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The Way It Is

Jon Smith

Autumn, by Karl Ove Knausgaard, transl Ingvild Burkey, Harvill Secker, 224 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1910701638

Karl Ove Knausgaard is a writer who cannot feel a restriction without wanting to kick against it. At writing school in his native Norway, he was urged to pare back his texts. His response was to add in more. After writing an unsparing account of his father’s death from alcoholism, he sent copies to family members for approval. When they objected, he decided to publish anyway. Told by his agent that he should not follow a friend’s joking suggestion and name the ensuing series of autobiographical novels after Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Knausgaard insisted on it. He became an international literary sensation on the back of the first five volumes, so he used the sixth and final one to throw away his plot ideas for future novels to ensure he would never use them, and ended by saying he would “really enjoy the thought that I am no longer a writer”.

It should come as little surprise, then, that this man of contradiction has continued to write. The idea that he would stop seemed fanciful: he has said he finds writing as much of an escape now as reading was when he was a boy growing up with a bullying, volatile father. The books known in Norwegian as Min Kamp began almost as a kind of therapy. The first volume – published as A Death in the Family in the English translation, with the Hitlerian series title My Struggle tactfully relegated to smaller type – is set largely amid the turmoil that followed his father’s death. It was written in something approaching a trance; his agent described it as a “manic confession”. Knausgaard continued to turn a merciless eye on his own life and his closest family: his tempestuous relationship with his (now ex-) wife, the Swedish author Linda Boström Knausgaard, is the focus in A Man in Love; his childhood in his father’s shadow in Boyhood Island; his wild teenage drinking days and comical desperation to get laid during a summer stint as a teacher in Dancing in the Dark; and his stumbling, rebellious period at writing school and slowly dawning maturity in Some Rain Must Fall. The sixth has yet to be published in English, with regular translator Don Bartlett’s as yet untitled version due out next year.

My Struggle, in its obsessively detailed, evocative recreation of the past, has led to Knausgaard being dubbed “the Norwegian Proust”, although he is embarrassed by the suggestion: “Comparing me to Marcel Proust is comparing sixth division to Premier League.” The contrast between the two was better expressed by the critic and author John Freeman: with In Search of Lost Time, Proust was building a cathedral; with My Struggle, Knausgaard was digging a quarry. In Autumn, having done the heavy lifting, he is ostensibly painting the nursery: this series of short reflections is addressed to his then unborn third daughter, Anne: “I want to show you the world as it is, all around us, all the time … 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.”

That Autumn was written for his own sake and not as a child’s bedtime reading becomes apparent within ten pages, when Knausgaard describes taping over the entrance to a wasps’ nest and hearing their angry buzzing fade to silence. The subjects he covers, dedicating two to four paperback pages to each, include such innocent ones as apples, frogs and rubber boots. Others are less likely to feature on Sesame Street: pain, war and labia; the last including a description of the author performing cunnilingus.

Autumn is the first of four books based on the seasons and is divided into three months – September, October and November. Its topics’ relation to the time of year, though, is not always obvious. Not for Knausgaard the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. Autumn leaves do feature but so too do tin cans, ambulances and toilet bowls. A cynic would regard both the title and the notion of a letter to his daughter as an ill-fitting frame imposed retrospectively on a writing exercise: pick one thing a day and write about it. A more generous interpretation would be that Knausgaard has chosen a limit for his thoughts, then characteristically broken it.

For all their digressions, each book of My Struggle had an underlying narrative: Knausgaard’s life story. In Autumn, however, he muses on whatever captures his interest. It is a logical step for a writer who, while praising Joyce’s Ulysses in a recent Esquire article, said: “I very much dislike plots. Writing is a matter of trying somehow to reach the real life, how it tastes and feels. And there’s no story in real life. More than anything, stories stand in the way.”

It was a similar impulse that led him to abandon repeated attempts to write a fictionalised version of his relationship with his father and just tell it as it happened; no pseudonyms, no superimposed plot. In A Man in Love, he writes:

Over recent years I had increasingly lost faith in literature. I read and thought this is something someone has made up. Perhaps it was because we were totally inundated with fiction and stories. It had got out of hand. Wherever you turned you saw fiction. All these millions of paperbacks, hardbacks, DVDs and TV series, they were all about made-up people in a made-up, though realistic, world … It was a crisis, I felt it in every fibre of my body, something saturating was spreading through my consciousness like lard, not least because the nucleus of all this fiction, whether true or not, was verisimilitude and the distance it held to reality was constant. In other words, it saw the same. The sameness, which was our world, was being mass-produced.

In a similar vein, in a 2016 piece for The Guardian he describes turning to Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches after finishing Tolstoy’s War and Peace, wanting to read something from the same time and place:

It has practically nothing of what makes War and Peace such a great novel – no action, no intrigue, no plot, none of the grand scenes, no overall development as such, with peaks and troughs, and no central characters. A Sportsman’s Sketches is a collection of short stories, sketch-like as the title suggests, and anecdotal, revolving around a hunter’s encounters and experiences in the region in which he lives. Yet as soon as I began reading it I felt a very strong sense of proximity to the real Russia of the 1840s, a sense of the landscapes and people Turgenev describes being real landscapes and real people, that this was the way they actually were. It was as if Turgenev’s prose in some way tore through the plastic of the novel’s packaging, allowing that world to emerge in all its colour, populated by its own idiosyncratic characters.

This is what Knausgaard is attempting to do in Autumn: peel back the plastic and show life as he finds it. Much of it is spurred by the physical world around the converted Swedish farm buildings where he lives: a buried plastic bag he finds while digging holes to plant redcurrant bushes; the stubble fields he passes as he drives his children to school; his father’s rubber boots in the hall. Many entries are on animals, a few explore abstract concepts (loneliness, experience, forgiveness) and fewer still are about people (Van Gogh, Flaubert, the German photographer August Sander).

Many start with a general observation (“Vomit is usually yellowish and ranges from pale yellow to yellow-ish brown, with certain areas of quite different colours, like red and green”) and end on the specific and personal: in this instance, not minding when one of his daughters vomits on him in the car, because “I loved her, and the force of that love allows nothing to stand in its way, neither the ugly, nor the unpleasant, nor the disgusting nor the horrific”.

His style is unshowy, intimate and earnest. Overt humour is rare; a notable exception being his embarrassment at forgetting to get rid of his chewing gum before entering a German arts editor’s house: “Almost any other failing would have been met with indulgence, for I was there in my capacity as author, therefore artist, therefore someone who could cut off his own ear, someone who could spew out obscenities, someone would could be drunk, maybe shoot up some heroin in his bathroom.”

His thoughts tend towards death and decay: the entry on lightning opens with five cows dead under a tree; he compares flies to “the souls of the dead”; his thoughts on dawn end: “darkness is the rule and light is its exception, as death is the rule and life its exception. Light and life are anomalies, the dawn is their continual affirmation.”

But while Knausgaard’s choice of content is not always child-friendly, his perspective is child-like. He often draws the adult reader’s gaze back to phenomena to which they might not have given more than the briefest glance for years: the “mirage-like convolutions of colour” of petrol in a puddle; discarded wads of chewing gum “with their grey colour, hemispherical shape and many little indentations resembl[ing] shrunken brains”; “low houses clustering around the church like ducklings around a mother duck”.

He is trying to counteract the deadening effect of habit, as he describes in the opening letter to his daughter:

To someone who has lived for many years, the door is obvious. The house is obvious, the garden is obvious, the sky and the sea are obvious, even the moon, suspended in the night sky and shining brightly above the rooftops, is obvious. The world expresses its being, but we are not listening, and since we are no longer immersed in it, experiencing it as a part of ourselves, it is as if it escapes us.

His attempt to change this is not so much an embodiment of the Russian critical concept of defamiliarisation – presenting everyday objects in an unusual way – as “refamiliarisation”, showing us things we had forgotten how to see.

In his entry on Flaubert, Knausgaard describes how the French author’s sentences “are like a rag rubbed across a windowpane encrusted with smoke and dirt which you have long since grown accustomed to seeing the world through”. At its best, this is what Autumn achieves.

If there is anything approaching a recurring theme, it is time passing, the permanence of nature and the seasons contrasting with the transience of individual human lives. As he drives through the landscape near his home, he reflects on how “almost everything I see is more or less the same as it must have been in the nineteenth century. Churches, villages, far-flung fields, great leafy trees, the sky, the sea. And yet everything is different.” The entry on daguerreotypes, specifically an image of Burgundy from the 1820s, reads as a metaphor for mortality: 

The exposure time was several hours, so that only unmoving objects were fixed to the plate. That is perhaps the most incredible thing about these early photographs, that they relate to time in such a way that only the most lasting of appearances are visible and the human form is shown to be so fleeting and ephemeral that it leaves no trace anywhere.

Rather than a latter-day Flaubert or Turgenev, Knausgaard comes across more like a Scandinavian Buddha, dispensing wisdom not while sitting under a bodhi tree but as he smokes endless cigarettes in a book-lined studio: “The wisest person knows that ‘I’ is nothing in itself”; “Only what slips through one’s fingers, only what is never expressed in words, has no thoughts, exists completely”; “The world doesn’t change, only our conceptions of it.”

In his entry on frames, he writes:

In nature there are no frames, all things and phenomena merge into one another, the earth is round, the universe is infinite and time is eternal. What this entails, it has been given to no one to understand, for to be human is to categorise, subdivide, identify and define, to limit and to frame.

In this light, his rebellion against restriction and convention becomes not just a reflex but an artistic obligation, a way to get closer to unvarnished reality.

Perhaps surprisingly for a man so prone to meditation, Knausgaard writes at speed. After producing the first two volumes of My Struggle, he rattled off four more in the space of a year (albeit ditching and rewriting the last one). The gap between thought and page, and consequently between writer and reader, is minimal, and this is partly what makes those novels such a candid, unpredictable and compulsive read. “I write very quickly. I just leave it behind,” he told The Cut magazine. “Speed is very important for me, and that’s kind of the opposite of perfection. I have an editor who reads it, but we seldom change very much. Very often, it’s like you read it.”

There are passages in Autumn where it feels like writing them was not much of a struggle. A description of his family settling in for the evening feels very much like he is blandly saying what he sees; this is reality transcribed rather than transfigured. His attention to detail occasionally becomes close to comical: “I position myself in front of the toilet bowl and piss down into the water, which slowly changes both colour and consistency: from being clear and transparent, it turns faintly yellowish green or a dark brown-yellow, depending on how concentrated the piss is, and becomes full of little bubbles.” This is the flipside of the ability Knausgaard attributes to Van Gogh: “By relinquishing technique he gained something else, a carelessness that allows the world to appear unfettered by how we happen to have conceived of it.” At times this will create poetry; at others, banality.

Unlike A Sportsman’s Sketches, the landscape of Autumn is largely denuded of individual people. There are reflections on the joy of fatherhood but little of the relationships that provided drama in My Struggle: the arguments with his wife, the mixture of admiration and envy he feels towards his older brother Yngve, the attempts to understand his father. For readers of My Struggle, the most resonant passages in Autumn are where he returns to the people, periods and places we recognise. An enchanting recreation of the cold, soundless world of an adder is shattered by a sudden recollection of his father interrupting a beach walk with his young son to kill one with a rock: “More than forty years have passed since that happened. I still wish he hadn’t done it, and I still don’t understand why he did, but he seemed to hate it more than any other thing. I had never seen him like that before, and never saw him like that again.”

Other strands of memoir peep through: contemplating fever reminds Knausgaard how he received little physical affection in his childhood unless he was ill. In his entry on buttons, he invokes “those occasions when one is overcome with desire, and with one’s throat thick and one’s sex throbbing is unable to wait the time it takes to undo all the buttons, but instead grabs hold of either side of the shirt or blouse and rips it open in one violent motion, thus entering the world of the boundless, wild and wasteful”.  This cannot fail to recall the moment he cheats on his first wife in Some Rain Must Fall. The line at the end of his thoughts on faces – “As for me, these days I look almost exactly like my father” – comes with 3,000-plus pages and forty-eight years of resonance. We are viewing the world through Knausgaard’s eyes, and the better we know him, the more we appreciate it. As he puts it in A Man in Love: “What is a work of art if not the gaze of another person?”

Autumn is a hazy mixture of prose-poetry, memoir, essay and amateur encyclopaedia, shot through with sharp insight and mundane rumination. Knausgaard is a stimulating thinker and any time spent in his company is rewarding. That said, this is a minor work compared with My Struggle and is best enjoyed as a patchwork postscript to those novels; a chance to witness the tortured artist at rest. This is the here and now to My Struggle’s there and then.

1/10/2017

Jon Smith is an Irish Times journalist. His Twitter handle is @TheJRSmith

Articles referred to in this review include:

“Karl Ove Knausgaard: Three Books That Changed My Life”, Esquire, by Eric Sullivan, available at

http://www.esquire.com/entertainment/books/a56608/karl-ove-knausgaard-books-that-changed-my-life/

“Karl Ove Knausgaard: The Shame of Writing about Myself”, The Guardian by Karl Ove Knausgaard, available at

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/feb/26/karl-ove-knausgaard-the-shame-of-writing-about-myself

“Karl Ove Knausgaard: ‘I Can’t Really Write’”, The Cut, by Carita Rizzo, available at

https://www.thecut.com/2016/10/author-karl-ove-knausgaard-i-cant-really-write.html?mid=facebook_nymag

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