I’ve always found that my favourite writers give the best book recommendations. It was David Foster Wallace who got me on to Don De Lillo. It was Flan O’Connor who recommended Faulkner. Dostoyevsky introduced me to Gogol, Houellebecq to Céline. Discovering the literary lineage of my favourite writers is a way to better understand how they got to where they are, and where it is that they’re are going.
I have been relatively obsessed over the last couple of years by the first three volumes of My Struggle, the epic “memoir” by Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård. It is a hyper-revelatory chronicle of Knausgård’s life, from childhood to fatherhood, from awkward teenager to nationally famous author. Mixed in with meditations on time and art and love it describes—often in excruciating detail—the mundane events of Karl Ove’s life; trips to the supermarket, changing nappies, quiet cigarettes on balconies.
The most obvious reference point for My Struggle is Proust’s masterwork In Search of Lost Time (Knausgård frequently points meta—fictionally to Proust as his prime inspiration within My Struggle). But right now I’ve only got time in my life for one 3000-page book, so I settled for one of Knausgård’s Norwegian contemporaries, Stig Sætterbakken, whose name I found while hoovering up any and all Knausgård—related online material.
Up until his suicide in 2012, Sætterbakken, was one of Norway’s most famous and controversial contemporary writers. He has published books of poems and essays as well as novels, though little of it has been translated into English. When Sætterbakken died, Knausgård described his compatriot ‘one of the most important writers of our generation’ praising him for his ‘boundless curiosity about the human condition [and] tremendous faith in literature and its power’. It was all the recommendation I needed.
Through The Night was the final novel written before Sætterbakken’s death and published in English in 2013 by the always excellent outfit Dalkey Archive Press (they are also responsible for printing and translating Sætterbakken’s previous novels Siamese and Self Control).
Through the Night is centred around a middle-aged dentist called Karl Meyer, whose son has just killed himself. Karl’s grief is described in taut, terse prose, delivered without a shred of sentimentality:
‘A thousand times a day I forgot that Ole-Jakob was dead. A thousand times a day I remembered it again. Both were unbearable. Forgetting him was the worst thing I could do. Remembering him was the worst thing I could do. Cold came and went. But never warmth. There was only cold and the absence of cold. Like standing with your back to the sea. Ice-cold ankles every time a wave came in. Then it receded. Then it came in.’
Like A Death in The Family, the first volume of Knausgård’s series—which deals with the death of Karl Ove’s father—Through The Night is a convincing and affecting portrait of one man’s pain. Both writers have an ability to imbue seemingly mundane moments—a father standing on the sidelines of his son’s soccer match; a stilted text message conversation—with an existential power. Through this accretion of remembrances, both books become a moving mediation on the ways that the living deal with the dead.
But what makes Through The Night a singularly strange novel is what happens in the second act. Wracked with guilt over his son’s death, the protagonist sets out on a journey of self-annihilation. He abandons his wife and daughter and travels through Germany and eventually to Slovenia, seeking out a mysterious house where ‘all hopes turn to dust.’
What started off as a claustrophobic domestic drama essentially transforms into a kind of metaphysical horror story. The chapter in which Karl Meyer enters the house is exquisitely rendered, and is genuinely frightening.
Expecting ghouls and dead bodies, Karl is confronted by an even more powerful terror, the terror of the self brushing up against oblivion. He writes: ‘The only thing they had found, and which made them lose their minds, the ones who’d been in the house before me, was themselves, their own spooky emptiness, I thought, overwhelmed, suddenly, by a despair so intense that I couldn’t manage to restrain a scream, drawn out and unfamiliar to me as the voice of another man.’
There’s a coda at the end of Through The Night, which contains a surprise twist about the reasons for Karl’s departure from his family. While I found it a little cheap, it barely detracts from the power of the rest of the book.
Since finishing Through The Night, I’ve ordered everything Sætterbakken’s written that’s been translated into English, though there doesn’t seem too much. Short of learning Norwegian (which might come in handy for the rest of My Struggle), the only thing I can do is to find out who Sætterbakken’s favourite writers were, and get to know them.
Dom Amerena is a freelance writer living in Melbourne. His work has appeared in publications like The Age, The Guardian, VICE, Overland and The Lifted Brow, among others.