I guess to get it out of the way: I did struggle with deciding to read this book at first because of the title. I am not squeamish of the title in terms of it being a little close to Hitler’s book, because the author is being a little tongue in cheek about the whole thing. It was more so that I was worried that there would a kind of self-important grandiosity about the whole thing. And there is a little, but it’s embedded in the concept of the project, not in the tone or the writing itself. The book is not a self-flagellation nor is it an excusing of oneself nor is it a kind of self-aggrandizement. It’s a a novel, and a good one, and one where the author becomes grist for the mill of his own writing and oddly, humble, but spare in its form.
Book 1 – A Death in the Family
So this first volume is called a Death in the Family in England. I think it’s to spare the kind of connections with Hitler that Knausgaard is obviously aware he is spinning. But it more or less works. The book is not only about death, but death permeates so much of the thinking the book. He discusses life as a process punctuated and defined by the experience with death at its core, and how this knowledge does cause us to pursue knowledge, sensation, or in many cases distraction from death. Karl Ove tells the story through a few scenes from his childhood involving his father and his father’s drinking, as well as his own drinking, as these distractions from death. He also jumps forward to the present to narrate his own writing of the novel to show the impulses and conditions of his current life led to the project itself.
As we close out the beginning section (whether this is the beginning section of this volume or all the volumes, I will have to wait to find out because I have only just ordered the next two) the scene is set. We know who he is at present, we have some sense of who he was as a child and teenager, and we’re ready to begin the next steps. The second half/60% of the novel is the death of his father when Karl Ove was 30. This death is the whole of the rest, but this is not an elegy at all. The entire process of the novel is who is Karl Over and how does this death work as a defining experience. At the funeral it is the expectation that he and his slightly older brother deal with all the details, and this includes for him, an understanding and framing of death through philosophical, intellectual, and poetic understandings of the death, and his place within. He is young and married and already doubting the strength of that marriage, and he is just now the same age as his father is in the opening scene of the novel.
I am not the same age as Karl Over, but I am about the same age as he is in the start of the novel, and was about the same age when my own father has a stroke. And the scenes between him and his brother remind me very much of our driving together to see him in the hospital. I was so hungover that I made my brother stop 2-3 times so I could throw up on the way. So while this novel is not 100% fiction, it is fictional in the sense of how the memories are crafted and shaped to suit a purpose. I read this volume in two sittings on the same day. Needless to say, I am hooked and will be reading at least the next two in short order.