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Karl Ove Knausgaard: Tedious chronicler of his own life (credit: Thomas Wagstrom)

It's a little pointless reviewing Karl Ove Knausgaard as he already has a prominent position on the international publishing stage. The paperback edition of the first volume of his "My Struggle" series comes with eight pages of radiant accolades from the Scandinavian, Spanish, German and Italian press, and the cover is garlanded with climactic endorsements from the Anglo-Saxon literati. You can't argue with that. You can quibble, but you can't argue.

It's funny how the Scandinavians have recently moved from relative obscurity in the Republic of Letters (or being figures of fun) to being the saviours of bookshops.

Thirty years ago publishers were hacking their way through the jungles of Colombia and Paraguay to unearth more writers for El Boom. There were all those wacky dictatorships, death squads, ghastly jails, brothels, lunatic guerrillas, choking poverty and Yankee imperialism. You couldn't pay a publisher to take on something from Scandinavia (unless you had a new Moomintroll book). What would the Scandinavians write about? Going to the shops? A trip to the library?

That's pretty much the trick Knausgaard has pulled off. Five years ago when I was a judge for the Independent Fiction Prize I had to read several Norwegian novels, very long Norwegian novels (Beatles by Lars Christensen for example). I swore I'd never read another Norwegian novel again.

It wasn't that they were especially dreadful or badly written. It was the lack of regard for the reader, it was the total uninterest in being entertaining. There would be a powerful page or two, a memorable or moving incident, but then there would be ten or 20 or 30 pages of inconsequential filler before you got to the next bit you'd actually want to read. Had they killed all the editors in Norway?

Knausgaard is part of this tradition. The pedestrian doesn't scare him. He has a daredevil disregard for dullness.

The giveaway signs are there in the text. First the mention of Proust. Then more ominously the name of Thomas Browne. Thomas Browne, the unacknowledged begetter of the stream of consciousness. Just stick it on the page and see what happens. And finally Thomas Bernard, never a good sign.

Many critics have invoked the name of Proust since Knausgaard is an investigator of memory and since he writes at such inordinate length. As Proust does have a few cheery, optimistic moments in his work, I'd actually suggest Beckett as the inspiration for "My Struggle", but a Samuel Beckett on a truth serum, a Samuel Beckett who just can't shut up: "I didn't care any more, anyway. But there had been days when I cared, days when I had been on the outside and had suffered. Now I was only on the outside."

So what happens in the first volume of "My Struggle"? Not much and there's very little in the way of twists as the title A Death in the Family (Harvill Secker, £8.99) gives away the major action (whoever came up with this isn't a whizz at titles). There are some reminiscences about his childhood and teenage years. He moves to Stockholm and gets his new partner pregnant. His father dies. That's your lot.

I never like to judge a book in translation, because you never know what you might be missing. Yet there's no doubt that Knausgaard is a talented writer otherwise he wouldn't be able to sustain so thin a narrative over 400 pages.

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Eric Dickens
July 9th, 2014
8:07 AM
I am still grateful that Tibor Fischer mentioned the name of the translator (me) when he reviewed Jaan Kross' novel "Treading Air" back in 2003. However, I think he has got it wrong on a number of points regarding Scandinavian literature when reviewing the English translation of a Knausgård tome. 1) Scandinavian literature does not exist. It is a construct, partly created by the adepts of Nordic Noir and their marketing people, giving the mistaken impression that there is a great deal of togetherness and cross-fertilisation between the countries of Scandinavia (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Faroes, Iceland). The Scandinavian countries go their own ways regarding serious literature, all however jumping on the lucrative bandwagon when it comes to crime novels. But the efforts are not coordinated. 2) Knausgård is one of the relatively few authors from these various and disparate Scandinavian countries to be translated into English. This phenomenon means that British and American readers tend to think that these are the only books of value being translated into English. The market has been saturated with crime novels and, now, the interminably long books by cult figure, expat Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgård (or Knausgaard as the diacritically bereft English keyboards would have it). 3) Those that cannot read any Scandinavian language cannot possibly get an overall picture of what is being published in the Scandinavian countries in their respective languages. I would imagine that all that 99.9% of British reviewers and critics can do is examine the poor selection of such literature available in English. Even if they can read French or German, they are still severely limited. 4) The cliché of the boring, cerebral, suicidal, "Scandinavian" writer living in semi-arctic circumstances has become wearying. How do you know, if all you read is what British publishers have deigned to promote, on the advice of others at book fairs? 5) The Nordic Noir genre (pace: Barry Forshaw) is on the wane. The MacLehose Press (Quercus imprint) has got into a bit of a financial crisis by overpromoting the works of the late Stieg Larsson and the semi-ghostwritten sequel to the profitable ones. The moralising and much-filmed Henning Mankell is now dying of cancer; there won't be much more from him. 6) As tuition in the languages of Scandinavia has dwindled alarmingly in Britain over the past 40 years or so, there will not be that many British translators around to do books from those countries, and those who still exist will be under pressure from the book industry to do things that the publishers, rather than the translators themselves, have chosen as worthy of translation.

June 2nd, 2014
5:06 PM
It seems to be the trend today. Scandinavian countries produce more bullshit now than ever before. Norway heads the list.

Craig Campbell
May 29th, 2014
6:05 PM
Another victim of this sorry, instant whim gratification age. I've seen a few reviews like this, and they are indicative of a time when many people apparently "just want to read the good bits". How sad. This also explains the shallowness of today's music, of instant stardom on woeful TV shows, and our many other weaknesses. Laziness is at the root of it. Why are you reviewing books, if that is what this is, when you clearly don't know what reading is really all about? You will find tons of short, sharp, to-the-point mindless garbage elsewhere. Perhaps a subscription for the Daily Mail?

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