MAY 5, 2018
MAYBE THE WHOLE of My Struggle has looked too big for you to tackle; perhaps the spontaneity and the flipness of the essays don’t attract you. But in Spring we have what Karl Ove Knausgaard and his publisher are calling a novel, and it’s short.
The literary conceit? Knausgaard writes to the baby who will grow up and perhaps as an adolescent be interested in what was going on at home way back in 2014: “I will tell you about one day in our life.” That is, it’s a narrative continuation of the explanatory epistolary essays of Autumn and Winter: on an April morning in the town in Sweden where Knausgaard and his wife and their four children live, Knausgaard wakes up in the three-month-old’s room. His wife is recovering in a hospital from something (what, Karl Ove, what?), and the household school-day tasks are on him. With the baby in hand, he rouses the seven-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter, gets them fed, and walks them to school. Then he has to wake and coerce the older daughter to get her out of the house, into the car, and to the school bus on time.
We’ve all seen this, I know, on TV and in the movies, the constant cajoling and haggling parent and the variously resistant kids, or we’ve done it ourselves, where it’s not cute and is almost always exasperating. But to read it as Knausgaard presents it is nothing but thrilling: it matters for us, we are aware of a tension; it feels routine but it also feels as if the unimaginably bad could happen at any moment: “In themselves, objects and events don’t mean anything. They become meaningful through the resonance that they evoke. It is through resonance that we connect to the world, and that is what happened to your mother, the world no longer resonated within her.” It didn’t? What did she do then?
There are two conspicuous mysteries and a few quiet ones that keep us anxiously focused as Knausgaard describes the routines and variations of everyday family life. He wants to show us that our thoughts, impressions, and memories are actions too:
The first month of your life you slept nearly the entire time, and when you weren’t sleeping, you usually looked away. It was a trait I didn’t recognise from your siblings; on the contrary I seemed to remember that they had met my gaze with open, curious eyes. […] I thought you might have brain damage […] I spoke to no one about this, for I believe that something becomes true if it is spoken. If it isn’t spoken, it is as if it doesn’t quite exist. And if it doesn’t quite exist, it hasn’t become fixed, and if it hasn’t become fixed, it can still go away.
Of the narrator’s wife: “I was constantly noting her mood […] not unlike what I had done with my father […] Then as now, I was engaged in a kind of meteorology of the mind because my own existence in a sense depended on it.”
Amid descriptions of anguish are unexpected ecstatic delights:
I had only taken this route a couple of times before, and it felt as if I was driving through the outer reaches of my memory, where I never knew what the next stretch would look like but still recognized it as soon as it appeared. It was a little like reading a novel again, where you might feel the approach of something familiar but, however hard you try, be wholly unable to remember it before it happens, and the event or the description gains that special fullness which arises when the seemingly new, happening as if for the first time, encounters the memory of how it was the last time, and the space between your inner version of reality and external reality for a moment stands open, until the external, which has a much more powerful presence, obliterates the internal reality, and the world becomes one again.
As the house-making dad, the anxious husband and father, Knausgaard the writer continues to seem to me at his greatest, as he is in Spring, situating himself in the present day while he unpeels the past that is in its midst:
My father, your grandfather, occasionally talked about suicide as a phenomenon. […] Back then I didn’t realize that there is always a reason why someone talks about one subject rather than another. I just listened to what he said […] without understanding that it meant something, that it said something about what was stirring within him.
Among the other undramatically dramatic events that Knausgaard’s most smitten readers will soon recount to one another: the case of the bloody poop and the mystery of the falling book (I’m not telling). There are extended discursive essays on personality, “the unique standing that personality has in the individual makes us unable to see the extent to which it has been formed by other personalities, and that in reality we are like a flock of birds, or a pack of wolves,” and self-deception: “Self-deception is perhaps the most human thing of all.”
If you still haven’t tried Knausgaard or have been unsatisfied with his helplessly casual New York Times travel essays, try Spring. It’s poignant and beautiful, with his usual constant striving toward the most exposed vulnerability. Addressing the baby, Knausgaard notices with awe, “you lay there looking up at the ceiling with that gaze that wasn’t seeking anything in particular and which seemed entirely open, rather like windows through which light is flowing.”
You can read Spring in a few agitated hours. Even if you think you won’t like Knausgaard, try this one and you’ll get him and get why some of us have gone crazy for him. The novel keeps a few secrets for now (which is also typical), but otherwise Knausgaard allows the horse of narrative exposition to wander where it will. Here’s looking to Summer.