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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

My Struggle: Book One
(A Death in the Family)

Karl Ove Knausgaard

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To purchase My Struggle: Book One

Title: My Struggle
Author: Karl Ove Knausgaard
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 471 pages
Original in: Norwegian
Availability: My Struggle - US
A Death in the Family - UK
My Struggle - Canada
A Death in the Family - India
La mort d'un père - France
Sterben - Deutschland
La mia lotta - Italia
La muerte del padre - España
  • Norwegian title: Min Kamp
  • US title: My Struggle: Book One
  • UK title: A Death in the Family
  • Translated by Don Bartlett

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Our Assessment:

A- : nicely (slowly) paced admirable beginning to large-scale a personal/family epic

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian D 25/4/2012 Michel Faber
The Independent A 9/3/2012 Boyd Tonkin
London Rev. of Books . 5/4/2012 Christopher Tayler
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 21/6/2011 Cord Aschenbrenner
New Humanist F 3-4/2012 Philip Womack
The New Yorker . 13/8/2012 James Wood
TLS . 20/4/2012 Paul Binding

  From the Reviews:
  • "The bulk of the text, however, consists of mundane family life described in microscopic detail. All the dull stuff that most novelists would omit, Knausgaard leaves in. (...) I've consulted Norwegian friends about the translation, and I'd guess that most of the infelicities in the text are due to Knausgaard's hurried workrate rather than to Don Bartlett's inadequate skill." - Michel Faber, The Guardian

  • "As in Proust's In Search of Lost Time -- the obvious reference-point, and acknowledged as a source as early as page 26 -- the whole vast work becomes a microscopically detailed account of how it came to be written at all. As with his great mentor, adherence to a strict chronology matters less to Knausgaard than crafting a mosaic of glittering scenes, framed by recurrent images and memories. Don Bartlett deserves the highest praise for a translation that, with pace, rhythm and agility, registers every swing and swoop of mood and tone. This prismatic, recursive approach to childhood and adolescence means that Knausgaard offers much less in-your-face intimacy than the hype suggests." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "Mit grösstmöglicher Genauigkeit beschreibt der Autor sein Erwachsenwerden. Er scheut dabei weder Banalität noch Peinlichkeit, schon gar nicht, wenn diese ihm widerfährt. So liest man Knausgards persönlichen Entwicklungsroman -- wobei diese Entwicklung, wie fast jede, manchmal Längen hat – als eine Erzählung, die sich so abgespielt haben könnte. Es muss aber nicht so sein. Ein Hinweis darauf ist eine Stelle, wo der Verfasser schreibt, er gehöre zu den Menschen, die immer sofort vergässen, was sie zu anderen gesagt hätten. Erst die zweite Hälfte des Buches ist bestimmt vom Tod." - Cord Aschenbrenner, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "The problem is that Knausgaard’s unflinching honesty, so admired throughout Europe, leaves little room for characters to grow, for scenes to live. (...) Chill out, Mr K ! It is entirely possible that this novel is a masterpiece, and has just been badly served by a translation which would have us believe that teenage boys call each other "lying sod" and "lying toad" in the same breath; (.....) But I don’t think so. I pity the poor translator. After all, it must have been quite hard to translate something so soporific." - Philip Womack, New Humanist

  • "Although his sentences are long and loose, they are not cutely or aimlessly digressive: truth is repeatedly being struck at, not chatted up. (...) Knausgaard’s omnivorousness proves anything but accidental. Again, the banality is so extreme that it turns into its opposite, and becomes distinctive, curious in its radical transparency. (...) The plenitude of detail that clogs the first half of the book makes its second half morbidly compelling, and is crucial to the memoir’s power." - James Wood, The New Yorker

  • "It becomes clear that Karl Ove Knausgaard is attempting nothing less than a highly personal À la recherche du temps perdu, a view, from a position of comparatively successful individuation, of his own life and of the people it porffered him (.....) The writing itself reveals authorial awareness of the moral audacity of his enterprise. (...) (H)is translator Don Bartlett has sereved him with impressive and galvanizing sensitivity" - Paul Binding, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The American title -- My Struggle -- comes closer to the original Norwegian, Min kamp, than the title chosen for the British edition, A Death in the Family, and while a death in the family is central to the entire six-volume epic, it only dominates the second part of this first installment in that series; the far more neutral 'A Death in the Family' also undermines a central aspect of the work: how very much it -- the book itself, and the experiences described in it -- is the author's own struggle.
       The comparisons with Proust are inevitable: early on Knausgaard acknowledges: "I not only read Marcel Proust's novel À la recherche du temps perdu but virtually imbibed it", and My Struggle is Proustian in both its close reexamination of the past and its dimensions (even if Knausgaard's novel-cycle falls one short of Proust's in volume-numbers). My Struggle also has a Proustian pace: the first part of the nearly five-hundred-page first volume seems dominated by a description of a New Year's celebration, the second the scrubbing of a home in the wake of the death of Knausgaard's father. But, yes -- and as in Proust --, there's a lot more to it.
       My Struggle is presented as nearly documentarily autobiographical. The characters correspond to real-life figures -- check out brother Yngve's business site -- and the story is entirely personal. The author goes so far as to explicitly situate himself at times -- for example:

     Today is the 27th of February. The time is 11:43 pm. I, Karl Ove Knausgaard, was born in December 1968, and at the time of writing I am 39 years old. I have three children -- Vanja, Heidi, and John -- and am in my second marriage, to Linda Boström Knausgaard.
       He lives with his family in Sweden as he writes this book, a physical separation from family and past:
The sole traces of my previous existence are the books and records I brought with me. Everything else I left behind.
       Yet with this massive undertaking, the six volumes of My Struggle, he does nothing so much as try to dredge up and relive (or at least re-present) the past; he couldn't really and entirely leave that behind. Even as he starts a new life, or a new stage in his life, and despite the young children around him and the constant change they bring with them ("ask me what I did three days ago and I can't remember"), he is also drawn to immersing himself in his own past.
       My Struggle is, in a way, entirely self-reflection -- all the other figures, even the father, remain other: with Knausgaard unable (and/or unwilling) to delve or probe into these characters. The account is self-centered, documenting Knausgaard's struggle -- part of which is that failure of understanding of the others, and of being able to connect with them. He acknowledges: "my father had a hold on me that I never succeeded in breaking", but only very slowly can he approach trying to understand the father-figure.
       Obviously, there was some emotional distance in this family. The younger Knausgaard is often alone, or more or less left to his own devices: there's interaction with mother, father, grandfather, and brother, but often it's very much in passing -- he and his father will drop in on their grandparents, the older brother is briefly back in town. Among the most shocking scenes is when his father greets Knausgaard with a shopping list, and between asking him to "nip down to the shop for me" and remembering that he forgot to put potatoes on the list mentions, by the way: "Mom and I have decided to separate." He adds -- somewhere between wishful thinking and command -- "But it won't affect you. You won't notice any difference."
       Yes, clearly Knausgaard has some things to work through.
       Much of the first section of this novel centers on a New Year's eve, with young Knausgaard and a friend trying to get to a party, an opportunity for Knausgaard to describe at length his teenage circumstances and self. Arguably almost entirely uneventful, beyond the trivial -- the difficulties of buying some beer, keeping it hidden, and then retrieving it at the appropriate time (which actually turns out to be terribly complicated) -- it nevertheless allows Knausgaard to riff at length (but also agreeably incidentally) on his life and youth.
       The second section of the novel centers on his father's death in 1998 and the aftermath; there's some tidying of affairs to deal with, but it's the cleaning of the filthy house that is most prominent. And death, of course, brings up with many unresolved emotions and memories. As he explains to someone (typically: on the telephone, not in person):
We're wading through his death. He died in the chair in the room next door, it's still there. And then there's everything that happened here, I mean, a long time ago, when I was growing up, all that's here too, and it's surfacing. Do you understand ? I'm somehow very close to everything. To the person I was when I was younger. To the person Dad was. All the feelings from that time are resurfacing.
       Nevertheless, it takes him years before he can work through much of this as he eventually does in these pages. And this volume, the first of six, is also clearly only the beginning of the process. Knausgaard has, in fact, revealed relatively little about himself so far, the books zooming in on only a few periods of time -- his middle teenage years, the time of his father's death, the present. There are intriguing mentions of other times, including a year spent as a teacher, and early admission to a creative writing program in what appears to have been an aborted start to his writing career. But beyond the present, there is, for example, little mention of his relationships with the two women he married (and his teenage fumblings are striking in how they don't get very far: despite being in a class where there are more enough girls to choose from, he fails to truly connect with any).
       My Struggle is also a writer's book. Yes, music was always important, too, and he went through a band-phase, too -- clearly intentionally comically presented in its abysmal failure -- but it's always writing that draws him in. And: "Writing is more about destroying than creating", he believes -- and My Struggle is such an act of creative destruction.
       Specifically, it an act of overcoming, too:
I wanted to open the world by writing, for myself, at the same time this is also what made me fail. The feeling that the future does not exist, that it is only more of the same, means that all utopias are meaningless. Literature has always been related to utopia, so when the utopia loses meaning so does literature. What I was trying to do, and perhaps what all writers try to do -- what on earth do I know ? -- was to combat fiction with fiction. What I ought to do was affirm what existed, affirm the state of things as they are, in other words, revel in the world outside instead of searching for a way out, for in that way I would undoubtedly have a better life, but I couldn't do it, I couldn't, something had congealed inside me
       With My Struggle he seems to find the necessary balance: if not full affirmation, he at least allows for 'what exists', and tries to come to terms with it. But it's a long, drawn-out process -- of which, to reiterate, this volume is very much only the beginning.
       My Struggle is so precise in its dialogue and detail, yet Knausgaard repeatedly mentions how little he remembers, whether in the present ("ask me what I did three days ago and I can't remember") or the past ("I remember hardly anything from my childhood"), undermining the documentary plausibility of the work. How much is projection, how much real ? Presumably, it's best to read it as fiction. Indeed, My Struggle suggests what can (still) be done with 'fiction', in its broadest senses.
       On its own, this first volume of My Struggle is a very fine work; from the looks of it, it may well be the first part of something truly great.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 March 2012

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My Struggle: Reviews: Other books by Karl Ove Knausgaard under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard (Karl Ove Knausgård) was born in 1968.

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© 2012-2021 the complete review

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