KARL OVE KNAUSGAARD changed the way I see seagulls. Living for a time on an island, alone without an internet connection, I read his novel A Time for Everything, translated from Norwegian into English in 2008. In the mornings, I walked on the beach. Every day it changed. Tide lines; shanks of seaweed; where the sand was packed and firm for fast light steps or loose like sugar for a trudge; the heaps of shells and rocks, sometimes collecting near the waterline, sometimes ribboned along the sand closer to the dunes; the first set of barefoot footprints; the limbs — legs and claws and pecked-clean bodices — of spider crabs, strewn on the sand like on a battlefield; and always all the seagulls, at desperate hunt for their breakfast, leaving tracks and scuffle marks where they warred with the crabs, tearing claws from bodies, beaking meat. Lacking human company, I began to say hello to them, good morning. When I approached, they’d take flight for the waves, or, when it was windy, loft themselves, wings spread and wailing, to hover over the beach until I passed. There were dead gulls, too. One, half buried in the sand, its wings wrapped tight against its body like a flimsy feathered missile, made me wonder what had killed it. “Sorry you’re dead,” I said out loud, which made me question, later in the day, if there was such a thing as too much solitude.
A Time for Everything is about angels, not at all in the New Age cartoon-guardian way, but about human encounters with them, about the mutability of the divine, and about a metamorphosis: a de-evolution from a mighty and deific presence to a lusty, greedy, cherubic nuisance, and then more fallen still.
Over the course of the next century their noses and mouths grew together into hard, bony beaks; those eyes, formerly so sensitive, lost all their powers of expression [...] their toes turned into claws, while their arms and hands shrunk and finally hung there just beneath their wings, tiny and unusable, concealed by a thick down of feathers [...] so fatally birdlike [...]. They’d lost the competition for the town’s garbage to other birds and small animals, so they were driven away from there as well, out to the coast.
After hundreds of pages, exploring Noah and his brave and righteous sister Anna, Ezekiel’s fits, Cain and Abel’s push and pull, and some (less successful) theoretical exploration of angels, we are pulled back, in the coda, to the present-day shores of Norway, where our narrator recounts an experience crabbing with his tyrannical dad. Finding a dead seagull, his father explains that seagulls were angels once, and pulls the dead gull’s wing to show “a tiny little arm, no longer than the tip of my finger, thin as a piece of wire” which “lay against its breast under the wing.” There’s something horrifying here, grotesque. And after reading this, my morning walks were altered. I’d see the seagulls, groups of them two or ten together, some speckled brown and smaller, large ones with black backs, the most familiar kind with the gray wings, and they’d peck and fly and swim and I felt a sadness for them, for their wretchedness, and some fear, too. Their cries, which I’d always associated with summer — swimming, bright sun, optimism — turned mournful, more sinister. “Morning, guys,” I continued to say, with some strange ache about how far they'd fallen.
This is not my typical reaction to a novel.
The narrator is in his own island isolation, and writes of his solitude:
When the constant intercourse with others no longer interposed itself between me and the world, I could evaluate my life in terms that weren’t sullied by emotion, and in that way arrive at something solid. And then I understood that the human was just what I wanted to get away from. Not other people as such, but that whole flora of feelings that welled up in me when I was with them.
That sentiment, that longing for solitude and yearning for distance, echoes in the second volume of Knausgaard’s six-part, 3,500-page autobiographical nonfiction novel, My Struggle. “All my life I have kept a distance from other people,” he writes in Book Two. “It has been my way of coping, because I become so incredibly close to others in my thoughts and feelings of course, they only have to look away dismissively for a storm to break inside me.” That his interior life is described in environmental terms — these inner storms, this flora of feelings — gets at Knausgaard’s attention to and occasional union with the natural world, clouds and snow, forests, fjords, and sea. In examining his life, he ranges from the smallest detail — shopping lists, cigarettes and coffee cups, clouds and seagulls — to much loftier meditations on literature, death, and meaning. Knausgaard’s books put me on the floor.
Book Two, subtitled A Man in Love, and translated by Don Bartlett, traces the romance between Knausgaard and his partner Linda Böstrom, and the birth and raising of their three children. He takes us back to the evening when, drunk, he admitted to Linda how he felt about her. A crushing blow, she tells him he’s great, but that it’s his friend she’s after. Knausgaard stumbles home, smashes a glass, and uses a shard to shred the skin of his face. The scene, painful and desperate, dripping with shame, echoes one in A Time for Everything, in which the narrator, after failing to properly kill a fish he’s caught, musing on the poisonous materials deposited into his body by the cigarette he’s smoking, breaks a glass, and slices the flesh of his chest, and later his face. Inner pain made physical, like an angel’s descent into the world of man, an inability to resist the sullying, the mutilation, the outward expression of inside anguish.
In the cheerier bits, Knausgaard’s description of the in-loveness, the initial falling, those massive swells of feeling, falters a bit. His language doesn’t quite get us there. He feels “utterly free,” “completely happy,” that “everything was laden with meaning.” What he excels at instead, what he nails and makes us feel, are the sudden shifts, the moments when, after a day of quarreling, hurt feelings, and short tempers, the shell of resentment and anger cracks and dissolves back into warmth and closeness. “We made up, came closer to each other and lived as we once had. Then the whole process started again, it was cyclical, as in nature.” This is love, and this is struggle.
Book One, A Death in the Family, is an account, in sick, blistering detail, of the death of Knausgaard’s father. He drank himself to death, and the aftermath, the literal cleaning up, sears itself on the reader’s memory. The topics of Book Two are more familiar; statistically, more of us have fallen in and out of love, and experienced the attendant heights and depths, than have had to clean a sofa of our alcoholic father’s shit and piss. Both books traffic heavily in darkness and humiliation, and in weakness, the inability to act. Linda gets locked in a bathroom at a party and Knausgaard has to ask a tough guy to kick the door in for him. Pregnant Linda asks Knausgaard to tell a friend driving a boat too fast over rough seas to slow down. Knausgaard is unable to do it. (The same scene figures in A Time for Everything.) And there is the discomfort of honesty: he describes checking out at the market, having forgotten a bag for his groceries, and the short inner storm that results: what will the checkout woman think of him? And then this: “On the other hand, did it matter what she thought about me? She was so fat.” What an asshole, yes? What an awful thing to feel and say. But the truth is, we are all, in private, fleeting moments, at least, mean and shallow and petty, guilty of such ugly thoughts. Who of us can admit it? Who can confront these small truths?
And though the darkness and anguish are the most noticeable, most memorable qualities of the writing, saturated as they are with pain and drama, there is something else at work, and it is extraordinary. Amidst the humiliations, indignities, shame, and doubt, we find a deep capacity for joy, a discipline towards remaining open to being moved.
The grocery checkout line speaks to the audacity of detail in Knausgaard’s work, which is impossible not to remark on. In a typical paragraph, he recounts, in a café scene, filling two glasses with water, slicing bread, picking up the cutlery, grabbing “a couple small packets of butter and some napkins.” I do not believe he is trying to elevate these quotidian moments to something infused with beauty and meaning. He presents these details because they possess the possibility of meaning. It is a choice — another struggle — to remain open to reality on the dayest-to-day level. “Indifference,” he writes, “is one of the seven deadly sins, actually the greatest of them all, because it is the only one that sins against life.” He reminds us that we are responsible for finding and seeing meaning in the park bench, the pigeon, the boiling of the water for pasta.
We were flesh and blood, sinew and bone, around us plants and trees grew, insects buzzed, birds flew, clouds drifted, rain fell. The eye that gave meaning to the world was a constant possibility, but we almost always decided against it.
With these details, he is trying to show us reality, something we are so awash in right now — in all the TV shows, the 24-hour news cycle, every refresh click bringing news of the latest atrocity — that we scarcely notice it. We are benumbed by it. Knausgaard un-numbs us. “I write to recapture the world,” he tells his spirited friend Geir. In the details, in the water glass and the shifting clouds and the swiping of an ATM card, we are enticed to merge with him, we enter him. We see through eyes that give meaning to the world. And what a thing he’s done! “Distance, distance, I could never have enough distance,” he writes. But in his work, he eradicates exactly the distance he craves. We become him. We are not just lead along, but joined.
He mentions the paintings by Caspar David Friedrich, in which dark figures in the foreground, backs to us, look out over awesome, indifferent landscapes. Viewers of the painting are meant to merge themselves with the figure, experience meaning through their presence in the human subject. It doesn’t work for me — I am aware of myself looking at the figure looking at the landscape, the jagged mountains, the violence of the sea. Knausgaard achieves what Friedrich attempted. He is the figure in the foreground. His eye is open to meaning. He opens our eyes to meaning.
Not long ago, I went for a run in the late afternoon, heading west towards a bright and setting sun. Coming down a low hill, with a wooden fence and rolling hills to my right, a glimpse of sea to the north, something happened. The song on the stupid earbuds was right, my body felt light and fast, and I felt myself dissolve into the sun. I exited the boundaries of my body, obliterated into the light, and was taken up into it all, the hills with brown grass, the low bushes showing the first pubic fuzz of spring, the pocket of sea in the distance, the long low fence, the crows there at flight across the field. A momentary transformation, euphoria, seven seconds, maybe 10, and I was deposited back to earth, to feel the concrete underneath my sneakers again and the breath in and out of my lungs. What a thing to admit — I sound like a maniac, I know — somehow more embarrassing and vulnerable than revealing that I chat to seagulls. But it is no coincidence that this happened in the midst of a three-day binge on Book Two, and not a week after finishing A Time for Everything. This happened precisely because I was in Knausgaard’s hands.
His work ranks as one of the most memorable reading experiences of my life. There has been, for me, nothing quite like it. Karl Ove makes me see better. I have not wanted his books to end because I have not wanted to unmerge with him. He writes of longing to be back in “the maniacal, the lonely, the happy place” he achieved while writing. In my own maniacal, lonely happiness, away from the world for a time, away from the human pull, I found comfort in knowing that, despite his deep craving for distance and work, Knausgaard remains loyal to the human world, to being open to what it offers. He mentions connecting with the poetry of Hölderlin, the German romantic poet. “There is a constant yearning/For all that is unconfined,” writes Hölderlin in his poem “Mnemosyne.” “But much needs/To be retained. And loyalty is required.” The longing for freedom is constant, and there is so much to be remembered and named. “We should let ourselves be cradled/As if on a boat rocking on a lake.” We must exist in the present, Hölderlin seems to suggest, not get lodged in the “forwards and backwards” of memory. In Book One, Knausgaard compares his life to “a boat in a lock” with “time seeping in from all sides.” “But what about things that we love?” asks Hölderlin then. What about things that we love?
Karl Ove Knausgaard gives an answer.