any other. But even within these roles, time creeps in and changes things. With her elderly parents facing bankruptcy, Miriam realizes, “It occurred to me for the first time that maybe my father didn’t know what was going on.” That sense of a turning of the generations, of the child taking on the responsible parent guise, is undoubtedly true to life.

Another central theme is how places of safety and familiarity lose their capacity to reassure us. For Miriam/Alden, the South becomes increasingly foreign but still has a metaphorical hold on her. “Stretching out around us in every direction are the flat Midwestern plains, and it comes to me that I will not live my life as I have always imagined I would—without even thinking of it—in South Carolina.” All the same, as she drives to the old family cabin in South Carolina before it passes out of their hands for good, she thinks how “all of the roads of her life lead back to this one.”

On this reading the story that meant most to me was “At the Beach,” in which Miriam and her sister Linda take a rare vacation together and marvel at how their parents are aging. “Just so you take them in in their old age,” Miriam jokes, but beneath the quip lies deep concern. I could recognize my sister and myself – now separated by an ocean but not so much anymore by the eight years between us – in this sentence: “It seems we talk more now that we are older, now that we live so far apart and have so little time together.”

One thing I love about Alden’s books is how she seems to see life in discrete parts but also, looking back nostalgically, as a coherent narrative that leads logically and inevitably to the present. This makes for a gently bittersweet tone, but I come away sensing gratitude. As my favorite lines from Crossing the Moon have it, “who can say what is ‘best’? Maybe it’s possible to get to a place where what is best is simply what is.”

My rating: 4 star rating


answer to your questionThe Answer to Your Question

I haven’t read this one yet, but I have a copy on my e-reader and am saving it for a rainy day treat. On the surface it sounds completely different from anything else Alden has written. The blurb describes a page-turning thriller about a man who has been accused of murdering four women and his librarian mother’s quest to figure out whether he really did it and why. It won the Kindle Book Review Best Indie Book of 2013 in the suspense category. I feel sure that it will have the same psychological acuity as Alden’s other books.


Who are some of your favorite lesser-known authors? Share them in the comments below!