Thursday, May 9, 2013

Fallen Fathers

Without planning to, I recently read two memoir-novels in translation (the first from French, the second from Norwegian) by middle-aged authors telling about the degradation and death of their fathers. Both fathers descended by slow painful stages from high-functioning middle-class authority-figures into dirty drunken beggars. Both descents were described in the first person by a character with the same name as the author. Both authors as adults suffered numerous public humiliations caused by their fathers. Both books were constructed by breaking up linear time-sequence into various-sized narrative fragments and rearranging them according to a subjective emotional scheme that implicitly claimed to be more authentic than literal chronology. One was written by a woman and one was written by a man. One succeeded as a work of art and the other abysmally failed.

Gwenaëlle Aubry won the Prix Femina in 2009 for Personne, now translated by Trista Selous as No One.  The alphabetical chapter-structure is an homage to Roland Barthes who pioneered this form in his famous and wonderful book of 1978, published in English as A Lover's Discourse

Karl Ove Knausgaard first came to my attention when his early novel  A Time For Everything – was translated into English by James Anderson in 2009. It knocked me flat, one of those magnificent weird novels that you want to force everyone you know to read, immediately. This made me hurry to read the second of his novels to be translated into English, this time by Don Bartlett in 2012 and called A Death in the Family (the first of six thick autobiographical volumes already published in Norway and collectively titled My Struggle).

I put the fallen-father novel I admired (humane, authentic) at the top. I put the fallen-father novel I hated (supercilious, drab) at the bottom.