Karl Ove Knausgaard
Like many readers of My Struggle, I came to the series with plenty of doubts that only fueled my curiosity. How could a book that sounded so self-absorbed and boring be described as compulsively readable? I too was taken over by it, and read the first three volumes in the span of a month, astounded by its power. There is the fact that he writes scenes as though they are part of the plot, even when there is no plot, tricking us with suspense even for situations where the stakes are extremely low. Then there is the strong emotional current that Knausgaard transmits from his narration. It feels direct and very much of the present, even when he is describing the past or indulging in childhood nostalgia. One of the most satisfying elements of his writing is the rendering of what it is like to be alive, to be a person in the world, whether alone or among people, to walk around as thoughts develop, or to hatch plans with others and participate in activities as a separate being and as part of a whole. His new series, a four-volume autobiography based on the autumn and winter seasons, offers a glimpse at how these effects are accomplished.
The books (Autumn, released in August, and Winter in January) are comprised of short essays about objects (“Cars,” “Telephones,” “Q-tips”), details of human activity and biology (“Sex,” “Piss,” “Ears”), and the natural world (“Apples,” “The Moon,” “Winter Sounds”) that are loosely tied to the themes of each volume’s time of year. They are translated with clear lyricism by Ingvild Burkey, with a tone that is generally softer than Don Bartlett’s translation of My Struggle, partly because they are mostly free of anger and turbulence. The voice is still familiar, though I found myself reading at a slower pace, inhabiting the space created by the sparse style and the beautiful color illustrations. What gives the books purpose and form is the series of letters to an unborn/newborn daughter that introduce each month of entries. At the opening of Autumn, he reflects on how easy it is to grow accustomed to the common miracles all around us and to lose our sensitivity to everyday astonishments. “I want to show you the world as it is, all around us, all the time,” he writes to his daughter. “Only by doing so will I myself be able to glimpse it.”
In many of the short entries, we witness the writer making a deliberate effort to notice the outside world as he goes through the motions of habit, in order to sensitize himself to emotions and give time to thoughts. In “The Migration of Birds,” he witnesses geese flying over the backyard in a V-formation on his way to take out the trash. He looks at the wet garden, a mess of colors and moisture. “If I walk out onto the lawn, I know that my heels will sink into the grass and down into the ground.” Instead, he returns to the kitchen to cook macaroni, but the geese are still inside him, “living a life of their own.” Writing this, he remembers the limitless impression of the world he had as a child, and his gradual understanding of the way that birds symbolized a physical connection to distant places. This process of sensitizing is what makes his material compelling when it should be boring, and by laying it bare in these volumes, he shows that it is as much a gift to himself as to the reader.
Before Knausgaard directly mentions his own father in Autumn and Winter, his presence will haunt the pages for anyone who has read even the first volume of My Struggle. There, the father was portrayed as a monster who withdrew from the world, a man who had no friends or interests, who drowned himself in alcohol, and whose bitterness led to harrowing verbal abuse. With that in mind, the writer’s efforts to anticipate the miracle of a new child, and to take the opportunity to rediscover his connection to the outside world, can be read as an act of will not to repeat the sins of the father. Here, as in My Struggle, Knausgaard seems to have found at least a provisional comfort and strength in his own path. His father died when he was still a young man, but if he hadn’t, it would still be hard to picture Knausgaard as anything like Tommy Wilhelm of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, a man in his forties who continues to make bad decisions and withdraw from life to prove to his distant father that he needs help.
Still, never in Autumn nor Winter does Knausgaard address the question of whether having children has taken any time away from his work, nor whether his work (done in isolation, in a separate house on the property where he can safely look across the lawn at his family-filled home from a quiet distance) has impacted his ability to be a parent. In a way, this is beside the point, because he clearly states at the opening of Autumn that “of course it is primarily for my own sake that I am doing this: showing you the world, little one, makes my life worth living.” And yet, his solitude brings up a contrast to Rivka Galchen’s recent book Little Labors, a collection of essays that grapples with the new reality that having a child brings to a writer. Often, the baby girl is present with the writer as she moves through the city and her thoughts, for example, when she strings together an essay based on a movie poster she saw while stopping for a dollar slice with the baby on 38th Street. One passage begins very much like Knausgaard’s letter, but ends with a major departure:
“[The baby] made me more like a very young human in one particular way, which was that all the banal (or not) objects and experiences around me were reenchanted. The world seemed ludicrously, suspiciously, adverbially sodden with meaning. Which is to say that [she] made me again feel more like a writer (or at least a certain kind of writer) precisely as she was making me into someone who was, enduringly, not writing.”
Two-thirds through Winter, the new daughter is born. There is joy and magic, though for Knausgaard the writing does not appear to stop. In “Winter Boots,” he remembers that only as a child did he ever fully realize a dream, and in “Feeling of Life,” he is occupied with the problem of the “inner self circl[ing] around itself,” which “doesn’t allow enough room for the external world,” thus causing a “distortion of the original state of human existence.” He is romanticizing childhood, and the book may read like notes from a midlife crisis if they weren’t so deeply and clearly connected to an interest in the construction of narrative and the way we experience art. In “Christmas Presents,” he shares his faith in the power of words on a page. When he opens Tolstoy, “a little ink on a page wakens a tempest of emotions and causes everything else to vanish.” He manages to connect this experience to the effect that toys have on children and stresses the importance of giving gifts because of the memories they will create.
Much of Winter is darker and starker than Autumn, which is in keeping with the season’s themes. There are many descriptions of silence, ice and snow, and allusions to death, though in “Christmas Presents” and elsewhere, Knausgaard perforates the darkness with warm stories of playful parenting, such as when he trades Santa Claus duties with a neighbor for their respective households between sips of whiskey, or in “Chairs,” which observes how chairs are “at once open and reserved” in space, concluding that they express how we “live in a world of shadows,” where meaning and significance are fabricated. He is reminded of the Bergman film Fanny and Alexander, in which the father told the children that a chair in their nursery once belonged to a Chinese empress, and seems to take inspiration from this portrait of a father who was “one of those rare people who opened the world instead of closing it.” Taken on faith, it is a beautiful expression of the vision he has for himself to transcend the memory of his own father. Like the father in the film, he will open the world—primarily for himself, so that he can achieve as an artist, but also for his children. In theory, he has found a balance that was missing in a writer such as Bellow’s own life, as was seen with the conflicted book Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir, by his son Greg. In his review of that book for the New Yorker, James Wood observed that “The novel may be the family’s ideal almanac, but only a handful of the great novelists of either gender had a successful family life.”
Without knowing Knausgaard personally, it is impossible to know if he truly has both, though it is clear that he is able to offer this vision of successful because he has found release from his father’s torment and horror, yet continues to mine the painful memories, holding them close enough away. At the center of Winter is a meditation on “King Winter” and “King Alcohol,” “two majesties of destruction, two emptiers of the world, two inflictors of immobility.” He thinks of Dante’s winter-esque depiction of hell’s innermost circle, and the frozen damned yelling like drunks, who, while drunk, are also frozen in time. Finally, this brings him to the book’s most devastating conclusion: “That is how I remember my father in his final years, trapped in something he couldn’t get out of. His winter was endless, it snowed and cold winds blew everywhere . . . there was winter in his soul, winter in his mind, winter in his heart.”