by Karl Ove Knausgaard
reviewed by CBR Editor Jeremy Simmons
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Winter is not without its discontent. The author adopts a decidedly somber tone in comparison to the prior novel, Autumn. While threaded with the sense of mortality that knits together all of Knausgaard’s writing, it tends to express more admiration for beauty in the mundane; the tiny shack where he retreats to write, birds migrating…his unborn daughter. He writes in a series of essays, or ‘letters’ as he calls them, of 2-3 pages and like the first book (reviewed on the Cincinnati Book Review HERE) these are simple soliloquies: Pipes, The Cold, Windows. Glancing over the table of contents its easy to see that these themes are not chosen at random but are all things defined by winter: a world hidden under snow where the landscape is frozen yet its harsh realities are exposed. He sees and records the sublime but in the brutality of the deep winter he’s also reminded of his father, which if you’ve read any Knausgaard, is an emotional death-knell.
…life is a dress rehearsal for philosophy, which arrives in the narrative.
Winter itself, as the title and over-arching theme of the book, stands in as a metaphor for death. He’s an older man with children and sees more clearly than the younger Karl Ove that decay, defeat and death will eventually come not only to us, but even the landscape upon which our brief lives play out. All things break down, eventually. Even forests and mountains, and memories.
For this author, who’s built a career writing about himself with an unflinching, almost opinion-free honesty, life is a dress rehearsal for philosophy, which arrives in the narrative. With each of his books that I’ve read, and I think this is the seventh, I wonder how he’s able to make such filter-free narration sound so human. Does he know something we don’t? Maybe we’re learning more than we think from the voice of this Norwegian. A secret of which even he’s not aware? Or it could be we’re all used to prose of almost any stripe being framed with an intent to manipulate. To convince us, sell us, change our minds or at the very least, shock us. Even in the greatest works of literature there is, at times, an aftertaste of ego. It’s always been assumed that this is what we want; that flaw and ego are so familiar and human. I’m sure Knausgaard is not without ego but it’s difficult to detect in his writing. He knows this, on some level, and plays to his strengths. His readers are nevertheless addicted.
I smiled as I read the letter entitled Nikolai Astrup, pg. 95. In describing a short trip to his mother’s house, smack dab in the middle of the landscapes put to canvas by the painter, Astrup, whose work he describes as “entirely devoid of psychology”, I couldn’t help but wonder if this is what Knausgaard strives for, and admires Astrup for his success in achieving it. He writes at a remove, even when offering analysis or emotion, so we may inhabit it. Like Alstrup, he strives to avoid psychology. Whether it was his intent or not his voice seems to have struck a chord with the modern reader in a way that was once described to me by author Chris Bachelder as a “phenomenon.”
Having absorbed the chill of Knausgaard’s Winter, I have been afforded yet another peek inside the life of a self-described ‘normal’ man. After so many pages (his opus My Struggle clocks in at well over 3000) my epiphany is that the entirety of his self hasn’t already been described. Not even close, I suspect. Spring is on its way, already announced on book lists and on Amazon, and I feel sure there’s more to reveal about one man who might be every person that ever lived. Writers know that people didn’t invent true literature until they started to talk about themselves, their fears and feelings, and quickly discovered that readers were far more fascinated by people than the gods. The Sumerian queen Enheduanna is probably history’s first recorded diarist, and forty-three hundred years later Karl Ove Knausgaard reminds us that we still crave stories about us, to pry into every corner of other people’s lives. Maybe it’s because we want to find ourselves in there, to feel less alone in this inexplicable existence.
Penguin Press, 272 pp Illustrated by Lars Lerin