Tag: literature in translation

Short Fiction for September

I toyed with the wild idea of only reading short stories as my fiction for the month of September, but it was never really going to happen: I just don’t find short stories compelling enough, and in some ways they feel like hard work – every few pages, it seems, you have to adjust to a new scene and set of characters. In the end I made it through one anthology of flash fiction this month, and read parts of three other story collections. Mini reviews below…

 

Best Small Fictions 2017, edited by Amy Hempel

Now in its third year, the Best Small Fictions anthology collects the year’s best short stories under 1000 words. (I reviewed the two previous volumes for BookTrib and the Small Press Book Review.) Starting with a zinger of a first line is one strategy for making a short-short story stand out, and there are certainly some excellent opening sentences here. Symbols and similes are also crucial to conveying shorthand meaning. Two stand-outs are “States of Matter,” Tara Laskowski’s deliciously creepy story of revenge aided by a gravedigger; and Matthew Baker’s “The President’s Doubles,” in which an island nation becomes so protective of its imperiled leader that he ends up a prisoner. They’ve saved the best for last in this collection, though: the late Brian Doyle’s “My Devils,” in which an Irish-American boy learns how to interpret the adult world by deciphering what people say versus what they mean. It’s remarkable how concisely a coming of age and loss of blind faith are conveyed. Although there are fewer overall highlights than in the first volume, this is an excellent snapshot of contemporary super-short story writing, recommended for story lovers and newbies alike. (See my full review for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.) 

 

The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God and Other Stories by Etgar Keret

How can you not want to read a book with that title? Unfortunately, “The Story about a Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God” is the first story and probably the best, so it’s all a slight downhill journey from there. That story stars a bus driver who’s weighing justice versus mercy in his response to one lovelorn passenger, and retribution is a recurring element in the remainder of the book. Most stories are just three to five pages long. Important characters include an angel who can’t fly, visitors from the mouth of Hell in Uzbekistan, and an Israeli ex-military type with the ironic surname of Goodman who’s hired to assassinate a Texas minister for $30,000. You can never predict what decisions people will make, Keret seems to be emphasizing, or how they’ll choose to justify themselves; “Everything in life is just luck.”

Aside from the title story, I particularly liked “Pipes,” in which the narrator makes himself a giant pipe through which to escape to Heaven, a place for misfits who’ve never found a way to be happy on Earth. Twisted biblical allusions like this are rife, including “Plague of the Firstborn.” A few stories have a folktale-like ambiance. It felt like there were too many first-person narrators, though, and too many repeating plots: “Good Intentions” takes up the same contract killing theme as “Goodman,” while both “Katzenstein” and “Jetlag” involve ejection from a plane. I read everything bar the 86-page novella Kneller’s Happy Campers; after so much flash fiction I wasn’t prepared to change pace so dramatically. So I’ve marked this as unfinished even though I read 110 pages in total. (Read in translation from the Hebrew.) 

 

Honeydew by Edith Pearlman

I don’t know what it is with me lately, but I seem to lack staying power with story collections. I read the first 40% of Pearlman’s most recent book on my Kindle and then just felt no need to continue. You could consider that a virtue of story collections: you can read as much or as little at a time as you want and pick and choose what bits interest you, in a way that you can’t with novels. Or you could say an author must be doing something wrong if a reader doesn’t long to keep turning the pages.

At any rate, I enjoyed Pearlman’s stories well enough. They all apparently take place in suburban Boston and many consider unlikely romances. My favorite was “Castle 4,” set in an old hospital. Zephyr, an anesthetist, falls in love with a cancer patient, while a Filipino widower who works as a security guard forms a tender relationship with the gift shop lady who sells his disabled daughter’s wood carvings. I also liked “Tenderfoot,” in which a pedicurist helps an art historian see that his heart is just as hard as his feet and that may be why he has an estranged wife. “Blessed Harry” amused me because the setup is a bogus e-mail requesting that a Latin teacher come speak at King’s College London (where I used to work). Two stories in a row (four in total, I’m told) center around Rennie’s antique shop – a little too Mitford quaint for me. 

Favorite lines: “Happiness lengthens time. Every day seemed as long as a novel. Every night a double feature. Every week a lifetime, a muted lifetime, a lifetime in which sadness, always wedged under her breast like a doorstop, lost some of its bite.” (from “Stone”)

 

Even though I didn’t finish either of these books, I’d gladly try something else by the authors. Can you recommend something to me?

 


 

Currently reading: After enjoying Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break so much, I picked up one of his short story collections (along with Keret’s) from Book-Cycle in Exeter earlier this month. So far I’ve read the first two stories in The Great Profundo, one about a struggling artist and a lonely widow who connect over an Emily Dickinson passage, and another about a cardinal whose father confesses he lost his faith years ago.

Upcoming: I have collections by Andrea Barrett, T.C. Boyle, Tessa Hadley and Alice Munro on the shelf. I also have far too many languishing on my Kindle, including For a Little While by Rick Bass, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins, We Come to Our Senses by Odie Lindsey, Music in Wartime by Rebecca Makkai and 99 Stories of God by Joy Williams. The ones I’m most likely to get to fairly soon, I think, are Difficult Women by Roxane Gay and The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield.


Are you a short story fan? Read any good ones recently?

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Three Novellas in Translation


The Institute by Vincent Bijlo

[London’s Holland Park Press specializes in making classic and contemporary Dutch literature available in English translation.]

Otto Iking is a resident at the Institute, a boarding school for the blind. He characterizes his fellow students firstly according to their smell – “foul soap,” “piss” or “grated Swiss cheese” – only later adding in details about their speech and habits. It’s a zany sort of place, powered by pranks and strange decisions. Some stand-out scenes include hiding Harry’s glass eyes and a visit from the president of Surinam, a former Dutch colony. The slapstick humor works well (“When I walked into a lamppost, I said sorry. When I struck my head against a traffic sign, I said sorry. No one has ever apologised to street furniture as often as I did”), but some humor translates less well, seeming cruel or even offensive (“Tony was fat and deaf and black-skinned”).

Alongside the silliness is the matter of Otto’s coming of age. He has the first inklings of what sex is about and falls for Sonja, and also undergoes training to prepare him for the real world, things like reading and writing Braille, preparing and eating tricky meals (soup’s a killer). One day he hopes to go to a mainstream school and broadcast radio programs. The institutional setting and quirky cast reminded me of The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old and Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle.


The Institute, originally from 1998, was published on April 27th. Translated from the Dutch by Susan Ridder. My thanks to Bernadette Jansen op de Haar for sending a free copy for review.

This is the first of three Otto Iking novels. Vincent Bijlo, a Dutch stand-up comedian, was born blind.

My rating:

 

Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel

[Peirene Press issues its translated European novellas in trios. This is the final installment in the “East and West: Looking Both Ways” series; I’ve also reviewed the first two, The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch and The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay.]

I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel narrated by a homeless person before. Gabriela von Haßlau has a noble name and a solid upper-middle-class background – her father was a surgeon and chief medical officer specializing in varicose veins; her mother was trained as a radiographer before becoming a housewife and society hostess – but her life took a turn for the worse at some point and she now lives in an encampment under a canal bridge in the town of Leibnitz (a fictional stand-in for Leipzig).

It’s July 1994 and she decides to write her life story on whatever scraps of paper she can get her hands on. She remembers being forced to play the violin as a child even though she was largely unmusical, enduring mockery at school for being one of the intelligentsia, playing hooky with her best friend Katka, and failing at a mechanical engineering apprenticeship. The narrative toggles between Gabriela’s memories and her present situation: getting blankets and food from a shelter and trying to avoid being sent to the mental hospital.

My unfamiliarity with German history, especially that relating to East Germany and reunification, means I probably missed some nuances of the plot; I found the ending quite sudden. What was most worthwhile about the book for me was experiencing homelessness with Gabriela and tracing some of the unfortunate events that led her to this situation. It’s also interesting to see how she shapes her life story in scenes and streams of consciousness.


Dance by the Canal, originally from 1994, was published on July 3rd. Translated from the German by Jen Calleja. With thanks to Peirene Press for the free copy for review.

My rating:

 

Hair Everywhere by Tea Tulić

[London’s Istros Books specializes in Balkans and South-Eastern European literature in translation.]

How could I resist such a terrific title and cover image? This was Croatian novelist Tea Tulić’s first book. In brief, titled vignettes almost like flash fiction stories, she dramatizes how a cancer diagnosis affects three generations of women. The book is strong on place, sensual detail and scene-setting. The narrator’s mother is in the hospital, and all the specialists and medicinal plant extracts in the world don’t seem to be helping. In such a restrictive narrative format, a line or two of dialogue can reveal a lot about a character’s attitude. The grandmother is a weary pessimist – “I just need to help your mother get through this and then I can die” – while the narrator is quite the hypochondriac.

The tone ranges from poignant to cynical, as in the absurd two-page sequence in which the family cannot locate an on-duty doctor who can read the latest X-ray results for them. The deadpan language and mixture of black humor and pathos reminded me of Adios, Cowboy by Olja Savičevi, which coincidentally is the only other Croatian novel I’ve encountered, and was originally published in the same year, 2011.

A few favorite lines:

“One little cloud was urinating.”

“While I watch her lying in bed, I can feel the umbilical cord between us. Something I have tried to cut a thousand times already. And now I hold onto that invisible cord as though I were hanging from a bridge.”

“Patrick Swayze” in its entirety: “My brother is angry because the doctors say they cannot help Mum. I tell him Patrick Swayze had lots of money but he still died of cancer.”


Hair Everywhere was published on May 22nd. Translated from the Croatian by Coral Petkovich. My thanks to Susan Curtis for sending a free copy for review – and to TJ at My Book Strings for making me aware of this title during Women in Translation Month.

My rating:

Classic of the Month: Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

Last month’s classic was Father and Son (Edmund Gosse); this month is Fathers and Sons, the 1861 novel by Ivan Turgenev (1818–83). I couldn’t resist pairing up the similar titles, and it turns out that even though one is nonfiction and the other fiction, they are thematically similar, dwelling on the clash of generations and contrasting romanticism and rationalism.

Nikolai Kirsanov’s son Arkady, newly graduated from university, has just returned to his father’s estate with his haughty fellow student Yevgeny Bazarov in tow. Bazarov intends to take a medical degree and follow in his father’s footsteps as a country doctor, so spends the time at his friend’s house dutifully poring over chemistry texts and dissecting frogs. Arkady, by contrast, seems earnest but aimless, happy to simply while away the days. The major change at home is that his father, a widower, has taken the servant girl Fenichka as his mistress and they have a baby, Mitya. (Gasp!) Yet the real shock in the world of the novel seems to be that Nikolai is consorting with someone of the lower classes. “In any case, it’s not for a son to sit in judgment on his father – least of all for me, and least of all with a father like you, who has never restricted my freedom in any way,” Arkady graciously concedes.

Together Nikolai and his rakish brother Pavel (“Women lost their heads over him, and men dubbed him a fop but were secretly envious”) represent an outmoded idealism that values art, nature, poetry, and true love. On the other side is Bazarov, who means to tear down those dated notions and recruit Arkady to the side of realism, even nihilism. “Nature is not a temple, but a workshop, and man’s the workman in it,” he explains to Arkady. But the pals’ notions get uncomfortably muddled when they meet the regal widow Anna Odintsov at the governor’s ball. On extended visits to her country house, Bazarov and Arkady become fixated on her and her younger sister, Katya, but differ in their willingness to give in to love.

Romantic love may be a madness best avoided in some of the characters’ view, but family love is a constant. Even Bazarov, though he makes a show of being embarrassed by their fussing when he goes home briefly after three years away, values his parents’ approval. His father proudly takes him along on his medical rounds, while his superstitious mother buttresses him with her prayers. She reminds her husband that Yevgeny is fundamentally different from them: “A son is an independent person. He’s like a falcon that comes when he wills and flies off when he lists; but you and I are like the funguses growing in a hollow tree.”

Turgenev in an 1874 portrait by Ilya Repin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable and accessible Turgenev’s writing is. My experience with the Russian masters is shamefully limited; Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich might literally be the only thing I’ve read previously. I was worried that all the patronymics, place names, and historical and cultural references would trip me up, but it’s no trouble to adjust to them here. You might think of Fathers and Sons as a friendly way of easing in to works like War and Peace: although elements of the story reminded me of Tolstoy’s epic (as I know it purely from the recent BBC miniseries) – the range of characters, from rich to poor, and their interactions; the long visits to acquaintances; the peaceful countryside; even a duel – it is on a much smaller scale, and has a correspondingly lower page count of about 220.

Something in nearly every character’s psyche rang true for me: Arkady’s relief at being home; Nikolai’s sense of being left behind; Bazarov’s feeling of smallness in an uncaring universe; his mother’s benevolent contentment with the status quo; Madame Odintsov’s well-ordered but purposeless life; and so on. Turgenev’s asides about Russia and about human nature give the narration a playful, knowing quality reminiscent of George Eliot. The idea of fathers and children being on different tracks extends to other forms of paternalism: religion (though this is a minor theme compared to in Father and Son) as well as masters versus serfs. “We all know there’s the master’s will; on account of you bein’ like our fathers. An’ the more strict the master rules, the better it be for us peasants,” as one rustic opines to Bazarov.

This is a thought-provoking but markedly readable classic that I can heartily recommend. Turgenev only wrote five other novels; if they’re all as strong (and roughly as short) as this one, I’d be happy to read them all – and will likely return to Fathers and Sons in the future.

My rating:


(With thanks to Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings for putting Turgenev on my radar.)

I read a Penguin Classics edition of Rosemary Edmonds’s 1965 translation. Her brief introduction gives helpful background and is a lovely piece of writing in its own right. Beware: only read a literary introduction after finishing the text, because critics assume you know the basic story line and so spoil who falls in love with whom, who dies in the end, etc. My edition is preceded by a lengthy lecture Isaiah Berlin gave on Turgenev in 1970.

Catching Up on Prize Winners: Alderman, Grossman & Whitehead

Sometimes I love a prize winner and cheer the judges’ ruling; other times I shake my head and puzzle over how they could possibly think this was the best the year had to offer. I’m late to the party for these three recent prize-winning novels. I’m also a party pooper, I guess, because I didn’t particularly like or dislike a one of them. (Reviews are in the order in which I read the books. My rating for all three = )

 

A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman

(Winner of the Man Booker International Prize)

“Why the long face? Did someone die? It’s only stand-up comedy!” Except that for the comedian himself, Dovaleh Greenstein, this swan song of a show in the Israeli town of Netanya devolves into the story of the most traumatic day of his life. Grossman has made what seems to me an unusual choice of narrator: Avishai Lazar, a widower and Supreme Court justice, and Dov’s acquaintance from adolescence – they were in the same military training camp. Dov has invited him here to bear witness, and by the end we know Avishai will produce a written account of the evening.

Although it could be said that Avishai’s asides about the past, and about the increasingly restive crowd in the club, give us a rest from Dov’s claustrophobic monologue, in doing so they break the spell. This would be more hard-hitting as a play or a short story composed entirely of speech; in one of those formats, Dov’s story might keep you spellbound through a single sitting. Instead, I found that I had to force myself to read even five or 10 pages at a time. There’s no doubt Grossman can weave a clever tale about loss, and there are actually some quite funny jokes in here too, but overall I found this significantly less powerful than the author’s previous work, Falling Out of Time.

 

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

(Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award and Arthur C. Clarke Award; longlisted for the Man Booker Prize)

Following Cora on her fraught journey from her Georgia plantation through the Carolinas and Tennessee to Indiana is enjoyable enough, with the requisite atrocities like lynchings and rapes thrown in to make sure it’s not just a picaresque cat-and-mouse battle between her and Arnold Ridgeway, the villainous slavecatcher. But I’m surprised that such a case has been made for the uniqueness of this novel based on a simple tweak of the historical record: Whitehead imagines the Underground Railroad as an actual subterranean transport system. This makes less of a difference than you might expect; if anything, it renders the danger Cora faces more abstract. The same might be said for the anachronistic combination of enlightened and harsh societies she passes through: by telescoping out to show the range of threats African-Americans faced between the Civil War and the 1930s, the novel loses immediacy.

Ultimately, I felt little attachment to Cora and had to force myself to keep plodding through her story. My favorite parts were little asides giving other characters’ backstories. There’s no doubt Whitehead can shape a plot and dot in apt metaphors (I particularly liked “Ajarry died in the cotton, the bolls bobbing around her like whitecaps on the brute ocean”). However, I kept thinking, Haven’t I read this story before? (Beloved, Ruby, The Diary of Anne Frank; seen on screen in Twelve Years a Slave, Roots and the like.) This is certainly capably written, but doesn’t stand out for me compared to Homegoing, which was altogether more affecting.

 

The Power by Naomi Alderman

(Winner of the [Bailey’s] Women’s Prize)

I read the first ~120 pages and skimmed the rest. Alderman imagines a parallel world in which young women realize they wield electrostatic power that can maim or kill. In an Arab Spring-type movement, they start to take back power from their oppressive societies. You’ll cheer as women caught up in sex trafficking fight back and take over. The movement is led by Allie, an abused child who starts by getting revenge on her foster father and then takes her message worldwide, becoming known as Mother Eve.

Alderman has cleverly set this up as an anthropological treatise-cum-historical novel authored by “Neil Adam Armon” (an anagram of her own name), complete with documents and drawings of artifacts. “The power to hurt is a kind of wealth,” and in this situation of gender reversal women gradually turn despotic. They are soldiers and dictators; they inflict genital mutilation and rape on men.

I enjoyed the passages mimicking the Bible, but felt a lack of connection with the characters and didn’t get a sense of years passing even though this is spread over about a decade. This is most like Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy – Alderman’s debt to Atwood is explicit, in the dedication as well as the acknowledgments – so if you really like those books, by all means read this one. My usual response to such speculative fiction, though, even if it describes a believable situation, is: what’s the point? As with “Erewhon,” the best story in Helen Simpson’s collection Cockfosters, the points about gender roles are fairly obvious.

 

I’d be interested to hear if you’ve read any of these books – or plan to read them – and believe they were worthy prize winners. If so, set me straight!

The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay (Peirene)

Larry Tremblay is a Francophone writer, theatre director and actor based in Montreal. In addition to three novels, he has published a short story collection and many books of poetry and plays. The Orange Grove (2013), which was longlisted for the 2017 International Dublin (formerly IMPAC) literary award, is the fable-like story of one family in the war-torn Middle East and the way notions of justice and sacrifice drive them to make extreme choices.

Tamara and Zahed live with their twin sons, nine-year-old Aziz and Ahmed, alongside an orange grove planted by Zahed’s father. Soulayed, a militant elder from the next village, describes it thus:

Your father, Mounir, worked his whole life on this arid soil. It was desert here. With God’s help your father worked a miracle. Made oranges grow where there had been only sand and stones.

When Mounir and his wife Shahina are killed in a bombing, Soulayed stands among the ruins and counsels Zahed to seek revenge against their enemies by sending one of his sons to be a suicide bomber. There’s no doubt Soulayed is manipulating this grief-stricken family to his own ends, but he isn’t solely to blame when their culture at large romanticizes martyrdom.

Zahed makes his choice, but Tamara won’t accept it. In a clever reprise of the Genesis story of Jacob and Esau, she helps the boys to make a switch right under their father’s nose. The last third of the book, like a coda, zooms ahead 11 years to show us the surviving brother, coming to the end of a four-year theatre training program in Montreal. He’s given a starring role in his teacher’s wartime play but the story line cuts a little too close to the bone, and for the first time he tells a stranger the story of two brothers: one who died and one who lived.

 

Peirene Press issues novellas in trios. This is the second in the “East and West: Looking Both Ways” series; I’ve also reviewed the first, The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch. Tremblay and Huch both tackle the theme of betrayal and the practice of choosing one person to die for the crimes of the many. The Orange Grove has a simple style that edges towards flatness but is saved by the occasional striking metaphor (e.g. “Minutes stretched out as if made of dough”). A book about suicide bombing could easily turn mawkish, but the restrained narration reins it in to create a tight and fairly engrossing tale of family ties and religious motivations.

[The third book in the series, Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, will be released later in 2017.]

The Orange Grove was published in the UK on May 1st. Translated from the French by Sheila Fischman. With thanks to James Tookey of Peirene Press for the free copy for review.

My rating:

The Wellcome Book Prize 2017 Awards Ceremony

Yesterday evening’s Wellcome Book Prize announcement was my first time attending a literary prize awards ceremony. Despite my nerves going in, there was quite a relaxed atmosphere (I felt almost overdressed in my H&M dress) and it was no different to any party where one struggles to make small talk – except that here all the talk was of books!

The new high-ceilinged Reading Room at the Wellcome Library (across from London’s Euston station) was a suitably swanky setting, with the unusual collection of health-themed books surrounded by an equally odd set of curios, such as death masks, paintings showing medical conditions, and a columnar red dress designed to resemble a neural tube. There was even a jazz duo playing.

It was especially lovely to meet up with Clare (A Little Blog of Books) and Ruby (My Booking Great Blog) and compare notes on book blogging while nursing a flute of prosecco and some superlative canapés. We also indulged in some subtle celebrity spotting – or, at least, the sort of authors and public figures I consider celebrities: Ned Beauman, Sarah Churchwell, A.C. Grayling, Cathy Rentzenbrink, and Suzanne O’Sullivan, last year’s Wellcome Prize winner. Three of the shortlisted authors were also present.

About 45 minutes into the event, the official proceedings began. Crime writer Val McDermid, the chair of this year’s judging panel, gave introductory remarks about the Prize and the attributes they were looking for when assessing the 140 books in the running this year. She said they were in search of books that went beyond the superficial and revealed more layers upon each rereading – as by now they’ve read the shortlisted books three times.

Chair of judges Val McDermid in center; fellow judge and BBC Radio books editor Di Spiers to her left.

Each of the judges then came to the podium to explain what they had all admired about a particular shortlisted book before presenting the author or author’s representative (editor, publisher or, in the case of Paul Kalanithi, his younger brother Jeevan, over from America) with flowers. When McDermid returned to the microphone to announce the winner, she started off by speaking of a book that combined two stories, the medical and the personal. Hmm, this might describe at least four or five of the books from the shortlist, I thought. Could it be When Breath Becomes Air, our shadow panel favorite? Or The Tidal Zone, our runner-up?

Within seconds the wait was over and we learned the actual winner was Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal. There was a pleased roar from the room, but also plenty of blinks and head shakes of surprise, I think. De Kerangal gave a few words of thanks, especially to the U.K. translator and publisher who made this edition of her book possible. This was the first work in translation to win the Wellcome Book Prize, and only the second novel (after Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante in 2011).

Clare and I stuck around for another hour and were unexpectedly asked for book recommendations by a member of the Wellcome legal team who was kind enough to take an interest in us as book bloggers. She confessed that since uni she doesn’t read much anymore, but said that at school she enjoyed Jane Austen and she’s recently read Elena Ferrante’s books. Based on that rather thin history, we suggested she try Zadie Smith, and I also spoke up for Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing.

On the way out we were given terrific bookish swag bags! Mine contained a paperback reissue copy of The Tidal Zone, a Wellcome Prize bookmark and commemorative booklet, and a blank notebook featuring optician’s glass eyes.

I can’t see such London events ever being frequent for me, especially given the cost of travel in from Newbury, but if a similar opportunity arises again I won’t hesitate to take advantage of it, especially if it means putting faces to names from the U.K. blogging community.

(See also Ruby’s write-up of last night.)

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?