A book review… ‘Death, the last great beyond…’ Karl Ove Knausgaard’s, ‘My struggle’ (Book One)

Just finished reading the first part of Karl Ove’s Knausgaard’s cycle of six novels detailing his life. My Struggle merges autobiographical past and present in a sometimes dizzying amount of Proustian detail, mainly focusing on the author’s alienated boyhood and young adult life as well as his strained relationship with his alcoholic father. What is really interesting for me as a writer is Knausgaard’s fearlessness at layering an almost torturous amount of banal domestic detail (from raising kids to cleaning & housework) with passages of great insightful philosophizing about life and death. Reeling from his father’s death, the writer starts thinking about modernist art and its final break with Christianity (citing Edvard Munch, most famous for The Scream) and consequently the gradual rise of individualism and intellectualism over religion and death. Please excuse the extensive quote:

‘Our world is enclosed around itself, enclosed around us and there is no way out of it. Those in this situation who call for more intellectual depth, more spirituality, have understood nothing, for the problem is that the intellect has taken over everything. Everything has become intellect, even our bodies, they aren’t bodies anymore, but ideas of bodies, something that is situated in our own heaven of images and conceptions within us and above us, where an increasingly large part of our lives in lived. The limits of that which cannot speak to us – the unfathomable – no longer exist. We understand everything, and we do so because we have turned everything into ourselves. Nowadays, as one might expect, all those who have occupied themselves with the neutral, the negative, the non-human in art, have turned to language, that is where the incomprehensible and the otherness has been sought, as if they were to be found on the margins of human expression, in other words, on the fringes of what we understand, and of course actually that is logical: where else would it be found in a world that no longer acknowledges that there is a beyond?

It is in this light that we have to see the strangely ambiguous role death has assumed. On the one hand, it is all around us, we are inundated by news of deaths, pictures of dead people; for death in that respect, there are no limits, it is massive, ubiquitous, inexhaustible. But this is death as an idea, death without a body, death as thought and image, death as an intellectual concept. This death is the same as the word ‘death,’ the body-less entity referred to when a dead person’s name is used. For while the person is alive the name refers to the body, to where it resides, to what it does; the name becomes detached from the body when it dies and remains with the living, who when they use the name, always mean the person he was, never the person he is now, a body, which lies rotting somewhere. This aspect of death, that which belongs to the body and is concrete, physical and material, this death is hidden with such great care that borders on a frenzy, and it works, just listen to how people who’ve been involuntary witnesses to fatal accidents or murders tend to express themselves. They always say the same, it was absolutely unreal, even though what they mean is the opposite. It was so real. But we no longer live in that reality. For us, everything has been turned on its head, for us the real is unreal, the unreal real. And death, death is the last great beyond. That is why it has to be kept hidden. Because death might be beyond the term and beyond life, but it is not beyond the world.”

Phew. He’s also very good on the frightening qualities of rooms, wardrobes and dead peoples’ clothes after someone has gone. I get all that very well.

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