by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Reviewed by CBR Editor
While reading the latest by Karl Ove Knausgaard a voice taunted me: what can I possibly write about this man’s work that hasn’t already been written? Knausgaard is a field plowed so many times by countless reviewers, et al, and by so many different viewpoints that I could be forgiven for assuming that the soil has been exhausted. What sly aside can I conjure, what pithy observation can I offer up about Norway’s literary prodigal son that has not already adorned the pages of the world’s great book reviews (probably more than once), and the countless live interviews clogging the bandwidth of YouTube? After a struggle with this reality it dawned on me that if he can continue to write new and engaging material after the thirty-six hundred-plus pages of his titanic My Struggle, then I can surely come up with a few hundred words about his newest effort, Autumn. The book offers no lack of moments worthy of mentioning in a review, but how can I do that in a creative and as-yet unspoken voice? I figured the hell with the voice, just write about the book.
If you can’t describe how it feels to recall the love of a family and how it was lost, maybe it’s easier to describe it with a Thermos.
Autumn is sub-titled “Letters to an Unborn Daughter”, and the first chapter is exactly that. We can assume that the rest of the book is intended as a father’s set of journal entries about life for her to read someday, even if they don’t seem directly attributed to her. It’s a short novel by this author’s standards, clocking in at a slim two hundred twenty-four pages. In keeping with his character (no small projects, ever) it is the first of four books which, you’ve probably already guessed by now, are themed on the four seasons. When I say ‘novel’ I of course mean that while you’ll find Knausgaard’s books invariably shelved in the fiction section, this is raw material from the real life of a person who, notwithstanding his unique writing gift, is a pretty normal guy. The six books of My Struggle comprise a sort of autobiography written as a chronicle that reads like fiction and must be, unless we assume he possesses an eidetic memory, somewhat woven together with logical assumptions to straddle the gaps between genuine memories. Autumn is even less like fiction. It reads like the mental narrative of a man staring out a window at the snow, or at his apple trees…or musing on the greater implications of what frames do for the pictures and paintings we surround ourselves with. He is unflinching in his choice of topics, and displays his trademark duet of fearlessness and self-doubt. Each observation –better word for it than ‘chapter’- is telling in the distance it has from his heart. Some are further away, more like thought experiments, like The Migration of Birds. That observation is a dreamy exercise in existentialism, of which Camus would have been proud. But others, such as Pain, are clearly the words of an author close enough to his subject to breathe in its ear. Flies…vomit…loneliness…forgiveness…labia…buttons…toilet bowls. These are all headings of observations, and each is less than 3 pages on average. Many writers would choose to write about mythical things, or shocking things, but rarely the mundane. What Knausgaard does, and has done since he spilled his entire life across the literary stage with My Struggle, Vol. I, is place the mundane alongside the transcendent. What’s more, he writes his observations with a seeming effortlessness, so that often the most thrilling thing about reading Karl Ove Knausgaard is how these observations sneak up on you in golden phrases of introspection. I think I’m just reading ruminations on what a Thermos might represent…when I find myself nodding my head to this shattering conclusion:
“Only later when we look at all the photos from that time, does it become obvious that the Thermos is at the centre of all of them, like a kind of family totem. It discretely embodies all that bound us together back then and which has now been broken.”
The secret is in the honesty of his meditations, less focused on the external world and more on the internal world of himself. If you’ve read any of his prior books you know how hard he works at his writing (he tells you) but like all great artists, he makes it look so easy. As I got further into Autumn even I felt pulled toward the trap once or twice of thinking “Hell, I could do this…I should do this!” Before you succumb to the temptation remember that what Knausgaard does is not easy, not even for him I would guess. If you’ve ever overheard someone at a museum look at a Kandinsky or a Mondrian and sneer “Pff, I could do that” then you know what I’m talking about.
I asserted that Knausgaard is basically a normal guy, but a normal guy with a staggering ability to see to the heart of the simplest, meanest details that are revealed to be the foundation of our lives. He understands this, and shows us in his careful, almost plodding fashion, that moments of sublime beauty or crushing heartbreak are not what life is about. He shows us that our lives are instead the sum of our experience with, and reflections on, toilet bowls, lightning, Van Gogh, flies, tin cans…Thermoses. Not in the objects themselves but in how they pin down the harder to describe emotional responses that smolder inside us. If you can’t describe how it feels to recall the love of a family and how it was lost, maybe it’s easier to describe it with a Thermos.
Some will argue there is nothing normal about Karl Ove Knausgaard, but I prefer to think that the final message I’ve lifted from Autumn is that he is no greater or lesser than any other man or woman, no more a failure or a success. He just has the extraordinary gift of seeing into himself without a filter.
Penguin Press 224 pp
Artwork by Vanessa Baird. Translated by Ingvild Burkey.