I finished My Struggle: Book One by Karl Ove Knausgaard earlier this week. It’s a beautifully written book though oddly structured. It’s about the death of Karl Ove’s father. The first half of the book is done in snippets from Karl Ove’s childhood and teenage years. His father’s absence is really the main character. In this first half while alive, his father was aloof and distant, always spending time alone in his private annex. This absence colors Karl Ove’s life as much as anything. He becomes a man without his father. The second half stars the same character, this absence, but in an entirely different mode. No longer is the absence the father’s choice. Death is the new absence. The father is now gone for good and Karl Ove has to come to terms with it.
Despite the preoccupation with absence and death, My Struggle is not sad or morbid. It’s actually written in a very addictive way; I couldn’t put it down some nights. And even though I didn’t relate to the particulars of Karl Ove’s life: I don’t live in Norway, my dad is not a dead beat, I don’t have an older brother, etc.; the book is universal in its reach, exploring the way we develop identities through tension in our lives, which I think anyone can relate to. And in a certain sense this is how all great novels/books do their business. Great stories are born out of tension. Karl Ove’s tension is modern and ancient, specific and universal, personal and ubiquitous. His tension is the succession of life, the appearance and disappearance of human souls.
While reading My Struggle it’s hard not to think of memento mori, the Latin phrase: ‘remember that you will also die.’ This has been an important concept throughout the history of philosophy and art, and again, the purpose is not morbidity but actually the opposite: that if you ignore the fact of your death, death’s presence will actually loom larger in your life. You will waste time on meaningless things and death will catch you off guard. But if you are mindful of death you will actually live better. If you remember that your time is limited you will use your life in different ways than if you pretend that it isn’t. You will live more fully rather than deferring for some other time. The mindfulness of death leads to the proper contextualization of life.
The belief in an afterlife doesn’t change this. In fact, many religious thinkers have meditated and written extensively on memento mori. The afterlife is still after life and therefore a transition. Whether there is or isn’t an afterlife, either way we go from one state to another. No one can deny that. Death is either a final transition to some conscious state or it isn’t but regardless of which it is, it will happen. At the end you should be able to look back and say ‘I did all I could.’
© Daniel Douglas