Canada’s Image Turned Upside Down
Karl Ove Knausgaard, A Death in the Family (My Struggle: Book 1) (2008)
Knausgaard seems to be the current iteration of what Edward St Aubyn was a few years ago: the hot thing in “serious literary fiction” who is getting adoring puff quotes from everyone from Zadie Smith (yes, her again) to that bastion of literary sensibility, Marie Claire magazine. This picture, of a centre-spread ad from the New York Times Book Review a few weeks ago, gives a sense of how gracelessly he’s being pushed on American readers:
(The type looks very pink in that picture; I’m not sure it was really that pink.)
Comparisons to Proust are pretty much de rigueur – but more on that later.
According to the back cover copy – always a reliable source of information – this book is about Knausgaard, but also about everyone; I would narrow that slightly and say it’s about Knausgaard, and every other self-styled sensitive soul who sometimes feels baffled or overwhelmed by the complexity of the world. That may be more or less “everyone” who actually takes the time to read this book (myself included, I suppose), but it’s considerably less than literally everyone. The book probably appeals most strongly to people with personalities similar to Knausgaard’s – which doubtless includes most book reviewers, hence the glowing reviews.
Personally, I found the book riveting at first; I don’t know if what I began to feel as it went on was a sense of “sufficiency,” precisely, or of diminishing returns, but it was definitely a feeling that I didn’t need this much of this particular thing. That feeling increased as I made my way through the second part of the novel.
But to summarize….
A Death in the Family is centred on the relationship between the narrator, Karl Ove, and his father. Part I charts Karl Ove’s changing perception of his father as he goes through adolescence and his father leaves his mother and starts a new life separate from his family; Part II leaps ahead in time to the father’s death and Karl Ove’s reaction to it. The portrait of the father is very clearly drawn, and Karl Ove’s feelings about him are convincing; most of the other characters don’t seem much more than names (I don’t think listing a character’s favourite rock bands qualifies as characterization – perhaps that makes me old-fashioned?), and some of the events in the novel feel randomly selected and don’t contribute much (I could have lived without the excruciatingly detailed description of the machinations required to arrive at a New Year’s party with a few bottles of beer).
Amidst his agonized adolescence and shifting perception of his father, however, I was pleased to see that Knausgaard found time to mention Canada, not once but twice. And I was particularly gratified that both references, in some sense, run counter to the conventional ideas we’re used to seeing.
Canadians – So Mysterious!
This passage is from a description of the passing landmarks as the narrator, Karl Ove, is driven home after a New Year’s party by the father of his friend Jan Vidar (I’m not even going to attempt to replicate the Norwegian accents):
Onto the Kjevik road, past Hamresanden, along Ryensletta. Dark, peaceful, nice and warm. I could sit like this for the rest of my life, I thought. Past their house, into the bends up by Kragebo, down to the bridge on the other side, up the hill. It hadn’t been cleared and was covered with five centimetres of fresh snow. Jan Vidar’s father drove more slowly over the last stretch. Past the house where Susann and Elise lived, the two sisters who had moved here from Canada and no one could quite work out, past the bend where William lived, down the hill and up the last bit. (124)
Knausgaard is not really focussing on Canada here; instead he is creating a sense of familiarity with specific places in the narrator’s mind as the car passes them. But the fact that the house of the two Canadian sisters is picked out as a landmark suggests that they have at least some stature (or notoriety?) among the surrounding inhabitants. Their names are known, and that they’re from Canada, but apparently that’s about it: “no one could quite work [them] out.” Thus an air of mystery, even a kind of exoticism, attaches to these Canadians; in an area where everyone else is presumably Norwegian, they are the oddballs, the outliers, the strange women from Canada.
This creates a sense of a “Canadian character” that is quite different from what we have come to expect: the brief description suggests that the sisters keep to themselves, and that they have not made any effort to integrate into the community they are now a part of. They come across as rather self-sufficient, individualistic, even antisocial – a departure from our usual image, where Canada is seen as a more communal society, in opposition to the “rugged individualism” associated with Americans. Perhaps this reflects a European or Scandinavian view of North Americans generally; in Canada, we tend to see ourselves as distinct from Americans, but from a greater distance there may be more similarities than differences.
Canadian Corporate Colonialism
Curiously, the second reference to Canada also comes during a car trip, this time in Part II, as Karl Ove and his brother Yngve are driving back to their home town to make arrangements for their father’s funeral. This isn’t a direct reference to Canada, but I think it’s close enough:
Soon the countryside began to merge into shapes I vaguely recognised, it became more and more familiar until what I saw through the window coalesced with the images I had in my mind’s eye. It felt as if we were driving into a memory. As if what we were moving through was just a kind of backdrop for my youth. Entering the suburbs, Vagsbyd, where Hanne had lived, the Henning Olsen factory, Falconbridge Nickel Works, dark and grimy, surrounded by the dead mountains, and then to the right, Kristiansand harbour, the bus station, the ferry terminal, Hotel Calidonien, the silos on the island of Odderoya. To the left, the part of town where dad’s uncle had lived until recently, before dementia had taken him to an old folks’ home somewhere. (245)
The description of the places the car is passing gradually aligning themselves with the images in the narrator’s memory as he gets closer to the town where he grew up is neatly done. And then we come to Falconbridge Nickel Works – since taken over by a Swiss company, but at the time this part of the novel takes place it would still have been the original Falconbridge, based in Toronto.
If you read the Wikipedia entry on Falconbridge, you’ll see that the company was founded in 1928, and that its relationship to Norway started in 1929, when it bought out an existing nickel refinery in Kristiansand, Norway – the town where Karl Ove grows up in the novel. This fact, combined with the description of the “dead mountains” around the “dark and grimy” nickel works, presents a view of Canada we haven’t really seen before: as the menacing corporate version of a colonial power, which comes into a country, buys up its existing industries, exploits the natural resources and ships the profits back home. In that context, there seems to be a suggestion of causality behind the description of the mountains as “dead,” as if the mountains are dead because they have been stripped of the nickel they once contained. Falconbridge’s relationship to Norway appears not that different from the way one might look at the relationship of the Hudson’s Bay Company to Canada in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; in this case, however, a Canadian corporation has taken the model of exploitative colonialism that Britain used in Canada and begun applying it to other parts of the world.
When we think of Canada in terms of colonialism, we tend to think of it as a victim, exploited by other countries for its natural resources; this passage reminds us that Canadian corporations enacted a similar process in other places as well, and that Canada can be found on both sides of the colonialist coin.
Addendum: Knausgaard vs. Proust (Unrelated to Canada)
I should begin by saying I’m probably not even qualified to talk about what I’m about to try to talk about. I don’t think you can ever really “know” a book that you haven’t read in its original language; at its most fundamental level, writing is a matter of word choice – an author chooses words and arranges them in a particular order – and word choice presupposes a vocabulary from which those words are chosen, and a vocabulary presupposes a language. Translation is a wonderful thing, and a good translator can convey a great deal of what is present in a work of literature, but no translation is a “true” or “complete” picture because by definition it does not – cannot – include the specific, individual words the author chose.
That said, I’m going to discuss the relationship between A Death in the Family and In Search of Lost Time – two novels I have read only in translation – and, more particularly, the question of why so many reviews compare the two works.
To get the obvious out of the way first: Knausgaard himself courts the comparison to Proust, even mentioning his own experience of reading A la recherche near the beginning of the book (26). And the fact that the main character shares the author’s name, as does the narrator of In Search of Lost Time, the fact that the novel is autobiographical and actually told in a series of books, as is Proust’s novel – there are certainly points of comparison. (Not to mention that Proust also refers to Canada – another (significant?) similarity.)
And of course comparing contemporary books with the literature of the past is one of the main tasks taken up by reviewers and critics, and always has been and always will be: a key way we situate and seek to understand a book is by looking for antecedents and trying to see how it relates to a “tradition”.
So to that extent all of this is fair and quite normal. But I can’t help feeling there is something else going on here.
My paperback edition of A Death In The Family (published by Vintage) opens with eight pages of puff quotes from around the world; let’s take a look at a few representative samples. Under the heading “Praise from Norway”:
Reminiscent of Marcel Proust’s life work A la Recherche du Temps Perdu… With My Struggle Knausgaard has laid the foundations of a literary cathedral. (Moss Avis)
Only the foundation? A cycle of six novels covering more than 3,000 pages, and he’s only finished the foundation?
Under the heading “Praise from Spain”:
Proust now has a Nordic heir. The Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard. (Marie Claire)
The Proustian style engages us from the very first pages, at the same time hinting at disaster of the most personal kind…. (Time Out)
Under the heading “Praise from Italy”:
Knausgaard has a Proustian ability to hypnotize his reader, and to induce a trance-like state. (La Stampa)
The more I read that line, the less certain I am that it’s a compliment.
He has made a genuine saga of his own personal history. Knausgaard is a literary sensation to be compared with Proust. (Corriere Nazionale)
Knausgaard, the Proust of the twenty-first century has arrived from Norway. (Il Piccolo)
After Larsson, here’s a new Scandinavian literary sensation. (TV Film)
Oops – clearly, the editors at TV Film didn’t get the memo that Knausgaard is a serious literary writer, not the author of film-ready genre blockbusters, and that comparisons to Proust, not Stieg Larsson, are the order of the day. But as the comparisons to Proust pile up, they begin to seem a little insistent – almost aggressive.
At the beginning of this section I listed some of the obvious similarities between this novel and Proust – the multiple volumes, the fact that it’s autobiographical – but those similarities are essentially superficial, by which I mean – and this is the key point – they are similarities that could be noticed by someone who hasn’t actually read Proust, but for whom “Proust” is simply an external idea, a cultural construct or talisman that represents something (“long autobiographical novel that I should probably get around to reading someday”) without being known from within.
In terms of style – and this is based on having read only the first novel in the My Struggle “cycle” – Knausgaard really isn’t that much like Proust at all. He has an astounding ability to convey the fine texture of everyday reality; the descriptions of cleaning his grandparents’ house after his father’s death show incredible attention to easily overlooked elements like the way the grain of the wood emerges as a banister is cleaned, or the way the dirty water swirls down the sink drain – as a reader, you feel you are seeing these things for the first time, as if you have looked at them before but never really absorbed them until you read them described by Knausgaard. And I think this idea of “attention,” of being present in the moment and noticing the details of quotidian reality, is a central part of what Knausgaard is trying to achieve as a writer.
But the accumulation of detail has a way of piling up without necessarily adding up; I have to confess that as the repetitive scenes of cleaning went on (and on), I could appreciate Knausgaard’s desire to focus on every moment and to make the reader feel present in every aspect of the experience he went through; at the same time, the tedium was, for me at least, inescapable. Most novels inevitably have their longueurs, I suppose, but in A Death in the Family the longueurs don’t feel like unnecessary fat that could have been removed with more careful editing; they are so present and so much the focus that they begin to seem like the essence of Knausgaard’s project. It feels at times like he’s attempting to valorize the quotidian through sheer length and force of style. But, at the end of the day, how much do I really care about the banisters in his grandparents’ house?
By way of (startling?) contrast, Proust is really never (well, hardly ever) tedious. In Search of Lost Time is obviously long, but it’s a length that grows out of a depth and richness that feel organic and necessary, not frivolous or self-indulgent or, worst of all, simply uninteresting. Proust has a way of drawing in history, literature, music, art – Knausgaard’s description of himself weeping while flipping through a book of Constable paintings (Constable!) doesn’t really measure up – that intensifies his reflections on his feelings and his experiences. But Proust can also write scenes that are shattering in their dramatic power – Marcel’s late-night meeting with the Baron de Charlus, when Charlus switches back and forth between something approaching tenderness and a towering, contemptuous rage, or the minute recording of the conversation at a single society party that goes on for several hundred pages without ever being less than riveting. Certainly The Captive and The Fugitive read in places as if they miss the ultima manus – and Proust was still working on the novel when he died, so it is “unfinished,” though I wonder whether he could ever have stopped revising it, whether it ever could be “finished” – and yet Time Regained feels complete and perfect as it is. And perhaps one could accuse Proust of repetition, in the sense that his characters all seem to act out the same behaviours over and over again. But this is more a matter of patterning than repetition – the obsessive love affair described in the “Swann in Love” section of Swann’s Way sets the template for all the other relationships in the novel, and the fact that all these relationships play out in much the same way is Proust’s commentary on the nature of desire and the inevitability of jealousy – it is an achievement, not a failure.
And so why the comparisons of Knausgaard to Proust? I think they grow out of the fact that, while Proust is great, he is also difficult (in the way that all great literature is difficult) – reading Proust is a pleasure, but it’s also work. Knausgaard is a facsimile, or a simulacrum, of Proust, perfect for our times – his work has the length, but not the depth of Proust; the constant comparisons to Proust are a way of telling readers, who may be a bit leery of tackling Proust, that they can just go ahead and read Knausgaard instead and get essentially the same result. Not true, but a comforting untruth.
My Personal Guide to Reading Proust
Having said that reading Proust is difficult, but nevertheless worthwhile, I might as well offer my own thoughts on how to approach reading In Search of Lost Time – which is, admittedly, a project – just in case you want to give it a try.
1. Obviously, begin with the first volume, Swann’s Way.
2. The first section is called “Combray”. You really need to get through the first 50-odd pages if at all possible – this is the part that leads up to the famous incident of the madeleine dipped in tea. It won’t be easy, but just plough ahead; the confusing parts are confusing because they relate to things that occur in the later novels, and you won’t understand them until you get there, so don’t be concerned.
3. Once you pass the madeleine in the tea, read as much more of “Combray” as you can stand; when you can’t take it anymore, skip ahead to the second part, called “Swann in Love.”
4. “Swann in Love” should come as a revelation; after the dense, introspective style of “Combray”, “Swann in Love”, despite the obsessive love affair at its centre, is much more “social,” so to speak, with entertaining characters, actual incidents (i.e. a “plot”) and a satirical edge. Most of the characters introduced here will reappear throughout the coming volumes.
5. By the end of “Swann in Love” you’ll be hooked – even the final, short section (“Place-Names: The Name”), which is more in the “Combray” style, won’t be enough to deter you, and you’ll move eagerly on to the second volume, “Within a Budding Grove”.
6. If you don’t like “Swann in Love,” then Proust is not for you. You’ll have to settle for Knausgaard.