The Great Below

living the feeling life

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Writing memoir – “A Death in the Family”

Knausgaard, Karl Ove


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I’ve just finished reading A Death in the Family, volume one of Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard’s remarkable seven-part novel/memoir My Struggle. The book covers in intense detail several periods of Knausgaard’s life: as a disaffected teenager living in a small Norwegian town; in his thirties dealing with the fallout of his father’s death ; in the ‘present’ as a married father of three living in Sweden. The narrative expands and collapses time, moving back and forth between then and now, or then and then, to reveal and explore the author’s troubled relationship with his father.

There is almost microscopic scrutiny of certain episodes – he devotes seventy pages, with many digressions, to his attempt as a teenager to buy alcohol on New Year’s Eve – while others, such as his father’s last few years of life and descent into alcoholic ruin, are dispatched in a few paragraphs. (Perhaps I’ll learn more from the subsequent volumes.)

I was confused at first by the label ‘novel’ for what is clearly an autobiographical story, told with searing honesty from the point ot view of the writer. (I gather Knausgaard has fallen out with half his family, which is not surprising given the revelatory nature of the writing.) But I get it – the conversations, descriptions, the moment-by-moment narrative that seems to put you right inside the author’s head as it is happening – these are creations rather than memories, but creations of such detail and intensity that they take us right to the emotional truth of the situation and seem completely real. It has been described as “densely ordinary” by one critic, who added “Even when I was bored I was interested”. Slow as it might sound, it is an extremely compelling read.

Though it reminds me most of Virginia Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness in Mrs Dalloway, Knausgaard says he was influenced by Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu. ( Personally I have never managed to get further than a few pages into this book whose title I once saw translated as “When will I ever find the time to read this?”) Two other memoirs which have left me with the same feeling of having touched an ‘inner truth’ are Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius about his parents’ deaths from cancer, and Martin Amis’ Experience  – the only book by him I have ever wanted to read – which tells, amongst other things, of his cousin’s abduction and murder by Fred and Rosemary West.

A Death in the Family reminded me that I have strong visual memories of certain periods of my life, but whether I could find the words to describe them, or even be bothered, is another question. In writing, and particularly in editing, The Great Below I worked hard to find the emotional truth of a situation without necessarily narrating every last detail of the story. In fact it felt necessary to condense certain anecdotes in order not to lose the overall flow of the main story. I even shifted a particular experience from one country to another, in order not to turn the book into a travelogue. I made a conscious decision not to name the people I wrote about, feeling that they did not ‘belong’ to me as material for the book even though they had played a part in the events.

But if only one person who reads the book feels the kind of gratitude I felt to these other authors, for simply telling me their story, I will be more than happy.

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The Launch

I’ve been to many book launches, but this is the first time I’ve ever had one of my own! On Tuesday evening, we held a party for The Great Below in a funky and charming little Soho bookshop/bar – The Society Club.


The evening passed in a bit of of a whirl for me – being something of an introvert I’m better one-to-one and get anxious about not having time to talk to everyone properly. I’m also shy of  the limelight – as a child I used to hide under the table when everyone sang “Happy Birthday” – so to stand up in front of people and blow my own trumpet feels quite daunting. I meant to make an Oscars-style speech, thanking my agent Jennifer Hewson, my publicist Nicolette Praça, and my editor at Garnet Publishing, Mitchell Albert for all their support and belief in me. But somehow I found myself just rambling on about the process of writing the book and what I hoped it would achieve out in the world.

It didn’t feel right to read from my rather sad book at this happy occasion, but there was a piano in the bar and I’d decided to sing two of my songs, settings of poems by my husband Michael Donaghy. Songs don’t really have a life until they are performed, and when else would I have the chance to sing in front of an audience of supportive friends? I made a decent job of playing them, and then recited a poem of Michael’s “The Present”, which I had spoken to him while he was dying, and a line of which is on his gravestone: “Make me this present then, your hand in mine, and we’ll live out our lives in it.”

The irony is that Michael’s death has opened the door for me to become a writer. Well, I have always written things here and there, and when I met him I was writing half-decent poetry. I suppose there’s no reason why you can’t be a writer and be married to another writer; it’s just that he was so damn good, there didn’t seem much reason for me to do it as well.  I have spent a long time as the gardener, and perhaps now it’s time for me to be the rose.

Michael’s spirit was very strong that evening – some of his very dear friends, the people who probably think about him almost as often as I do, were there, and our wonderful son, now all grown-up and confidently chatting to everyone. It seemed fitting to have Michael’s words rather than mine on that occasion – after all, he won’t write any more. Whereas I may be just beginning…