A Norwegian novelist plumbs his interior life, particularly his troubled relationship with his late father, in this curiously affecting opening to a multipart epic.
“Epic,” though, may not be quite the right word to apply to what Knausgaard (Out of This World, 2005; A Time for Everything, 2009), has accomplished. Though the book, a bestseller in his homeland, is composed of six volumes, its focus is on the author’s quotidian, banal, sometimes-frivolous experiences. One extended sequence follows his ham-handed interview as a teenager of a well-known Norwegian author; another covers his ham-handed attempt to play in a rock band; another tracks his ham-handed efforts to get to a New Year’s Eve party. Sense a pattern? Knausgaard is emotionally clumsy to be sure, but remarkably, almost miraculously, his novel never comes off as a plea for sympathy, as so many memoirs (or memoir-novels) are. He means to strip experiences and emotional responses to their bare essences, and over time, the book evokes a feeling of fully inhabiting a character that typical rhetorical somersaulting often doesn’t. That’s not to say the storytelling is aimless or can’t be emotionally piercing: The book concludes with a long section of Karl Ove and his brother, Yngve, clearing out their alcoholic father’s rural home while minding their grandmother, who appears to be succumbing to alcoholism herself. Scrubbing down the impossibly filthy home is dry stuff on the sentence level (“I filled the bucket with water, took a bottle of Klorin, a bottle of green soap and a bottle of Jif scouring cream…”), but the slow accrual of detail masterfully evokes the slow effort to reckon with the past. The title, with its echo of Hitler’s memoir, is a provocation, but a considered one—Knausgaard's reckoning with his past is no less serious for lacking drama and outsize tragedy.
A simple and surprising effort to capture everyday life that rewards the time given to it.