What I Read, March 2021

The daffodils came and went. Then the quince bushes and spiraea (some call it meadowsweets, apparently, which I like better). Next the plum, the dogwood, and the redbuds. Most spectacularly, the cherry. Some days were cold, most were warm, no bugs yet. Good sitting-outside weather. Our daughter went back to in-person school. I wrote some things, though not my book. And as always I was reading.

Alena Schröder, Junge Frau, am Fenster stehend, Abendlicht, blaues Kleid (2021)

The title is something like “Young Woman, Standing at the Window, Evening Light, Blue Dress.” It’s a description of a Vermeer meant to have been expropriated from a Jewish art dealer in 1930s Berlin but perhaps saved for his descendants although more likely lost in the turmoil of WWII. The protagonist of Schröder’s engaging debut novel—I read it in less than a week, which should tell you something, as I am not exactly a speed-reader in German; just couldn’t put it down—is Hannah, a wry if rudderless graduate student whose sole anchor is her weekly visit to Evelyn, her maternal grandmother and only living relative. At her swish retirement home, the proud and irascible old woman instructs (read: yells at) her granddaughter: how to water the orchids, how to arrange the blinds, how to do everything the right way. The two love each other, but they also can’t be close, too much is between them, especially Hannah’s mother, who died of cancer a few years earlier but whom Evelyn could never find it in her heart to love.

When Hannah finds a letter from an Israeli lawyer explaining that Evelyn might be eligible for reparations from an art restitution case—a letter Evelyn refuses to say a word about—Hannah uses this sudden interruption of an inexplicable family past (they aren’t Jewish—how can the Nazis have stolen from them?) as a pretext to further a disastrous affair with her dissertation advisor. The novel moves between the present-day and 1920s/30s Berlin, so that we are always one step ahead of Hannah, and in fact end up knowing more than she does, but the search, although in some respects futile, is hardly a failure: Hannah changes her life, mostly, but in ways that readers will cheer on, she is so likeable.

Schröder handles the Weimar/Nazi-era sections well, they never seem like a pastiche. Her female characters are especially good; they struggle with feelings of inadequacy when they cannot live up to the impossible demand that their personal and professional lives be equally perfect. Even minor characters are vivid—a woman named Rubi comes in and steals the show in the last quarter; I begged Schröder to write a novel just about her but nothing doing. More importantly, in its modest way (this is not a stuffy or self-important book), the novel says something interesting about German-Jewish relations. By emphasizing the non-biological familiar relations that link its main characters, Schröder argues that Jews and Germans (at least for assimilated German Jews, which is a big caveat) were so intertwined that the Nazis’ murderous efforts to distinguish them passed down intergenerational trauma that only hurt everyone (though of course not equally). In a wonderful subplot, Schröder satirizes the ghoulish fetishization of the Jewish past—Hannah is pressganged into attending a meeting of a group bent on maintaining Jewish life in Berlin (no one in the group is Jewish)—which is an easier way to respond to the past than mourning the interconnectedness that was lost.

Junge Frau is funny, smart, and suspenseful. I think English-language readers would eat it up and I hope it will be translated soon. Thanks, Magda, for giving me a copy.

Philippe Sands, The Ratline: The Exalted Life and Mysterious Death of a Nazi Fugitive (2020)

I had mixed feelings.

Miriam Katin, We Are on Our Own: A Memoir (2006)

Memoir in comic form about the author’s year in hiding with her mother in the Hungarian countryside in 1944 – 45 when she was a very young child. Thanks to the Horthy regime’s relatively lax attitude to Jews, Hungary had the largest intact Jewish population in Europe at this late stage of the war. Tired of their ally’s foot-dragging, the Nazis deposed Horthy and sent Eichmann to deport Jews en masse (100,000 were gassed at Birkenau that summer). When Katin’s mother, Esther, receives a deportation notice, she contacts a blackmarketeer from whom she buys a false identity. Thanks to the connivance of her devoted non-Jewish maid, who agrees to lie to the SS, Esther fakes her death and escapes to the countryside, first to the uncle of the man who sold her the papers. The man and his wife have no idea who she is, but they take her in; the elegant city woman quickly becomes a farm girl. She suffers the unwanted attentions of a German officer (rape disguised by chocolates and declarations of love), survives Allied bombing raids, and lives to be liberated by the Russians, an event greeted by the locals with fear. To be sure the drunken Ivans who take over the uncle’s farm are dangerous—when one of them dies while trying to slip into Esther’s bed she is again forced to go on the run—but others are helpful, including some kindly officers who direct her to a refugee center. An old family friend takes the woman and her small child into his own home, a villa he rattles around in, after the deportation of his parents, with only his old governess for company. The old woman, who lives in a prewar Paris of the mind, teaches little Miriam to plié while her former charge falls in love with Esther. Esther’s husband, who has been in the army this whole time (I am hazy on how a Jew, assuming he was one, could have served with the Hungarians) and through a combination of luck and effort has retraced his wife’s journey, miraculously arrives at the same refugee center. The reunification of the family is more successful than most—certainly more so than the one depicted in Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the text that inspired Katin, who spent her career as a graphic artist, to take up comic making in her 60s.

I’ve read many Holocaust memoirs, but I always learn something new. Across Europe, Jews were forbidden to own pets: I knew this, but somehow hadn’t realized they had to abandon the ones they already had. In a heartbreaking scene, Esther leaves Miriam with a trusted friend and slips off to bring their beloved Schnauzer, Rexy, to a central depot, where a German officer eyes him with greedy appreciation.

Publisher Drawn & Quarterly has produced We Are on Our Own with their usual care. At first glance, the cover looks stark and ill-designed. The boards are stiff cardboard, the pages thick and creamy. It looks, I realized, like a homemade scrapbook—a perfect fit for the contents. Scraps, a frequent trope in Holocaust literature, are an apt way to think about victim experience. Scraps are waste or refuse that, through care and work—like the alchemical work of literature—can be transmuted into meaning and value.

Although some of the events might be confusing to readers without background in the subject (Katin is chary with context), this memoir is worth your time.

Ida Jessen, A Change of Time (2015) Trans. Martin Aitken (2019)

Novel about a schoolteacher in a remote part of Denmark in the late 1920s whose husband, a doctor, has just died. The husband was not a bad man—devoted to medicine and insistent upon improving the living conditions of his patients, even the ones he didn’t like. But he was so austere, so contemptuous of the world, so spartan in his affection that being married to him was a trial the cost of which Lilly—almost always known by her married name, Fru Bagge—had not even realized. And yet she still grieves his death. With the passing of time, she allows herself to process these feelings—and to open herself to new ones.

To me, the title refers more to “the change that time is” than to “a specific change over months or years.” Nothing stays the same, not the fruit trees that slowly take root in the region’s sandy soil, not the children she once taught, not Lily’s sense of herself. This is a short, gentle, careful book, beautifully translated by Marin Aitken. It reminded me of J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country. Perfect if you like wistful, quiet books that are sort of sad and sort of happy and make you sigh at the end. A source at Archipelago Books tells me another book by Jessen is forthcoming. Happy (but moderate, restrained, melancholic) news.

Narine Abgaryan, Three Apples Fell from the Sky (2015) Trans. Lisa C. Hayden (2020)

Under the guidance of the indefatigable Reem, I read this novel as part of a group on Twitter. (A group read I actually completed, amazing!) Of particular joy was the participation of the book’s translator, Lisa Hayden, whose love for the text is obvious. Abgaryan is Armenian, though the book was written in Russian, which is interesting given the role Armenia has played in the Russian literary imaginary: several members of the group were able to instruct me on this. Three Apples is set in a fictional mountain village called Maran. As the novel begins, the main character, Anatolia, prepares for death: she lays out her best outfit so that those who find her will be able to dress her for the funeral, she makes sure her house is spotless, she feeds the chickens. At 58, Anatolia is the village’s youngest resident. Maran used to be home to 500 people. Now there are 23 households clinging to a mountainside that was devastated by an earthquake (almost as devastating as the earthquake of modernity that has taken away the young people). But what promises to be an elegy takes a sudden swerve. Anatolia doesn’t die; nor does Maran, at least not quite. I agree with Olga Zilberbourg’s argument, in this excellent review, that Maran is “Abgaryan’s attempt to if not bypass imperial history altogether, then to find a way out of imperialism’s cycle of violence and destruction.” In this sense it is a fantasy—but an enabling one.

Those of us in the reading group spent a fair bit of time wondering when the novel is set—there are some historical markers, but other events aren’t readily identifiable. The novel is both in time and outside it. As one reader thoughtfully put it, “there is history and there is tradition and though the two do not necessarily match, they are both true.” This double quality is also evident in the novel’s style, which has fantastical elements but is also rooted in realism. The opening chapter about Anatolia’s preparation is followed by dozens of marvelous descriptions of how to do the things that make life go on: cooking, cleaning, finding and preparing herbs, building fences and coops, shoeing horses, the list goes on. I loved this material, enjoyed the book a lot, and hope for more Abgaryan in English.

Myron Levoy, Alan and Naomi (1977)

1944. Queens. Alan Silverman, 12, is busy with stickball, model airplanes, and his new friend Shaun (Catholic and thus a source of unease to Alan’s mother). He has no time for or interest in helping that weird girl upstairs—Crazy Cat, Frenchie-the-nut, the kids call her—the one who moved in with the Liebmans. Naomi Kirshenbaum is a refugee: her father, a member of the resistance, was murdered in front of her; together wither her mother she escaped Paris for Switzerland and then America. Ever since she’s been traumatized, barely speaking, starting at every noise, prone to tearing maps into tiny shreds. Her psychologist—Levoy shrewdly keeps the doctor off stage, filtering their suggestions through the adults in Alan’s life—thinks it would be good for Naomi to spend time with someone her own age. Alan, threatened with failing to be a mensch if he refuses, grudgingly does so. Their slowly developing friendship is deftly handled; the neighbourhood near the abandoned Homes airfield lovingly evoked. A good (Jewish) boy, Alan berates himself for not being able to help Naomi better or faster, and he reacts with fascinating touchiness when adults coo over how lovely and kind he is. Things are best when he can simply acknowledge how much he likes spending time with her. But what will his friends think? Has Alan misunderstood them as much as he once did Naomi? Everything seems to be heading to a predictable if satisfying ending when Levoy offers a devastating final swerve that changes everything—and which I suspect would not be published today. After beginning by distinguishing the fates of American and European Jews, Levoy ends by equating them: no place is safe. Such an interesting book: obliquely about the Holocaust, directly about trauma, and quite a challenge to the feeling, ascendant in the 1970s, that American Jews were Americans first.

I can’t remember who recommended this book to me—pretty sure I didn’t stumble across it myself. If it was you, make yourself be heard so I can thank you! [Edit: Turns out this was Magda, too. I owe her even more this month than usual!]

Miriam Katin, Letting It Go (2013)

This follow-up of sorts to We Are on Our Own jumps to the present day. Katin’s son—he was a little kid in her earlier book—has grown up and moved to Berlin, fallen in love, and wants Katin to get him EU citizenship by virtue of her birth in Hungary. She is reluctant, and even more so to visit Germany. What she comes to realize, though, is that even though you have to hold on to the past, you can’t let it strangle you. It all feels a bit pat, a sort of whirlwind tour of German memory culture circa 2010.

Simon Wiesenthal, Max and Helen (1981) Trans. Catherine Hutter (1982)

The Ratline got me interested in Simon Wiesenthal; I’d heard of the “Nazi hunter” before, of course, but I knew hardly anything about him. I started with Max and Helen because Sands listed it in his annotated bibliography as a work he recommended for a better sense of the atmosphere in and around wartime Lviv/Lvow/Lemberg, especially the camps in which the Nazis interned the slave labour they used to build Durchgangsstrasse 4 (DG 4), a highway through the Ukraine. (The same milieu is memorably evoked in Rachel Seiffert’s excellent novel A Boy in Winter.) I certainly learned more about Galicia in 1941 – 43 (an especially terrible place to be Jewish). But I got something else too, something closer to “the remarkable true love story” promised on the terrific cover of the US first edition I checked out of the library.

In Max and Helen Wiesenthal hunts the commandant of one such camp, a man notorious for his brutality, who after the war has become a manager at a prospering West German firm. To make his charge stick, Wiesenthal needs witnesses, but almost no one survived the DG 4 camps. Eventually he is led to a man, the Max of the title, now a doctor in Paris. Max puts him off but eventually agrees to an interview—but only to explain why even though Wiesenthal’s information is correct, the industrialist and the Nazi are indeed the same man, Max cannot testify against him. In a long, almost hallucinatory encounter in Switzerland, Max tells Wiesenthal how he and his fiancée, Helen, were imprisoned together; how, thanks to certain privileges accrued from being the camp “doctor” (he had no supplies worthy of the name), he was able escape and join the partisans hiding out in the nearby marshes (alone, because despite his pleading Helen refused to leave her disabled sister behind); how he spent a decade in a Soviet gulag before being repatriated to Poland in 1958. Upon his return Max searched tirelessly for Helen; a chance encounter led him to discover she was living under a different name in West Germany. He made the trip, tracked down the address, rang the bell. The door opened—only to reveal… well, I won’t say, though it’s fairly dramatic. The revelation leads Wiesenthal to visit Helen himself, to learn her side of the story, and to see for himself why Max said he couldn’t testify. An epilogue brings the story of the tragic pair to the present (that is, the early 80s).

Max and Helen is short, but even if it had been twice as long I would have read it as raptly. The story fascinated and moved me. I resolved to read more Wiesenthal, and immediately checked his autobiography out of the library. Paging through the front matter my eye fell on a list of titles, divided into fiction and nonfiction. There, under fiction, stood Max and Helen! I was astonished—and then chagrined. Googling the Nazi’s name revealed a general in the Wehrmacht, who had never been in the SS; searching for the camp drew a similar blank. Some of the narrative longeurs, in which Wiesenthal presses Max on the importance of Wiesenthal’s self-imposed task of meting out justice to former perpetrators, now made more sense. Still, if the book is intended as an advertisement for his project, it’s a funny one. Because justice isn’t done. Unless we take Wiesenthal’s point to be that justice is more complicated than we might like to think. In which case his book proves that admirably.

I still don’t know the relation of fact to fiction in this tale—do you? I’ll be taking a look at Tom Segev’s fairly recent biography in hopes of learning more.

David Downing, Wedding Station (2021)

I’m a fan of Downing’s series about John Russell, an English-American journalist in 1930s – 40s Berlin who becomes a spy (for various agencies, it gets complicated) in order to protect his German son, and his girlfriend, Effi Koenen, a film actress on the outs after the Nazis take power. The Station books (each is named for a train station in Berlin or elsewhere in Europe) are less dazzling than Philip Kerr’s Bernie Guenther novels, which detail the same period, but they are also less cynical. (Less misogynist too; Effi becomes a major character.) Downing has written several books since ending the series, but I don’t think I’m the only one who missed Russell and Koenen. Seems Downing has too, because he’s done what seems de rigeur for crime novelists and written a prequel. It’s good! In fact, it’s better written than usual (Downing is not flashy) while still being just as well researched (always his strong point). Newcomers could start here; fans will enjoy learning the background of favourite characters. Wedding Station (the title refers to a working-class, pro-Communist neighbourhood) is set in the immediate weeks after the Nazis take power and ably conveys how quickly the new rulers chilled dissent and attacked their enemies, especially socialists and communists.

Vigdis Hjorth, Long Live the Post Horn! (2013) Trans. Charlotte Barslund (2020)

Sad to say, my favourite part of Long Live the Post Horn! was the passage from Kierkegaard from which it takes its title. (The post horn never sounds the same twice; no one who blows into it will ever be guilty of repetition; it is a symbol of authenticity.) The idea of a “good old-fashioned letter,” as the text somewhat ironically, somewhat earnestly calls it, is dear to my heart. Which meant I was drawn to the premise of this novel in which a PR consultant is lifted out of a general ennui when she throws herself into the fight by the Norwegian postal workers union to challenge an EU-directive deregulating delivery service. More novels about arcana, bureaucracy, and politics, please! Too bad the details of the battle, which surprisingly becomes a hot topic at the annual Labour Party congress, are passed over pretty hastily.

At first I found the main character’s flat affect irritating—I kept comparing it to the much more devastating portrayals of female despair in Jean Rhys—and almost put the book aside but I was glad I stuck around long enough to see her wary transformation. In the end, though, Hjorth is better at naming values than at making us feel them. Here’s Ellinor watching through a lit window as a man paces his office with his phone to his ear: “It was a comforting sight. If I had kept a diary, I would have written about it. About the working human being, the committed human being, about people trying to change things, people investing their energy, talking to one another and coming together.” Later this sentiment turns into a full-blown encomium for “a language that didn’t seek to spin or obfuscate, but to open and elevate, a language that had helped me to greater clarity, which had pulled me from the mire.” Ellinor herself never experiences that kind of language, and I’m unclear Hjorth knows it. But a lot of smart readers like this book; for a much more positive take, read Grant’s piece.

Jane Harper, The Survivors (2020)

Crime novel set on the southern coast of Tasmania. A local boy who survived a terrible storm ten years before (his brother did not) returns home with wife and newborn to help his mother pack up before his father is moved into a facility for dementia patients. Shortly after, a seasonal worker, an art student from the mainland, is found dead on the beach. The events of the past intertwine with the present; small-town rivalries, pent-up hostilities, and long-buried secrets come to light. The police investigate, but they are at the periphery of the book. In sum, The Survivors is structured very much like Harper’s previous book, The Lost Man. It’s not as good, but it’s definitely diverting.

Monica Hesse, They Went Left (2020)

I was skeptical about this book even though it featured on the NYT’s list of best YA books for 2020. A novel about an eighteen-year-old girl in the months after liberation? I feared Holocaust porn. (Not actual porn: I mean using the Holocaust for grisly, unwarranted thrills.) Although Zofia Lederman, the girl in question, sounds at times like a 21st century teenager, They Went Left is a gripping and intelligent read. I enjoyed the focus on life after liberation: yes, we get glimpses of Zofia’s Holocaust experiences and gradually learn a more complete story of what happened to her, but such moments are important not in themselves but to show how someone so victimized might go about putting a life back together.

Most of the novel is set in the DP camp at Föhrenwald, in Bavaria, where Zofia ends up in search of her younger brother, whom she hopes against hope has survived. The camp allows Hesse to depict different responses to the gift/curse/fate of having survived: ardent Zionists, determined to get to Palestine by any means possible; survivors who just want to return to their former homes; people eager to leave the past behind; people hoping they can resurrect that past.

In addition to being, as best I can tell, carefully researched and historically accurate, the novel also offers some dramatic (even melodramatic) plot twists, and weighs in on big questions: what does family mean, in the wake of genocide? can people who suffered different persecutions come together? Some scenes are especially vivid: a joyful wedding in the DP camp; the arrival of a pile of cast-off clothes that survivors desperately paw through; a night between two lovers whose bodies are marked by past suffering. Some striking moments are sensitively presented: when her lover asks if he needs to use protection, Zofia says he needn’t worry—she hasn’t menstruated in years.

In sum, a visceral and thoughtful novel. I’ll read more by Hesse, who has two other WWII-era YA novels.

Ariana Franklin, City of Shadows (2006)

Readers of this blog—hell, of this post—will know that I am a suck for all things Berlin. Which is probably why I crammed this book into my nightstand when my wife, who bought it on vacation in Canada years ago, was ready to get rid of it. For some reason—probably because I had agreed to read several other books, which is a surefire way to get me not read them—I decided that now was the time to give it a go. I was prepared to be dismissive—it’s about a lost Romanov—but I was won over by the book’s strong characterization and plot.

Esther is a Russian Jew who, like so many other refugees, washes up in 1920s Berlin, in her case after being mutilated in a pogrom in the Pale of Settlement. She becomes the secretary to a Russian nightclub impresario who has stumbled upon what he thinks will be his ticket to fame and fortune—he’s been given a tip that Anna Anderson, a nearly silent woman locked up in an asylum on the outskirts of Berlin, is in fact the Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov. Anna looks like Anastasia. She has the peremptoriness and carelessness of a Royal. But she seems to have forgotten Russian. And although she knows details of Romanov family life she might just have read about them somewhere. The nightclub owner is convinced, though—mostly, he’s convinced that Esther can coach/bully the woman into satisfying the distant Romanov relatives scattered across Europe that Anna is the real deal. But before that can happen a terrifying man tries to attack her. Anna insists it’s the Cheka, the Russian secret police, looking to finish what the Bolsheviks started but apparently failed to do in Yekaterinburg. But Esther thinks the threat concerns Anna’s non-Royal past. Together with a sympathetic police officer, she sets out to learn the truth. Split between 1923 (the worst year of Weimar-era hyperinflation) and 1933, the book covers a lot of ground. Franklin plays a little fast and loose with the history of the first months of the Nazi regime, but she acknowledges this and in general her history is sound. At one point her inspector thinks that “political violence was unleashing individual savagery,” and City of Shadows does a fine job thinking through the intersection of structural and psychological violence. No book for the ages, but totally worth tracking down. In fact, you can have mine if you like.

Sarah Krasnostein, The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster (2017)

I do not like dirt. Or clutter. (I will pause here so that readers who have been to my house can finish laughing. I used to protest that books are not clutter, but have since bowed to reality.) Anyway, dirt especially, I’m not phobic about it, exactly, but definitely a little grossed out by it. And yet fascinated, too. Same with squalor. That long section about cleaning up the alcoholic father’s house in volume I of My Struggle? Couldn’t get enough. “Time Passes”? My favourite part of To the Lighthouse. The business of cleaning up otherwise unlivable squats? That’s why The Good Terrorist is Lessing’s underrated masterpiece.

In other words, I’m an ideal reader for The Trauma Cleaner. The title refers to Sandra Pankhurst, who has been many things in her eventful life: an adopted and abused child, a young married father and husband, a drag queen, a sex worker (including at a mining town in central Australia that sounds terrifying), a wife and homemaker, a businesswoman, and, in her latest and perhaps most triumphant incarnation, the owner of a business that cleans up after violent deaths, acts of nature, meth lab explosions, and hoarding cases. Somehow I always assumed someone official, the police or emergency services or something, was responsible for these unpleasant situations, but not true, at least in Australia, and I’m guessing the US too.

It is Sarah Krasnostein’s genius to show how the accumulated weight of Pankhurst’s experiences—mostly traumatic: as an unloved child, for example, she was relegated to a shed in the back garden of her working-class Melbourne home, allowed inside to eat with the rest of the family only once a week—has made her so adept at managing the people and situations her business remediates. Sandra leads her team through work that most of us would balk at, despite being almost constantly out of breath (she suffers from COPD, probably brought on from the combination of past recreational drug use and zealous hormone therapy), all while maintaining perfect makeup, hair, and nails. Pankhurst is remarkably non-judgmental. She’s not interested how her clients, whether living or dead, ended up in their situations. She’s interested in results. (I’m fascinated by how this trans woman encapsulates the unruffled non-introspective competency enshrined in at least a cliched idea of Australian masculinity.) Krasnostein notes, poignantly, that Pankhurst’s acceptance stems from her insistence that everyone deserves to life their life. Everyone fits into “the order of things, even those who most of us would exclude from it.

Krasnostein’s intelligence is evident throughout The Trauma Cleaner. Sometimes she’s even epigrammatic; reflecting on abuse and neglect she writes: “In the taxonomy of pain there is only the pain inflicted by touching and the pain inflicted by not touching.” She’s up front about her love for Pankhurst, and how difficult that love can be. (The flip side of Pankhurst’s equanimity is her ability to erase unpleasant parts of her past, like the wife and children she abandoned in penury.) It’s not a perfect book: Krasnostein’s metaphors sometimes get away from her, and the sections about Pankhurst’s clients are better than the ones about her biography. (I liked seeing Pankhurst in action more than hearing about her.) But I think even people less fastidious/compulsive about clearing away clutter, dirt, mold, dust, blood, shit, and pus than I am will find this book deeply interesting. Decay comes to us all—and the only thing that mitigates it even temporarily is love. Sandra Pankhurst’s gift is to love those whom others would rather not.

Thanks to Tali Lavi for the recommendation (seconded by other Australian book friends). Looking forward to the US release of Krasnostein’s second book—it’s called The Believers and, as such, promises to be about something else I have a fascinated yet ambivalent relationship to. Bring it on!

That was March. Plenty of decent reading, especially the Schröder, Jessen, Abgaryan, Levoy, and Krasnostein. Onward into the fullness of Arkansas spring!

My Struggle: Volume 1 (A Death in the Family)–Karl Ove Knausgaard (2009, 2012 English translation by Don Bartlett)

Say what you will about air travel these days, but it has for me one great virtue: it’s great for reading. In fact, planes are some of the only places I ever see anyone reading anymore. I should say, though, that since moving to Arkansas I hardly ever spend any time in public space anymore. If I lived somewhere else, somewhere where I wasn’t in the car all the time, I might find that reading hasn’t quite shriveled away entirely.

Distractions are fewer in the quasi-public space of the plane. And by “distractions” I mean phone and email. That’s all changing, alas, but for now I relish the sustained reading time I sometimes get on a long plane ride.

That deeply immersive reading experience gives me some of the same satisfactions of a long run, that same mile-eating, page-turning lope. Of course, immersive reading can happen at other times and in other places. And our life situations have everything to do with whether it does. Children sure make it hard. (Everything I’ve said about reading on planes refers to flying without children.) But when immersive reading happens, it’s quite memorable. I remember a particularly snowy January in Halifax, my Sophomore year of college, reading Absalom, Absalom! and S/Z in long bouts on my futon on the floor. (Every time I looked up it seemed to be snowing some more.) I remember reading Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost late, late into the night in our tiny bedroom in our tiny dormer apartment in Haverford, PA. (I love to read when everyone else is asleep). And I suspect I’ll long remember reading the last two-thirds of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family on the plane back from a vacation in Iceland last month.

If I were Knausgaard, I’d tell you everything possible about that reading experience: the glimmer of seatback screens all around me, the increasingly drunk and loud elderly Icelanders in the rows just ahead of me, the delicious and laughably expensive Icelandic beer I’d just finished myself, as accompaniment to the delicious and even more laughably expensive mango curried chicken I’d purchased for dinner. I’d need to lull you into a pleasant stupor that is almost boredom, to send you into a readerly slipstream in which sentences and pages follow one another easily. Then I’d segue from this mass of material detail—often banal, often about consumption—into more abstract meditations, always based on autobiographical experience, meditations on grander concepts, the grandest in fact, the most provocative, the most important, the most open to bombast and bluster: sex, money, work, family, and death, death especially. Some of these conclusions would be a bit superficial, betraying what Knausgaard, at least the Knausgaard who narrates this text, would be the first to say is a haphazard reading of the European philosophical and literary tradition. But most of these meditations would in fact turn out to be shrewd and thought provoking, even beautiful. And you would keep turning the pages, you would completely under my spell, and you wouldn’t care about whether what I had to say was original or subtle or intellectually formidable. You would just want more.

We could compare my imagined Knausgaardian description of a place ride with the one that actually appears in his book. He gives plenty of detail, including a long paragraph, more than half a page, describing just the events of boarding the plane, walking down the jet bridge and finding his seat. But the narrator’s plane ride is different from most, different certainly from the one I took home from Iceland. It’s taken neither for pleasure nor for business. It’s taken because of death, the death in the family referred to in the book’s title, the death of the narrator’s father.

The narrator spends much of the flight weeping openly—to his shame but also, interestingly, to his delight. The lengthy descriptions of his emotional state and its discomfiting effect on his fellow passengers lead to a meditation on an unusual and fruitful topic: the things the people we know well don’t do, the activities they avoid, the predilections they express negatively. The narrator’s father never went to the barber; he cut his own hair. He never traveled by bus. He never shopped at local shops where he might have to talk to someone. He never attended any of the narrator’s soccer games—except once, and then, the narrator heartbreakingly relates, only to berate his son for missing a scoring chance, knowing neither the final score of the game nor that the narrator scored two goals, including the winner. The zig-zags of this section—from the description of minutiae to an abstraction born of them and back to the personal anecdote—are typical of the book.


A Death in the Family is the first volume of a six-volume autobiographical series—published to acclaim in Norway and throughout Europe, and now making its way into English translation—a series provocatively named Min Kamp. The echo of Hitler’s autobiographical screed Mein Kampf is surely deliberate, but I’m not sure to what end. Maybe that will become clearer in later volumes. Be that as it may, it is already clear that the title allows for considerable irony. Knausgaard ironizes the very of idea of comparing his comfortable bourgeois social-democratic life to Hitler and the project of National Socialism. He ironizes the very idea of being daring enough to do so, as if he were aging enfant terrible. He also ironizes Hitler, specifically his megalomania in making himself exemplary, of making (overstated) autobiographical struggles the basis for a (distorted) political world-view.

We might say that Knausgaard wants to take the idea of struggle back from Hitler. Yes, he seems to be saying, there is something embarrassing and false about calling a middle-class comfortable life a struggle, but there is something true about it too. And in reminding us that the struggle of life ends in death, Knausgaard offers us a politics based entirely in reality, and thus miles away from Hitler’s.

Here I am writing about Hitler—hardly what I’d intended. But in making this digression perhaps I’m more like Knausgaard than I’d dared hope. For the structure of his writing, at least in this volume—apparently he wrote two novels before the series; they seem, rather drearily, to be about angels and metaphysics—can seem wayward and formless. Not disorganized, but also not organized. This of course is an illusion, one that Knausgaard points to, both overtly, in his repeated fascination with what art means for contemporary artists, and obliquely, in the practicing of his craft, that is, in his struggle with form.

The result is a book that has plenty of shape despite seeming rather shapeless. I’m not entirely sure how that works, but my sense is that it has to do with the tropes I keep turning to in writing about him: immersion, hypnosis, submergence. This book casts a spell. It seems appropriate that these are all ambivalent terms, states we are drawn to but suspicious and even frightened of. I’m not sure I’d call Knausgaard a nice writer.

Just as the hypnotist needs some time to murmur soothing words to us before we go under (you are getting sleepy, very sleepy), so too does Knausgaard need time to cast his particular spell. And time, in reading, is connected to length. Page numbers translate into minutes, hours, weeks, even years of our lives. Immersion takes time, and takes time away. Something I hope to figure out as I read the rest of these volumes (the second and third are now in English with the rest to follow) is whether Knausgaard’s use of scale—of time-consuming length—is different from other writers’. After all, the premise of My Struggle is hardly original. A six volume, nearly 3000 page autobiographical novel that tells the story of how a sensitive boy became the writer of the text at hand: sound familiar? In case it doesn’t Knausgaard lards the opening volume with references to Proust. A long meditation on the persistence of things, even or especially things we’ve lost, could with only a few changes come straight from the Recherche:

The smell of short, freshly watered grass when you are sitting on a soccer field one summer afternoon after training, the long shadows of motionless trees, the screams and laughter of children swimming in the lake on the other side of the road, the sharp yet sweet taste of the energy drink XL-1. … You could still buy Slazenger tennis rackets, Tretorn balls, and Rossignol skis, Tyrolia bindings and Koflach boots. The houses where we lived were still standing, all of them. The sole difference, which is the difference between a child’s reality and an adult’s was that they were no longer laden with meaning. A pair of Le Coq soccer boots was just a pair of soccer boots. If I felt anything when I held a pair in my hands now it was only a hangover from my childhood, nothing else, nothing in itself. … The world was the same, yet it wasn’t, for its meaning had been displaced, approaching closer and closer to meaninglessness.

There is surely a socio-political dimension to this passage that regrettably I don’t know enough about to comment on usefully. (What I know about Norway comes from crime novels. Possibly not entirely reliable sources.) It does strike me, though, that the notion of permanence presented here must have something to do with Norway’s social and economic stability and prosperity. (Not everyone’s childhood memories will be so connected to sporting equipment; not every place has all its houses still standing).

But there is also a literary-historical component to the passage that I do know something about, specifically in its relation to Proust. Knausgaard is working over similar topics, especially about the relation of the past to the present. But the sentiments aren’t quite the same. Proust would agree that the adult world is no longer meaningful in the same way as the child’s. But he would emphasize the connections between the two worlds. Proust’s famous “involuntary memory”—the experience buried in things, waiting to be ambush us in chance moments of sudden recovery—isn’t Knausgaard’s interest here. Rather he is concerned, as in the passage’s final turn, with the idea of loss, disenchantment, even meaninglessness. Given later events in the book, specifically the death of the father and the meditations on mortality it provokes, I think meaninglessness here means something like the primordial inertia Freud imagines in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. But Knausgaard shares Proust’s emphasis on the experiencing subject. Proust makes clear that as long as the experiencing subject is present, the world remains meaningful. And Knausgaard implicitly agrees, since that’s what the book is—hundreds of pages of the narrator’s subject experiencing… well, the stuff of experience.

One last comparison to Proust: Knausgaard is less coy than Proust about the identity of his narrator. The shadowy Marcel (mostly he is known only as “I”) of the Recherche is replaced here with the undisguised Karl Ove. Although first person narrators—even ones that have the same name and biography as their authors—are never the same as their authors, Knausgaard makes no attempt to confuse the issue. (No dizzying Philip Roth games here.) The book could be a memoir, I suppose, but it’s clearly not, it’s clearly fictional, even though it doesn’t seem concerned to be so. I’m not sure why this is, and if anyone has any ideas I’d like to hear them.

Like Knausgaard, Karl Ove is born in the late 60s, and grows up in southwestern Norway in the 70s and 80s. His father is a teacher, his mother a nurse. Like the mother in Proust, she is the boy’s nurturing parent. The father is stern, rigid, a little frightening, abusive in an undramatic but effective way. Karl Ove is a little afraid of him but at the same time wants desperately to be recognized by him. His mother is often away for work. For a time Karl Ove lives almost by himself in his grandparents’ house. Eventually the parents divorce, the father remarries, seems transformed, open, warm, generous, but it’s all too much, his newfound conviviality is really only a function of drink. What is first confined to boozy weekends begins, in the way of all addictions, to motivate everything in the father’s life, and it’s not long before he’s a full-fledged alcoholic who, after leaving the second wife, moves into his mother’s house and steadily, sordidly drinks himself to death.

The father’s demise happens later in Karl Ove’s life, he’s already a teenager when his parents divorce. Before that, despite whatever is unusual in the family situation, Karl Ove has an ordinary middle-class Norwegian childhood: school, sports, books, girls. He has an older brother, Yngve, who won’t have much to do with Karl Ove at first and is then away at school later on, returning only to bring Karl Ove word of new music and movies, inspiring Karl Ove to take up music (there’s a funny and painful scene describing the band’s only gig, at the opening of a shopping mall, where what could only with great charity be called their DIY punk aesthetic is an ignominious failure). Later, though, Karl Ove and Yngve become much closer, especially when Karl Ove follows his older brother to university in Bergen.

The first half of the book is episodic, skipping over many things, but giving us certain scenes from Karl Ove’s childhood in detail, such as his dogged determination to buy some beer to take to a New Year’s party that he trudges miles through the snow to reach, mostly because there’s a girl there he likes, a girl who, predictably, barely knows who he is. So far, so conventional, and the least likeable parts of the book, for me, were these laddish ones, always teetering on the verge of the misogynistic.

But the book’s narrative structure makes things interesting. It doesn’t just give us the conventional Bildungsroman trajectory of sensitive soul trying to find his way in the world (will a girl love him, will he be able to create art of any kind that’s any good?). Instead it takes us always back to the scene of the writing of the book, the older Karl Ove’s daily life with wife and three small children, and the never-ending, thoroughly banal but all-encompassing and (at least to its participants) engrossing contortions of daily life in a family with working parents and small children. Knausgaard is great on the sticky overlap of love and resentment that makes up parenting. He also gives us a brief overview of the dramatic story behind this marriage—out of nowhere one day Karl Ove decides to leave his first, Norwegian wife, moves to Stockholm, and, before long, falls in love with the Swedish woman he is married to in the novel’s present. Unfortunately, neither of these women is presented in any depth. Surely there will be much more of them in the later volumes.

The first half is fine, occasionally much better than fine. The set piece with the New Year’s party is pretty great, for example, and Knausgaard is good on relentless northern winters and the miracle of their ending. But the second half is extraordinary. Karl Ove, only recently married to his first wife, has had his first novel accepted for publication. One day, when he is avoiding working on the revisions, his brother calls to say that their father has died. The brothers travel to their grandmother’s home to make arrangements for the funeral, which is where they discover the full extent of the father’s depravity in his final years. It turns out that he and his mother—their grandmother, a fleeting but appealing character in the first part of the book, a resonant and pitiable one in the second—have been living in a spiraling descent of mutual alcoholism. The last third or so of the book tells the detailed story of how the brothers, together with an uncle, prepare for the funeral—mostly by tackling the accumulated filth in the old house.

There’s so much to take in in this book, some of it a bit banal, even risible, but much of it remarkable. And actually, thinking about it now, what I find really remarkable is how the remarkable is the twin of the banal. It’s hard to quote just little bits of Knausgaard. Here’s an example from that last third or so. The narrator and his brother tackle the rooms of the grandmother’s house in turn, each grimmer than the last. Shit, vomit, piss, mold, dust, grime, decay, rust: the house is a ruin that two desperate people have drifted through for years, like sullen, separate castaways in a flimsy boat. The narrator’s task is to clean the stairway:

I filled the bucket with water, took a bottle of Klorin, a bottle of green soap and a bottle of Jif scouring cream and started on the banisters, which could not have been washed for a good five years. There were all sorts of filth between the stair-rods, disintegrated leaves, pebbles, dried-up insects, old spiderwebs. The banisters themselves were dark, in some places almost completely black, here and there, sticky. I sprayed Jif, wrung the cloth and scrubbed every centimeter thoroughly. Once a section was clean and had regained something of its old, dark golden color, I dunked another cloth in Klorin and kept scrubbing. The smell of Klorin and the sight of the blue bottle took me back to the 1970s, to be more precise, to the cupboard under the kitchen sink where the detergents were kept. Jif didn’t exist then. Ajax washing powder did though, in a cardboard container: red, white, and blue. It was a green soap. Klorin did too; the design of the blue plastic bottle with the fluted, childproof top had not changed since then. There was also a brand called OMO. And there was a packet of washing powder with a picture of a child holding the identical packet, and on that, of course, there was a picture of the same boy holding the same packet, and so on, and so on. Was it called Blenda? Whatever it was called, I often racked my brains over mise en abyme, which in principle of course was endless and also existed elsewhere, such as in the bathroom mirror by holding a mirror behind your head so that images of the mirrors were projected to and fro while going farther and farther back and becoming smaller and smaller as far as the eye could see. But what happened behind what the eye could see? Did the images carry on getting smaller and smaller?

Do you see what I mean about how a fascinating but also numbing accretion of banal details (every kind of cleaning supply, everything he does with them) becomes a more abstract meditation (here on the idea of recursion, an important idea in this book which, like Proust’s always reminds us of the process of its being made)?

It is true that I have an inordinate fondness for at least the idea of cleaning, of decay being overturned. (As a child, I thrilled to the section in Dr. Doolittle where the animals are taken to a lovingly scrubbed farm.) Maybe this sort of thing isn’t for everyone. Knausgaard tells us about every trip to the corner store for cigarettes and coke, every little detail that a more conventional narrative would skip unless it saw them as symbolic, or put them in service of some dramatic plot point. For whatever reason, though, I find this recitation riveting, maybe because Knausgaard convinces me that there is an important connection between prosaic materiality and abstract reflection.

One payoff of all this detail is that we really feel the labour of cleaning the house. (What is more boring and exhausting and time-consuming than cleaning, especially when we know things are just going to get dirty again?) Taking a break on the deck one morning, Karl Ove has a vision of the house’s rebirth, symbolized by a glamorous and joyful wake they will hold there after the funeral. He becomes obsessed with the idea, and we thrill to it, even as we also know it’s an impossible fantasy. After all, when this house is scrubbed and made inhabitable again, it is still shabby at best.

But I guess what I enjoyed most about this book was the feeling that Knausgaard ends up earning his poetic, resonant conclusions, his little arias of analysis, not least in the passage that concludes the first volume, when Karl Ove returns to the chapel where the body of his father awaits burial:

Now I saw his lifeless state. And that there was no longer any difference between what had once been my father and the table he was lying on, or the floor on which the table stood, or the wall socket beneath the window, or the cable running to the lamp beside him. For humans are merely one form among many, which the world produces over and over again, not only in everything that lives but also in everything that does not live, drawn in sand, stone, and water. And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor.

That last line, especially, reminds me of the “Time Passes” section in To the Lighthouse, where Virginia Woolf supplants the death of her human characters with the decay of inanimate objects. Not having the book at hand, I can’t check to see if she includes a leaky pipe, but I know she mentions ominous branches and clothes that slip off their hooks. I’m reminded, too, by the most aphoristic line here—the one that begins “For humans are merely one form among many…”—of W. G. Sebald’s invocation in The Emigrants of the dead and how they are ever returning to us.

These allusions—intended or not—suggest that My Struggle isn’t unlike anything you’ve read before. But it has a unique power nonetheless, in the way relentless description of minutiae (Knausgaard gives us not just the table but also the floor, the wall-socket, the cable, and the lamp, too) abuts abstract, high-flown (not yet sententious) commentary.


I can’t wait to see what Knausgaard does in the rest of the series. The next volume, I see, is about love. Where does love fit into the philosophy of evanescence expressed here? The book’s on my nightstand, ready for my next flight.