I’m reading A Death in the Family at the moment, the first book in the series by Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle. The book has been a sensation, starting in Norway, his home country, and Europe, and now the rest of the world. He calls these books novels, but in fact they are a richly remembered, greatly detailed memoir.
I started reading reluctantly, egged on by the growing literary acclaim, at the same thinking it might be something that appeals to me. That’s probably true, but it took me a while to appreciate just why.
This is very raw memoir, though in no way sensationalised. He recalls in minute detail the characters in his life, particularly family. It’s like reading a diary in which you see the world very specifically through the eyes of the protagonist. He writes not just of the various episodes and escapades of his youth, but of the feelings that were a part of that. He was a sensitive kid who grew into a sensitive man, with all of the associated torment. The central relationship recorded is that with his father, which is very difficult. It’s the theme around which this book in the series has been constructed.
I read somewhere that people mentioned in these books – an uncle, his ex-wife – are upset that he has written of them and their life so candidly. He changes no names, this is what happened, these are the people they are – according to him anyway. It’s an old literary conundrum, the right of the author to pillage his life story, and others around him, for literary purposes. Many would say it’s an invasion of privacy at the very least. Others, Knausgaard himself, claim that it is his life, and ultimately his perspective, and therefore his to write of.
It’s almost a reluctant, humble rejoinder. You imagine he regrets that it’s not possible to write this tale without involving others, but clearly that’s the story – and the story comes first.
I’m sympathetic to their concerns. I would feel extremely uncomfortable if someone appropriated my life for creative purposes – and doubly so if I felt it had been misappropriated. Worse still would be the revelation of self through the prism of another person’s experiences. It robs you of individuality, and exposes you at your most vulnerable – observed without knowing it, and the results recorded for the world to read and comment on. Though only a narrow perspective, it is assumed as a whole. You become a subjective identity, locked into place between the covers, and entering into the minds of the readers as no more and no less as that literary character. Your life exists outside of you, but you don’t possess it – it’s in possession of the man who projected it, and of those now who have claimed you in their reading.
Unfortunate. It’s a business with a lot of grey areas, but ultimately I reckon this is fair game – within limits. It articulates the art and mystery of writing. Everything is subjective. My experience is different to the man next to me who shares it. It’s different not just because we see things at a slightly variant angle, but because of our experiences before, our personalities, our ambitions, even because we had something different for breakfast. There’s not one version of reality, but rather a million different perspectives of it.
Reading this I found myself sharing some of the sentiments expressed in it. We’re near the same age, and though we grew up at opposite ends of the earth there is much shared experience. I recognised a lot anyway.
There’s some pretty graphic stuff in this. His father dies badly. He and his brother go to pick up the pieces and clean up. It’s not always like that, but there is enough in that episode for most to recognise something.
It’s a handy reminder that most of us lead untidy lives. Sometimes you think it’s unique to you, that no-one has such a tricky, messy, tough life as what you do. Everyone has their moments, and sometimes they go on and on. Shit happens all over.
Finally, for someone like me, who aspires, perhaps, to become a writer, it’s comforting somehow to see the troubled genesis of it in another. It doesn’t just happen, but seems rather the product of tumultuous experience.
The next book in the series is A Man in Love. I think we’re different characters Karl Ove and I – I’m blunter I think, more decisive – but I think I’ll find a lot in that which I’ll know. I’ll let you know.