Long, sunlit days
On Karl Ove Knaugaard’s ‘Summer’
As summer sets in, far too firmly, with long, hot days and not enough respite after sunset, I turn the air-conditioning on, seeking solace in Scandinavian summers, with Karl Ove Knausgaard’s fourth installment of the season’s quartet: Summer. Perhaps one is being defiant, picking up the last book to dive into a series, an act I imagine Knausgaard would understand, and be amused by. There is a thrill about upsetting a narrative, if only to examine how the writing works. The premise, however, is clear, and each book can be read in its entirety — either as small essays, or a running commentary of a summer in the Knausgaard household. Taking the personal and scrutinising it — a postmortem of life, if you will — is what Karl Ove Knausgaard does best. Most people who have read this Norwegian literary sensation have a strong opinion of him: they either despise him, or absolutely love him. Reading Knausgaard is committing to intimacy with all that it entails: there will be pleasure, pain, joy, laughter, and disgust. Having finished a six-part series on himself, Knausgaard takes on another, this time, a succinct batch of four seasons: Autumn, Winter, Spring, and Summer. Considerably shorter than MyStruggle, this quartet is an extended letter to his unborn daughter. Speaking to a life that exists as a foetus, but has no knowledge of anything, Knausgaard calls it an introduction to the world, and everything in it, from apples and teeth, to cynicism, bleeding bottoms, football, wasps, tides and the ocean, long drives, losing parents, finding and building homes, travelling, mental illness, literature, artists, art, and the meaning (or the lack of) of it all. Short essays dealt with a micro-topic in typical Knausgaard fashion — looking at something deeply, selfconsciously and with honesty. Brutal, unsparing in his observation, and empathetic in his The concluding part of a quartet by author Karl Ove Knausgaard weaves together vividly descriptive essays with brutally honest diary entries addressed to his young daughter
conclusions, Knausgaard manages to convey the complexities and contradiction of life in each page.
While addressed to his child, this is no book for children. Summer is moody as the author and punctuated with artworks. Each title has an illustrator, and the paintings speak to the text. They are beautiful, terrifying, meditative, and inspire thought as much as Knausgaard’s prose. Imaginatively chosen, interspersed artworks not only capture a moment and a feeling from the season, affording visual respite to what can at times feel like a barrage of words, giving the reader a moment to catch their breath. Summer has Anselm Kiefer’s watercolours, a medium which doesn’t allow for corrections — every stroke is final, and the effect is delicate, almost ephemeral, like memories. Keifer paints flowers of various kinds, in soft shades, frequently has texts integrated into the picture, reflecting on life, literature, philosophy, and beauty. Layering patterns on motifs, fluid forms on inscriptions, the language of the images in Kiefer’s work casts a spell, rather like the author, which makes this an almost musical collaboration, a jugalbandi.
Summer is a book about familial relationships, chores, routines, and the roles people play. Knausgaard talks about mental illness, picking up the slack for an unwell partner,
managing tempers, and guests. He provides icecream lessons in power — when he has two treats in a row, as his children get just one, establishing dominance, playfully. He considers implications of parenting, chides himself for showing off, and contemplates the impact his actions have on his children’s minds and personalities. He unpacks his own fear of argument and conflict, processing them so as to be a good parent, and a considerate partner, while keeping himself happy and satisfied. He is pulled in several directions, and following him navigate the struggle of mundane life offers an insight into how we function, the compromises we make, and how as adults, we comfort ourselves.
This is a book that puts literature into daily life. He talks about the act of writing and about inspirations, but also the time to write (sometimes stolen moments in the wee hours of the morning, or bought time from a babysitter, or negotiation with a partner). Literature peppers conversations, since books create who we are — our constructs of values and expectations, even personalities of writers (of course, the list includes Flaubert and Dostoevsky), choice of pets, addictions and their own reading habits. He thinks about how art conveys meaning and the nature of beauty. He talks about the artist, Edvard Munch (he has worked on Munch before, and in the book is in process of curating a show on the artist); Kiefer’s work, and his own yearning to capture glorious evening light on his daughter’s face, as they drove home. He spends some time in Kiefer’s studio, looking at the artist’s lavish lifestyle, sprawling estate, artworks and his possession. In the midst of this opulence, Knausgaard finds the essence of Kiefer’s work, which can also apply to his own practice: ‘I suddenly saw trees and forest in everything he made. Trees and forest, time and death, and his own biography running through it, almost invisible thread.’
The book, spread over a long summer, is about travelling, playing games on gadgets, music, of taking his son on a trip to South America, having friends over, splashing in pools and the sea, transporting the children to rehearsals, and exploring the Scandinavian countryside. He is in a constant dialogue with his daughter, who is exploring the world and language, and we have hitched a ride with them. His descriptions are vivid, with an interest in the texture of the world around him. He talks about cooking, setting up barbecues under the sky, and entertaining. He thinks about the pressures of entertainment— of projecting a favourable impression, and dealing with one’s own limitations. He shops, he clothes and feeds, and through it all (miraculously), he writes. There is magic in the mundane, there is drama that one is familiar with, an insecurity of being seen as someone who has things under control. Why is all of this interesting? Perhaps it’s the way Knausgaard writes, or the way he forces you to think about your own existence, asking you to evaluate your choices. Why does Knausgaard write? Perhaps to give things meaning by observing and writing, and isn’t that what literature is all about anyway?
Summer supposes a familiarity with Knausgaard’s work. He responds to criticism here, recording reactions to reviews, the dealing of judgments — especially at a party where he is painfully self-conscious, his anxiety and awkwardness leads him to faint. He brings up the question of gender and the tone of writing— his has been called feminine, and a mommy-blog, both not in complimentary tones. This raises questions of what is expected from a male writer, and how female stories and tones are seen. He subverts the traditional rules of parenting by being the primary parent in charge, in a world where many fathers infuriatingly refer to taking care of their own kids as ‘babysitting’. He takes responsibility for using real people, and the backlash from those who feel their privacy has violated. Knausgaard doesn’t even change names — his writing is reality television narrated by a participant, and the agency is the narrator’s alone. The reader is now a voyeur, who can’t help but keep looking, cannot avert the gaze, and the only thing to do is to turn the page. This
isolates Knausgaard from the world he inhabits, and the loneliness is palpable, pathetic, and deeply engaging.
He is endearing and vulnerable when he talks about shame repeatedly (and in interviews too, his piercing blue eyes, almost hidden in stylishly tousled hair, reminiscent of Lady Diana). He self-punishing when it comes to guilt, and despite his shortcomings, he comes across as competent, thoughtful, and compassionate. For someone so obviously private and secretive, the books leave nothing hidden, no detail is too personal, there is no respectful distance.
I finished reading Summer, but I wasn’t quite ready to let go. To quote writer Zadie Smith, I needed my next hit, like crack, and rushed headlong into Spring. It was written breathlessly, like a single novel, rather than a compilation of essays. It goes back and forth between memories, is deeply moving although, a tad alarming, and, at times, frustrating. Like with the MyStruggle series, Spring and Summer have left me overwhelmed, and a bit too close to Karl Ove (when you read as much about a person, in their own voice, first names are acceptable), and one needs to take a step back. Autumn and Winter will have to wait for their turn (of seasons).