Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family (gorgeously translated by Don Bartlett) joins the pantheon of great opening lines found in literature: “For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can.” It is, like the life of a heart, simple, and it also beats like the organ it reflects upon: aside from “simple”, it is monosyllabic and rumbles along rhythmically. It has another layer: it encapsulates in 14 words what drives the book’s momentum forward. That is, life and death. Death is part of the novel throughout. It either lurks quietly under the surface or is there at the forefront, as with this opening line, and again at the concluding passages of the novel. It is found in the title, too.
Art’s relationship with death is much documented and much thought about. It is a relationship defined by duplicity: in art, we seek to escape death, to immortalise ourselves, but we also confront it, tackle it, and, at times, attempt to make sense of it. It is here, too, where Knausgaard’s novel excels. The opening 25 pages offer a rumination on death quite unlike any I have read before. It examines a strange societal idiosyncrasy: the pervasiveness of death in our collective conscious, placed alongside the desire to dispose of dead bodies. Why, the novel asks, are we so intent on submerging dead bodies in the ground, with taking the dead out of the realm of the sensory, when we live in a time where death is all around us? There, again, is the duplicity – death is everywhere and nowhere, confronted and suppressed.
A Death in the Family not only provides an examination of such a duplicity but is itself characterised by it, because though death is wedged within the title and woven into the fabric of the book, it is also a book about a life. That is, Knausgaard’s himself. It is part novel, part memoir, part treatise on art, part philosophising on death and existence. Within its 400 pages Knausgaard details, in shifting chronological patterns, his childhood, his writing life, his familial relations. In academic circles we are desperate to separate the author and the text; by now, we are used to authors and texts complicating this relationship. The fluctuation of distance here is important, and though it is ostensibly autobiographical, Knausgaard is all too aware of the distance that is a by-product of writing.
It results in some compelling passages on writing itself: “The only thing I have learned from life is to endure it, never to question it, and to burn up the longing generated by this in writing.” This endurance troubles Knausgaard throughout. A Death in the Family is, oftentimes, a sad novel, a novel where we meet a narrator well aware of his misery and depression. He has, however, found a difficult companion in this misery, and this is writing itself:
“You know too little and it doesn’t exist. You know too much and it doesn’t exist. Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows. That is what writing is about. Not what happens there, not what actions are played out there, but the there itself. There, that is writing’s location and aim. But how to get there?”
It is no wonder that A Death in the Family references Maurice Blanchot’s The Space of Literature, itself a gorgeous text that explores the weirdness of writing and its relationship with death. This reference to Blanchot and also to Jacques Derrida seems perfectly compatible. They are both theorists whose writing carries a beauty which is more novelistic than critical. A Death in the Family, meanwhile, is a novel whose level of profundity and critical parlance is much more akin to philosophy or literary theory. The formal boundary pushing of the novel is as equally impressive as the gorgeous style. It is provocative and compelling.
Knausgaard explores his life with clarity, beauty, wit, power and emotional intelligence. As the novel ends, he is confronted again with a dead body. The book comes full circle, and this circularity is apposite when set adjacent to the duplicitous relationship the text is built upon: the duplicity of death and of life and of writing and of reading. Sure enough, this is a circularity one suspects Knausgaard is well aware of. It is difficult to imagine that much escapes his genius. A Death in the Family is a masterpiece imbued with the kind of forensic, kaleidoscopic excellence that you only come across every so often. It is not only a masterpiece of literature but of autobiography, of existentialism, of human consciousness. Read it and be changed.