A Year in Reading: Elliott Holt

I 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.

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A Year in Reading: Elliott Holt

Discovering — and falling in love with — a new writer is like going to a high school reunion and locking eyes with a handsome stranger across the room as you wonder, was he there all along? Edward St. Aubyn published the first of his Patrick Melrose Novels, Never Mind, in 1992 (I was in my last year of high school then), but I didn’t read him until the winter of this year, when I bought the newly released paperback from Picador in which the first four Patrick Melrose novels are collected in one volume. (The fifth and final book, At Last, was published by FSG this year.) The autobiographical quartet follows Patrick Melrose from his abusive childhood in Never Mind, through his heroin addiction in Bad News and recovery in Some Hope, and in the gorgeous fourth novel, Mother’s Milk, into marriage and fatherhood. Patrick Melrose is the progeny of an aristocratic English family and the novels present a savage portrait of privilege. As James Wood put it in The New Yorker, “Perhaps because he is much more of an aristocratic insider than Wilde or Waugh (the first St. Aubyn baronetcy was created in 1671), he retains no arriviste enamoredness of the upper classes he is supposedly satirizing. On the contrary, his fiction reads like a shriek of filial hatred.”

Aubyn’s prose immediately took my breath away. It’s hilarious and insightful, with a sinister tint and pitch-perfect dialogue. How could I resist razor-sharp passages like this one, from Never Mind, which describes Patrick’s abusive father, David, as he entertains an old friend at the family’s chateau in France:

           
David held the burning tip of his cigar close to the ants and ran it along both directions as far as he could conveniently reach. The ants twisted, excruciated by the heat, and dropped down onto the terrace. Some, before they fell, reared up, their stitching legs trying helplessly to repair their ruined bodies.

‘What a civilized life you have here,’ Bridget sang out as she sank back into a dark-blue deck chair. Nicholas rolled his eyeballs and wondered why the hell he had told her to make light conversation. To cover the silence, he remarked to David that he had been to Jonathan Croydon’s memorial service the day before.

‘Do you find that you go to more memorial services, or more weddings these days?’ David asked.

‘I still get more wedding invitations, but I find I enjoy the memorials more.’

‘Because you don’t have to bring a present?’

‘Well, that helps a great deal, but mainly because one gets a better crowd when someone really distinguished dies.’

‘Unless all his friends have died before him.’

‘That, of course, is intolerable,’ said Nicholas categorically.

Death hovers over all the novels — Melrose spends much of his life like those ants, trying helplessly to repair his ruined body. St. Aubyn finds the violence in every moment of life. Here’s his stunning description of Patrick’s birth in the opening paragraph of Mother’s Milk:

Why had they pretended to kill him when he was born? Keeping him awake for days, banging his head again and again against a closed cervix; twisting the cord around his throat and throttling him; chomping through his mother’s abdomen with cold shears; clamping his head and wrenching his neck from side to side; dragging him out of his home and hitting him; shining lights in his eyes and doing experiments; taking him away from his mother while she lay on the table, half-dead.

Witness the dark lyricism in “banging his head again and again against a closed cervix.” The repetition of sound as “against” follows “again and again” perfectly captures the futility of the action. In Melrose’s life, unhealthy patterns are repeated again and again, without escape. And “against a closed cervix” offers the tantalizing repetition of “S” sound — so seductive, even though it won’t open to him.

St. Aubyn’s sentences were the best I read this year. And his novels’ psychological tension and profound insight into human nature — he does interiority so well — makes the experience of reading them exquisitely painful. I read the first four novels straight through and then, two months later, read them again. I still haven’t read At Last because I’ve been saving it for the holidays. But I know that I will reread the first four Patrick Melrose novels again and again. I’m addicted to St. Aubyn.

More from A Year in Reading 2012

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

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.