Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård’s book series My Struggle is a massive autobiography, an emotional and critical commentary on cultural, political and sociological aspects of Norwegian society – but more than that, it is the story of a seemingly inconspicuous young man becoming the massive figure and personality who he is today. As I have read the series throughout the years (starting in 2016), the meaning behind it has been revealed to me on many levels.
The goal of this series is to get to that reveal while diving thoroughly into the individual books and showing the narrative as Knausgård has meant to show it, dividing his biography into several parts and constructing the picture in intricate detail whilst letting certain parts be uncovered in a certain order.
In accordance to that, today’s essay is an introduction and analysis of My Struggle 1: A Death in the Family.
The first novel in the series carries the obvious function of being an exposition to the rest, so the first things, places and characters Karl Ove describes are those that will define his life later on: his childhood, his family dynamics, his fears and his hopes. The terror inflicted by his father and a struggle with self-worth are the main big topics surrounding the entire book series. In Death in the Family, the progatonist mainly struggles with his ability to be an adequate father while thinking back on his own youth, which consists of a mixture of terror and nostalgia.
The proust-like dwelling on certain aspects like the mixture of pain, grief and a feeling of freedom is mixed with a kind of neorealism: Knausgård describes mundane activities like making coffee or going to the grocery store in what should feel like a tormenting amount of detail, but somehow just keeps one invested and interested in what happens next – and the wait is most certainly worth it when the tone of the novel completely changes and leaves one’s mouth open for quite a while.
The unknowing character is describing a past he finds moments of happiness in and a character he respects, fears and despises. When Karl Ove’s Father’s final weeks and days are revealed, horror and empathy are added to this mix and further intensive complex feelings and thoughts ensue.
The very explicit and rough details of his father’s final days that are basically a mix of macabre descriptions mixed with traces of alcohol, shit and urine, paint a new kind of picture for Karl Ove. It doesn’t change his initial feelings, but adds on top of them. It also opens a gloomy trap door into a perspective on his now demented, also alcoholic and apparently violent grandmother.
Is nothing as it seems? Not for Karl Ove, and not for the reader. This is the point where you fasten your seat belt because the real narratological ride actually begins. Knausgård is and remains a master of suspense.
It is a terrifying thing to experience parental violence in your childhood as Karl Ove has. But his grandmother has so far been something of a faraway peaceful character, usually tied to a sofa or a chair in front of the TV, or has at least been a symbol of peace and quiet in comparison to the violence. She has made him feel safe in his childhood. Now he has to also discover that her conduct is actually behind his father’s violent and alcoholic tendencies.
The fact of the matter is a logical thing and the breaking of a cycle as Karl Ove’s struggle when you view it from a statistical standpoint has little originality. But the way these revelations are constructed and executed is exceptional and that is why A Death in the Family will wholly consume a reader until its very end when it leaves you with a cliffhanger, wanting more of it, immediately if not sooner.
Knausgårds first book is an excellent example to illustrate the dangers of nostalgy, which has been a prominent topic for some time now – I’ve touched upon it in my essays on Ottessa Moshfegh (link), Margaret Atwood (link) and others. But the disillusionment of childhood nostalgia and the deconstruction of the happy family trope (which never existed in the first place) most certainly gets a fresh remake and reaches a new level, because in A Death in the Family the realism-based approach to a family with good and bad days gets deconstructed and distorted as well.
It is the plot twist you expected because clearly the writer is being candid – but did definitely not expect to be so intense and massively unraveling that while it arrives as no surprise, it still feels like a kick in the gut.
Already at this point the writer needs to be aknowledged for managing to describe reality in an emotionally intense manner but keeping his distance as a writer and not sinking into the events. Knausgård does not lose himself inside himself and that is an exceptional achievment.
While this first part is an amazing opener to the series, I felt astonished by it and at the same time a longig to know more about this character’s life, so I hurried to pick up My Struggle 2: A Man in Love.
If you were considering getting into Knausgård, I would highly recommend it. The disturbing reality and narratological mastery of My Struggle are unmatched.
I am already looking forward to getting into that book in another essay very soon.
(The photos in this post were taken by me.)