Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Elliott Holt

By posted at 6:00 am on December 6, 2013 0

covercovercoverI read a lot of great books this year, including George Saunders’s Tenth of December, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, Renata Adler’s Speedboat, and Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman. And I reread three of my favorite Alice Munro collections: The Beggar Maid, Open Secrets, and The Love of a Good Woman. (She’s my favorite living writer, so I was thrilled when she won the Nobel Prize). But it was Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical My Struggle (translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett) that most consoled me.

My father used to say that my mother had “no sense of mortality.” When my mother regaled us with stories of jumping onto moving trains in Kenya, say, or being shot at in Sudan, he just shook his head. “No sense of mortality.” The irony is that it was my mother, who’d spent her life oblivious of death, who died of cancer at the age of 60. My father, now 78, continues to ruminate about mortality. And I am clearly his child: I’ve always spent a lot of time thinking about death. My paternal grandfather died in our house when I was 10. My grandmother died there nine years later, and then, when I was 31, my mother died there. I actually felt the warmth go out of my mother’s body while she turned into a corpse.

I bring up this morbid history only because it may explain why Knausgaard’s My Struggle — a book defined by its sense of mortality — resonates so much with me.[1] Book 1 is narrated by the 39-year-old Knausgaard, and I am 39 now. (Generation X will recognize themselves here: Knausgaard may be Norwegian, but he grew up on the same pop culture as a lot of his contemporaries in the States.) As a writer facing her mortality, how could I resist a novel about a writer facing his mortality?

Reading Book 1 of My Struggle proved to be one of those serendipitous experiences: the right book at exactly the right time in my life. A few months ago, my father sold the house in which my sisters and I grew up. And this fall, we had to clear out the place, deciding what to keep, what to donate, what to sell. The process was daunting because the house was crammed with stuff, collected by my mother, father, and both sets of grandparents. We were burdened by history, and eager to get rid of things, but it was emotionally draining to watch our childhood get priced for an estate sale. I felt like we were saying good-bye to our mother all over again. And while my siblings and I were clearing out our father’s house, I was reading a book about adult siblings cleaning their father’s house.

In the first book, Karl Ove and his brother, Yngve, go home to Kristiansand to the house where their father recently drank himself to death. The house is in a terrible state when they arrive: it reeks of urine, there is excrement smeared on the sofa, and the floors are littered with empty bottles. While describing the downstairs bathroom, a place that scared him as a child because it seemed haunted, Knausgaard writes:

This particular evening, however, my unease with it rose again because my grandfather had collapsed here and because Dad had died upstairs in the living room yesterday, so the deadness of these non-beings combined with the deadness of the two of them, of my father and his father.

So how could I keep this feeling at arm’s length?

Oh, all I had to do was clean. Scour and scrub and rub and wipe. See how each tile became clean and shiny. Imagine that all that had been destroyed here would be restored.

The Knausgaard brothers get to work cleaning the whole house. They are not daunted by smeared excrement or rotting food. It’s easier to confront shit, with its stench of life, than the abstractly terrifying “deadness.” And as a writer, Knausgaard hopes to leave more than shit behind when he dies: he wants to write something great before his time runs out. And so the thorough cleaning — so vividly rendered, in every mundane detail — is not just an attempt to grapple with grief. Knausgaard is trying to restore not only his grandmother’s house, but his own legacy. As James Wood put it in The New Yorker, “By the time [the book] is over, we have cleaned that house with these brothers; the experience is extraordinarily vivid and visceral and moving.”

The efficient way that Knausgaard and his brother tackle the cleaning struck me as very Norwegian. My family has enough Norwegian friends for me to conclude that when you have a tough job, you need a Norwegian man to do it. In fact, a Norwegian friend helped us with all the heavy lifting as we packed up our family house. My sisters and I couldn’t have finished the monumental task without him. But Knausgaard’s sense of mortality — and his exhaustive cataloguing of it — is universal, and the book is compulsively readable. Knausgaard’s consciousness is so lucid on the page that his book feels fully inhabited and alive (no “deadness”). Yet we never forget that this is a text, aware of itself not just as a novel, but as a bid for its author’s literary immortality.

[1] I also recommend Zadie Smith’s recent essay, “Man vs. Corpse,” in The New York Review of Books.

More from A Year in Reading 2013

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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