Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Muzzy epiphanies and hymns to beauty in an encyclopedia of the world for an unborn child
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
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