Au­tumn by Karl Ove Knaus­gaard

Muzzy epipha­nies and hymns to beauty in an en­cy­clo­pe­dia of the world for an un­born child

The Guardian - Review - - Non-Fiction - Sam Leith

In Au­tumn, Karl Ove Knaus­gaard of­fers what’s billed as a “per­sonal en­cy­clo­pe­dia of the world”, ad­dressed to his un­born fourth child. Here are, as if writ­ten daily, a series of re­flec­tions on di­verse sub­jects with say-what-you-see ti­tles: “Wasps”, “Chew­ing Gum”, “Labia”, “Flaubert”, “Toi­let Bowls”, and so on. Sixty of them, 20 per month, each month pref­aced with an­other let­ter to their re­cip­i­ent.

And it re­ally is, I’m afraid, the most colos­sal load of old cob­blers. On the fi­nal page of the in­tro­duc­tion he de­clares: “I want to show you our world as it is now … you will ex­pe­ri­ence things for your­self and live a life of your own, so 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.”

Well, yes. Ex­cept that on the pre­vi­ous page, in the course of a dis­cus­sion of what makes life worth liv­ing, he has de­clared that open­ing a door is the big thing: “Yes, the door opens, like a wing, and that alone makes life worth liv­ing.” Do make up your mind, you lu­di­crous beardy, you want to say.

But, then, ob­vi­ously, the ques­tion arises of how far Knaus­gaard (right) is in on the joke. A bit, per­haps – but not far enough; not by a long chalk. He strains for ef­fect: he over­states, he gen­er­alises. On page 53, he an­nounces: “Most of the body’s in­te­rior, its or­gans and moist cav­i­ties, is pale in colour.” On page 73 he’s con­sid­er­ing the “red­dish” colour of the lips as com­pared to the “white, yel­low­ish-white, brown or black skin stretched over the rest of the face”, and says the colour is “char­ac­ter­is­tic of the in­te­rior of the body”. Well, it’s one or the other – or nei­ther.

He’ll ei­ther of­fer a ques­tion­able say­ing: “Noth­ing can live in air­tight space, there­fore noth­ing can die in it ei­ther.” Or he’ll hymn the in­ef­fa­ble beauty of some­thing – a lone plas­tic bag, a child blush­ing, a thun­der­storm, a pud­dle of vomit, a vac­uum flask. Or he’ll won­der at the lim­its of hu­man knowl­edge. “Per­haps,” he writes; “maybe”; “I don’t know.” This could be seen as prop­erly and mov­ingly ten­ta­tive; but it reads on the page as merely arch.

On teeth, he writes: “Noth­ing that en­ters the baby, mostly milk but also a lit­tle mashed banana and potato, bears the slight­est re­sem­blance to teeth, which in con­trast to the food are hard. Yet this must be what hap­pens – that cer­tain sub­stances are ex­tracted from the partly liq­uid, partly soft nour­ish­ment and trans­ported to the jaws, where they are as­sem­bled into the ma­te­rial used to make teeth. But how?” As the hip-hop duo In­sane Clown Posse sung on “Mir­a­cles”: “Fuck­ing mag­nets: how do they work?”

Knaus­gaard has, de­claredly, writ­ten these lit­tle pas­sages in haste, day by day, tak­ing in­spi­ra­tion from and in the mo­ment. He hopes to cap­ture, I sup­pose, the as­so­cia­tive drift of con­scious­ness – the way in which mem­ory and emo­tion and ha­bit­u­a­tion and hap­pen­stance meld and play off each other as a per­son goes through the world. He doesn’t need to be con­sis­tent; only faith­ful to the truth of the mo­ment.

But there’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween cul­ti­vat­ing that ap­proach and sim­ply writ­ing the first thing that comes into your head, and I’m not at all per­suaded Knaus­gaard has clocked that such a dif­fer­ence ex­ists. The re­sult is a style of al­most spo­ken-word loose­ness, re­plete with run-on sen­tences (“In na­ture there are no frames, all things and phenom­ena merge into one an­other, the Earth is round, the uni­verse is in­fi­nite and all time is eter­nal”). There are rep­e­ti­tions (“the child lies there on the chang­ing ta­ble, and sud­denly a shiny golden rivulet be­gins to trickle out of the crevice be­tween its legs if it is a girl-child, or a shinyny golden foun­tain-like spurt rises from the boy-child’s s lit­tle noz­zle”), clich­eses (“white as snow”) and half-thoughtout apothegms.

Is it true, in more than a bumper-sticker way,ay, that the spirit of an artist t “rebels against con­form­ity”? ? Can he be in­tend­ing to make uss laugh, or sim­ply be­ing care­less, less, when he says that a pair of boots “fit me like a glove”? Does his mother re­al­lylly drive a car to work “by the sweat of her brow”?w”? (Though these may, to be fair, be the trans­la­tor’s r’s fum­bles rather than the au­thor’s.)

At one point he earnestly an­nounces: “Be­hind the lips, the teeth stand fence-like, hard and im­per­vi­ous, and be­hind this fence a grotto yawns: the mouth, the oral cav­ity.” Look at “yawns”, there. Here is a dead metaphor dis­in­terred and re­buried in a pau­per’s grave­yard. Of course it yawns: it’s a mouth. Knaus­gaard is in­ter­ested in the “for­eign”, the un­know­able, the ex­change be­tween the body and the world, mem­ory, the un­no­ticed strange­ness of the quo­tid­ian. He seeks to re-en­chant the world by mak­ing us no­tice afresh what we fail to see be­cause it’s so fa­mil­iar. The main is­sue, I think, is a clash of styles. Where the writer as open flood­gate might be well suited to the baggy aut­ofic­tion-fleuve of his My Strug­gle, a sort of tor­ren­tial mud­slide in which gar­lic and sap­phires will float up by serendip­ity for the reader to ad­mire as they pass, the snap es­says here are a tighter form. He wants to be apho­ris­tic; but apho­rism re­quires a con­cen­tra­tion and pre­ci­sion of mean­ing that is the op­po­site of the style on show. He’s sim­ply not pay­ing at­ten­tion hard enough.

So the gen­eral pat­tern of the pieces – the swerve from a con­crete im­age into a metaphor or mem­ory or gen­eral state­ment about ex­is­tence – ag­gre­gates a series of in­dis­tin­guish­able muzzy epipha­nies. We meet an­i­mals (frogs, por­poises, ad­ders, bad­gers, jel­ly­fish) whose sense world makes them alien and thrillingly un­know­able. We meet hu­man-made ob­jects (bags, tin cans, petrol) whose quid­dity makes them stand baf­flingly apart from the gestalt of na­ture around them. We meet nat­u­ral phenom­ena (the sun, pain, birds of prey) whose unique­ness rein­vig­o­rates Knaus­gaard’s sense of his con­scious­ness in the world. But these lose their par­tic­u­lar­ity as they pile up.

A good com­para­tor might be Ni­chol­son Baker’s 2003 novel A Box of Matches . There is the same frame­work of a sheaf of short re­flec­tions – in Baker’s case, the daily predawn ru­mi­na­tions of his nar­ra­tor at a fire in the dark. But Baker is pre­cise where Knaus­gaard is vague, funny where Knaus­gaard is sen­ti­men­tal. And Baker hits a note-per­fect tone of in­gen­u­ous cu­rios­ity where Knaus­gaard more of­ten comes across as fey.

It’s not all bad. Some of these pieces work – most of­ten those in which he of­fers a spe­cific, oblique emo­tional charge rather than a pon­tif­i­ca­tion. The volt­age al­ways goes up where his re­la­tion­ship with his father comes in – a mem­ory of his father killing a snake, for in­stance: “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.”

And we do learn a bit about Knaus­gaard him­self. We learn that he likes Juicy Fruit chew­ing gum, that he strug­gles with head lice, plays “Finger­man” (in which his first two fin­gers walk about like a lit­tle man) to amuse his chil­dren, kept his dead father’s binoc­u­lars and welling­ton boots, learned to drive at 39 and still drives a Volk­swa­gen Mul­ti­van, that he once wet the bed as a teenager af­ter win­ning a pineap­ple-eat­ing com­pe­ti­tion, prefers tinned peas to fresh, and that Madame Bo­vary is his favourite novel. If so, you would think he could have learned from the care with which Flaubert made prose.

Trans­lated by Ingvild Burkey. 240pp, Harvill Secker, £16.99

To or­der Au­tumn for £12.74 go to book­shop.the­guardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, on­line or­ders only.

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