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Sunday, 22 December 2013

My Struggle - Book One - A Death in the Family - Karl Ove Knausgaard (Translated by Don Bartlett) - IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 2014 - Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2013 - Best Translated Book Award 2013

2013 has very much been a year of translated fiction for myself and yet again I’ve accidentally stumbled across a mind blowing work. I came across Archipelago Books when searching out Japanese Short Stories for Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge (I purchased and read, but did not review – maybe one day - Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “Mandarins”) . Being on their email list Archipelago Books contacted me and asked if I could contribute funds to get Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle Book One” published as a special hardback edition – the series runs to six books and to date only books one and two have been translated and published in English. Always a sucker for funding not-for-profit arts ventures I chipped in enough to receive a hardback edition of Book Three, a softback edition of Book One and my name listed as a sponsor in the Special Edition Hardback which will be released alongside Book Three in July 2014.

Karl Ove’s semi-autobiographical masterwork has been a massive success in the homelands of Norway, media reports stating that over 450,000 copies of this work have been sold in Norway, a place of 10 million inhabitants – close to one in 20 people owing a copy!!!.

A lot of quite trivial preamble for a review I suppose, but if you’ve read “My Struggle” you’d appreciate that nothing is trivial. Our opening book dealing with his relationship with his father and his own personal struggle dealing with his dad’s death from alcohol abuse. Mentioning the fact that the work contains minute detail and everyday descriptions may relay a fear of tediousness, however not an event seems out of place, whether it is Karl Ove lighting yet another cigarette, observing the buildings over the road whilst he’s writing this work or even observing the surrounding landscape, each and every nuance, activity and observation builds on Karl Ove’s struggle with existence.

The air had become cooler now, and being so hot from work, I was aware of it enveloping me, pressing against my skin, and wafting into my mouth. Of it enveloping the trees in front of me, the houses, the cars, the mountain sides. Of it streaming somewhere as the temperature fell, these constant avalanches in the sky which we could not see, drifting in over us like enormous breakers, always in flux, descending slowly, swirling fast, in and out of all these lungs, meeting all these walls and edges, always invisible, always present.
But Dad was no longer breathing. That was what happened to him, the connection with the air had been broken, now it pushed against him like any other object, a log, a gasoline can, a sofa. He no longer poached air, because that is what you do when you breathe, you trespass, again and again you trespass on the world.

This book moved me in ways that I haven’t been moved before, the explanations of recollections, the memories of youth, the banal being influential, and the open raw honesty of Karl Ove’s relationships. It would be easy to understand if nobody in his circle talks to him anymore as his pouring of his feelings and angst is not spared for anybody. His own relationship with his partner, his brother, his children, nothing is considered sacred. And this is a bold approach, Karl Ove expressing what we surely all must (at times) think but aren’t brave enough to verbalise.

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?

The prose is startling, complex issues are raised and assessed and then they flitter away to nothing as he buys a can of coke or closes the car door. A mirror on existance and one that had me reflecting quite often (for me it was not a page turner as I slowly let the reality sink in). Karl Ove’s struggle is not only with his father’s death in this novel, it is with his writing of existence, of struggling with the day to day. This is a moving and important piece, a novel which has addressed so many subjects where others fear to tread. I was that entranced through the first 200 odd pages (my edition runs to 430 pages) I immediately purchased Book Two, only to feel let down because I will have to wait until July in 2014 to tackle Book Three and goodness knows when for Books Four thru Six. I’ll have to struggle through I suppose – nothing caffeine and cigarettes won’t assist.

For more information on Archipelago Books and their beautifully presented works in translation go to or if you want to buy it directly from the non for profit publisher

One of my highlights for 2013 - but I'll be back before the year is out with my final list...I'm reviewing my reviews.

Buy This Book from Book Depository, Free Delivery World Wide


Bellezza said...

I just bought this for my nook today. Can't wait to read it, after hearing about it here as well as The New Yorker. When I'm done, I'll come back for a better discussion with you.

Messy_Tony said...

The New Yorker review (which I've just read) is a tad more high brow than mine.