AMONG the mini-essays, weather diaries and reminiscences that comprise this book, Karl Ove Knausgaard sketches out a few quick self-portraits in prose. Picture him just before dawn, in the kitchen of his plush-rustic home near the Norwegian coast: smoking, drinking coffee, listening to Bach, denim jacket slung over the chair, long hair tousled like an opium fiend’s, looking past his blank screen and into the retreating darkness beyond the window.
Suddenly a bird of prey lands right outside, bangs its yellow beak on the glass, then flies away again. Its whirlwind lividity reminds the author of something. But what? Oh yeah – his first visit to the National Gallery in Oslo as a teenager, where the paintings by Edvard Munch made the rest seem redundant. “This was what it was all about,” he writes.
“Art was the exception. The exception opened up the moment, broke through time and created a presence, in the vortex of which everything became meaningful.” If you feel this to be true – and I’m not saying I don’t – you’ll find plenty more such free-associative insights here. The first volume in a planned “seasonal quartet”, it’s a kind of scrapbook loosely arranged into sections for each month of autumn, with letters to Knausgaard’s unborn daughter and some lovely illustrations by Vanessa Baird placed alongside random-seeming ruminations on everything from badgers to plastic bags to labia.
There’s a pattern, if not a formula, to many of these, as some mundane household object – a glass bottle, a tin can, a toilet bowl – becomes the subject of intense literary focus, the trigger for a childhood memory, and a vector for contemplating the mysteries of what Knausgaard keeps calling “the lifeworld.” Like other strong, successful, high-profile writers, he often makes himself temptingly easy to parody. The most banal of his observations (“Buttons come in an almost infinite variety of shapes and colours … ”) all but provoke the reader into picking up whatever they have to hand and taunting this rock star of publishing.
Hey Karl, here’s a cheese knife, pontificate upon it! Give us a Proustian reverie on this ceramic pig, genius! Even hardcore fans of his best-selling novelistic memoir series My Struggle may find their patience a bit tested by his finding beauty in a pool of vomit on a parquet floor, which looks “not unlike a landslide at the bottom of a valley.” But those same Knausgaardians will also surely get a familiar pleasure from the best of these passages – so many of which make game and noble attempts to grasp the ineffable, articulate the inchoate, bring the liminal swirls at the edge of the brain into some kind of resolution.
In a piece titled Autumn Leaves, he writes: “Only what slips through one’s fingers, only what is never expressed in words, has no thoughts, exists completely … you don’t see it. Don’t know it’s there. Then it is over, and you see it.”
Another, titled Silence, posits sound itself as the essential emanation of “life and living”, and literature, in its quietude, as something closer to the void. “Letters are nothing but dead signs, and books are their coffins.”
Less profound but equally lingering are entries like Daguerrotype, which reflects on the deep strangeness of the first-ever photograph of a human being, taken from a Paris window over Boulevard du Temple in 1838. The daytime street looks weirdly empty except for the distant, spectral figure that Knausgaard has always believed to be the Devil.
Personally, while I’m nodding along to this guy’s writing, I worry that I’m merely recognising the abstractions and pretensions of my own type – “a white middle-aged man with a frozen inner self,” as Knausgaard puts it (he’s nothing if not self-aware, and perhaps not quite as self-serious as he comes across in translation). This can’t be the whole story of his appeal.
Zadie Smith, for one, said of the My Struggle books that she came to need them “like crack.” Not to belabour a simile that may be in bad taste, but it’s possible that fellow writers, and his wider readership, love the addictive rawness of his product as compared to the more refined “cocaine” of conventional fiction. Knausgaard gives us the uncut stuff that other, lesser talents tend to dilute while processing into narratives and themes.
Perhaps inevitably, some of this is crud. But much of it feels truly substantial, warming cold annexes of the brain and casting our dull daily existence in a brief, bright northern light.