Fiction & Nonfiction
A Death in the Family – My Struggle: Volume 1
By Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Don Bartlett
Harvill Secker, £17.99
All of Norway is talking about Karl Ove Knausgaard. People discuss him at dinner parties, in coffee shops and around the water cooler; they follow every instalment of his life story as avidly as TV viewers tuning into the latest episode of their favourite soap opera.
In fact, so obsessed have Norwegians become with this 43-year-old author that some companies have had to declare Knausgaard-free days, just to get a break from endless discussion of the country’s biggest literary sensation.
And what has made Knausgaard a cause celebre? He has laid bare his life in a six-volume autobiography that has shocked many with its candour. No names have been changed, no blushes have been spared, and no everyday event has been deemed too dull to be held up and examined from every angle.
Knausgaard initially presented the work to his publisher as a novel, provocatively entitled Min Kamp, a none-too-subtle reference to a similarly titled work by a well-known dictator. He describes his epic as literary suicide.
Family members have been incensed by the unflattering way they’ve been portrayed in the books. Readers have been feverishly debating whether Knausgaard should have exposed himself and his family to such public scrutiny; critics have disagreed on whether the books are a Proustian journey into the deepest mysteries of existence or a meandering stroll through the minutiae of a life all too ordinary. I know which side I’m on.
The first volume, A Death In the Family, is a curate’s egg of a book, an overlong, self-indulgent depiction of growing up in a small town in southern Norway, with a cold, authoritarian father; discovering drink, sex and rock music; getting married, having kids and publishing his first novel; dealing with the death of his father; opening doors; getting buses; putting out the bins; buying beer; watching the news; looking out of windows; walking down the street; using the telephone.
Everything has equal significance here; nothing stands out. The book’s central events – the death of his father and the deterioration of his grandmother – seem to occur off the page, pushed aside by the clutter of incidental detail.
Five more volumes of epic navel-gazing? Sorry: life’s too short. KEVIN COURTNEY
Gonzo Republic: Hunter S Thompson’s America
By William Stephenson
Seven years after his suicide, at 67, and a couple of decades after what is considered his best work, the American counterculture hero Hunter S Thompson gets a full-on critical dissection in this demanding but well-written, sympathetic and illuminative study by the British academic William Stephenson. Thompson created, almost by accident, the genre of gonzo journalism, a fusion of fiction and reportage that Stephenson describes as “a vehicle for outrageous semi-autobiographical narrative that did not cloak itself in any pretence of objectivity”.
Thompson was at his peak in the 1970s. He was a shining light in the emerging Rolling Stone magazine, and his books Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 created a buzz of excitement with graphic tales of drug-fuelled excess set against a withering critique of the US and leading figures such as Richard Nixon.
The adrenaline rush of his writing couldn’t last, and didn’t. Many critics argue that Thompson’s work became a parody of itself, though Stephenson makes a valiant pitch for his articles in the 1990s and particularly the book The Curse of Lono, a “self-ironic, reflexive reworking of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for the era of globalisation by an author who knew he had become trapped by his own brand”.
This analysis feeds into Stephenson’s overarching, thematically layered argument: that Thompson “adhered to the founding fathers’ ideals of liberty” and was determined to attack those he believed had corrupted his country from the top down. Stephenson enlists the formidable theories of Michel Foucault to bolster his belief that Thompson and his work continue to ask questions worthy of our attention, about the nature of power, the importance of our common humanity, the hollowness of celebrity and the failure of the American dream. Gonzo would have approved. JOE BREEN
By Dubravka Ugresic
Open Letter, £9.89
Dubravka Ugresic is a writer by birth but a Croat by happenstance. Born in the former Yugoslavia, Ugresic witnessed that country’s violent disintegration and found herself labelled a Croat at the end of the war there. She was not Croat enough for other Croats, however. Dissenting from the cancerous nationalism of the time, Ugresic found herself professionally ostracised and attacked in the press as “a witch”. Eventually, she had to leave Croatia, and she now lives in Amsterdam.
This collection of essays charts her progress as a writer abroad and offers profound meditations on what it means to belong, as both a person and a writer, to a country or continent. The title essay, Karaoke Culture, looks at the shallowness of much European culture and at the way many people are “more interested in flight from themselves than discovering their authentic self”.
The reader soon begins to realise that “European” is often shorthand for “western European”. Ugresic reminds the reader that there is also central and eastern Europe, a Europe populated by people who are not at the periphery but at the centre of vibrant and long-standing cultures. Some writers named here will be familiar to readers of this newspaper; many, many others will not.
Ugresic explores how the shape of contemporary Europe has led to bizarre and brutal exploitation – the Romanians bullied by the Ukrainians while working for the Czechs – and, throughout, she struggles with her own melancholia and ponders what it means to belong and what role literature has in a world of pop and internet opinion.
The essays are humorous, poignant, angry, insightful and always well written. Read them, then go and read her other collections, The Culture of Lies, Nobody’s Home and Thank You for Not Reading – and see if you ever look at the world in the same way again. PÓL Ó MUIRÍ