Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family is the first of six volumes provocatively titled My Struggle. This first volume deals with Knausgaard’s early youth, and the death of his father but it’s the way Knausgaaard sets about this that makes it so evocative. He wants to include everything; and in the same way as Borges’ Funes the Memorious never forgets anything he sees, nor does Knausgaard. Or like Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose novels record the surface of the world in labourious detail, so Knausgaard’s preference is to present us with the quotidian and the incidental, but it’s the accumulative effect of layers and layers of this that makes the novel so powerful, immersing the reader in Knausgaard’s soupy universe. There are moments when I couldn’t help but feel I was walking beside him, or that he is writing about my life, certainly his descriptions of his first experiments with alcohol, his first crushes, the disappointing parties, the dreadful bands he played in and the music he listened to. And Knaausgaard is a pitiful mess, sometimes, certainly he is no hero, and his inability to raise himself above the everyday, something he occasionally does with philosophical digressions, is somehow charming. He imbues everything, every gesture, whether opening a bottle of beer, rolling a cigarette, taking something out of a cupboard, laying a table, pouring a drink, with such filmic observational precision. ‘What you see every day is what you never see,’ he says, but Knausgaard captures every detail. It’s no wonder his writing reminds me of Ingmar Bergman; the slow, slow pace of things, the deliberation, the angst. This is full of angst. Poor Karl Ove. He cries throughout the second half of the novel, sometimes with embarrassment, sometimes without fear. But crying is good, and perhaps if Karl Ove weren’t so sensitive, he wouldn’t have produced such a fine book. It is a masterpiece of its own genre, kitchen sink, real time, plotless and written in such simple language, it sometimes feels less than what is. Because it is remarkable, and, if I still feel the same after I’ve read the second and third of the six volumes of My Struggle, this ranks alongside some of the most astonishing literary achievements of our times.
Category Archives: diary
I won’t go into too much detail, but I recently undertook a psychometric test. There were something like one hundred and seventy questions, ranging from “I enjoy theories” to “I hate parties”. As the test proceeded, so my positive responses were clustered together, as were my negative answers. So things I like (books, people, shouting and watercress) all appeared in the same question, forcing me to make a distinction. Similarly, all the things I hate (golf, getting up, Wotsits and rabies) were thrown together to make me differentiate between them. Imagine if you were asked whether you hated Wotsits more than rabies, could you decide? Rabies is nasty, but you are rarely offered any. Wotsits, they pop up all over the place, those horrible, disgusting, floury, yellow puke pods.
At the end of all this, I had to sit in a room with an expert who told me how nuts I was. She laughed until she cried as she described the huge variations in my responses. “You are a silent loner,” she said. “You sit outside of the circle, looking in. You hate Wotsits more than rabies. That’s very weird.”
“Ah,” I replied, “but I love watercress more than shouting!”
She filed my report away and told me, no, I couldn’t have a copy. For once in my life, I wish I could have been normal. It must feel so good. To like people more than poetry, and parties more than stationery. I can only wish.
But as I spend hours alone, making things up, it is unlikely that the outside world would consider me a balanced, rounded human being. I am not, and I don’t want to be. I want to the eccentric that I am, because in that way the world is an endlessly entertaining series of the bizarre, the surreal and the utterly incomprehensible. If I were organised and rational, possessed of that dubious quality ‘common sense’, then I am certain I would be incapable of dusting myself off and walking away after a computerised psychometric test had determined I was an introspective watercress loving loner.
Tristram Shandy is a book I always mean to read but never do. I know it well enough without reading it. it’s a mid eighteenth century novel with the feel of modernist literature. Stearne makes the sort of clever literary jokes that appear in books by Borges, Calvino or Will Self. I still haven’t read Tristram, but driving down to Gower a few weeks ago I listened to the Naxos audio book, and although I found myself losing the thread (it was a beautiful journey, one the best weekends of the year so far) I managed to dip in and out of it enough to feel I had some of the sense of Stearne’s language.
I’d planned to meet my friend Neil in Gower, where we would walk the cliffs, drink the Gower Gold Ale, and try in vain to get to Goat’s Cave, Paviland, the oldest surviving ritual burial in the UK. The Red Lady of Paviland (actually a man) is 30,000 years old, and his bones lie in Cardiff museum, on loan from the Ashmolean, Oxford. Goat’s Cave, then is one the most important prehistoric sites in Europe, but is largely unknown. I got very wet trying to get to it, and gave up after realising I could well kill myself trying to scramble across a vertical cliff some hundred feet above the rocks.
Intrigued by Tristram Shandy – and having enjoyed it more for listening to it on a journey through some startling landscape, when I returned home I bought Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation, A Cock and Bull Story, in which Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon slip in and out of character, pausing to describe events inside and outside the story, but this isn’t Steve Coogan discussing the movie he’s in, it’s Coogan playing a version of himself, of course. The film weaves the layers of fiction together into a warm, gentle comedy.
As a result of the success of the film, Coogan, Brydon and Winterbottom went on to make The Trip, the duo once again consciously playing themselves, eating their way across the north of England (and, indeed Yorkshire, location of Shandy Hall).
Neil and I ate out once, in the Britannia Inn, Llanmadoc, Gower, but it was very, very disappointing, and if it wasn’t for the cuckoo we could hear as we returned to the car, it would have been quite miserable.
When I was a young I knew animals had souls. I was a thug until around the age of seven or eight, and had, until then spent far too long devising sinister tortures for wasps and minnows. I won’t detail them here, I am not proud of what I did. But I had a dog, which we put into kennels when we went on holiday, and when we returned it was dead. I was inconsolable. I thought of my dog, a sweet little Sheltie pup, and imagined it pining for us, wondering why it had been abandoned. I thought it of it as retribution for all the horrors I had inflicted on tiny creatures. I became protective of all living things, of the smallest creatures, even of plants. I took it a step too far with my feelings for inanimate objects, and in sensing their natures, began to understand where the temptation to hoard comes from. The universe, some say, is cold and ruthless. Life is an aberration. I live with that, but at the same time I can’t help but marvel at life, at being, at what we are and what we make of the world around us.
I live in the middle of nowhere. There is nothing for miles. (And by ‘nothing’ I mean hills, fields, farms, streams, clouds and sheep). There are no other houses, no shops, very little traffic. I drive to work and rarely meet anyone coming the other way. I drive home and stare into the setting sun. At night the house creaks like an old ship. In the mornings, in the summer, there is no better place to live. In the winter, when everything freezes up, the track to the house becomes an ice slide, we can’t get out, and nothing can get up here. We’re marooned. And if the water supply shuts off and the boiler breaks down, we might as well be living in a tent. So I watch nature’s clock for the tell tale signs of spring: the snowdrops, the daffodils, the first green buds on the hawthorn. And when everything explodes into blossom, it is symphonic and sublime, and then the cold brutality of the dark months is at last seen off and life never feels so good.
I drove east to Oxford and a party to celebrate 25 years of the Felicity Bryan Agency. It took place in the beautiful, refurbished setting of the Ashmolean Museum. I overdosed on champagne and managed to be articulate enough to talk to a number of agency authors. I chatted with Peter Heather, who very modestly told me he was teacher, which he is, but he is also Professor of Medieval History at King’s College, London. His expertise is the fall of the Roman Empire, so I asked him to tell me, in one word, why the Roman Empire collapsed, he replied ‘Barbarians’ – which I think is the title of one of his books. I want to read it now, not just because I don’t know much about who the Barbarians were, but because Peter was a very amusing bloke. Lydia Syson, an author I hadn’t met before, was embarrassingly nice about my books, and Joanne Owen I discussed being Welsh, and what Wales means to us.
Last week I took my son to start his first term at university. Saying goodbye to the first born was something I was not looking forward to. I wanted him to go, to begin his new life, but knew I’d miss him. He’s been bogged down with school subjects he was never that immersed in, and so to start studying the thing he loves most, politics, means that he is doing what he wants to do. It is such a bittersweet experience. Once upon a time I had an idea of writing a book about our travels together: Battles with My Boy. It was to be a travelogue of journeys across battlefields of Britain, and a commentary on our arguments. We used to argue all the time, about politics, education, how to make tea, where the biscuits have gone.