For Freud the notion that he would do anything as crass as write an autobiography was unthinkable. A more mercenary nephew had touted the idea to him but he refused and wrote that “a psychologically complete and honest confession of life would require so much indiscretion about family, friends and enemies that it is simply out of the question.” Karl Ove Knausgaard would have repelled Sigmund with his six-volume literary epic based on his family and life titled Min Kamp, or My Struggle which has sold millions of copies in his native Norway and subsequently worldwide. I became aware of his work through a writer friend who had also published a memoir and found his work exceptional and unparalleled. I began it as a tome to induce sleep during the Winter of 2013 and was immediately hooked. The prose was flat and conversational and the Karl could write pages about such quotidien realities of nappy changing and cooking dinner or indeed going for a hair cut. He had become nauseous from fiction and as an antidote began his memoir powered by the language of the everyday, plotted from the poetry of the prosaic. I loved his long passages about adolescent crushes and his nerdish recollections of musical obsessions and above all the character of his father, remote, distant, feared and troubled whose presence haunted every page. No subject is deemed too secret to divulge, his parent’s messy divorce, his father’s dismal end, all are revealed in razor sharp prose by Ove Knausgaard. He wanted to write reality and for the reader this truthful selling of his soul is liberating and strangely comforting, as if his baring of his secrets to us frees us from the shame of some of our own. He has been compared to Proust and Mann but as a work, perhaps because of its modern setting I would find much more readable than “A la recherche du temps perdu”.
Knausgaard’s work has lent a respectability to memoir as a genre which for many decades was considered to be an embarrassing relative at the banquet of Literature. The kind who gets drunk and embarrasses the art with her tawdry revelations as she sits leaking the family secrets to anyone who’ll listen, unhinged and needy, clearing the dance floor with her jerky arrival.He has received the seal of approval from Eugenides and Zadie Smith wrote that she waited for his next volume with the all the longings and cravings of a crack addict. And I think she nails perfectly the need to find out more about this writer’s life, to maybe find some of our truths in the tomes. In the age of Oprah and reality TV literature has had to start dealing in truth. Some gems from the last few years include-
Country Girls by Edna O’Brien.
Giving up the Ghost: A memoir by Hilary Mantel.
Bad Blood by Lorna Sage.
Antonia Fraser: Must You Go?
Candia McWilliam: What to look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness.
Aftermath by Rachel Cusk.
Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov.
The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion.
A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway.
Am eagerly awaiting publication of Lilian Pizzichini’s new memoir “Music Night at the Apollo” later this month.
Go on, you know you want to delve in someone else’s memory banks and sift through their secrets. It might just be “unreal”!