Join us at the Los Angeles Central Library downtown on September 23 at 5:00 pm for an evening with Karl Ove Knausgaard.
FOR A WRITER, reading Karl Ove Knausgaard is a master class in creating reader-writer intimacy, as devotees of his six-volume, 3,500-page autobiographical novel, My Struggle (2009–2011), well know. Even when he writes in a formal mode, as in the novel A Time for Everything (2004), which investigates the existence of angels through the retelling of biblical stories in a Norwegian landscape, we are thrust into the primordial psyche, as if standing in a circle around a communal fire and passing a live, beating, bloody heart.
In contrast, Knausgaard keeps the reader at a friendly distance in his Seasons quartet’s first two collections of essays, Autumn and Winter (2015–2016/2018), which are both presented as “Letters to an Unborn Daughter,” for whom he philosophically muses on topics of home and the world. In Spring, the third, he does something entirely different; he narrates a single day of life with that daughter, now three months old, during which they drive to the hospital where the mother of his four children is being treated for bipolar depression. The book is a bare-knuckles psychological thriller, sprung from the flashback of his interview with Child Protective Services. The fourth volume, Summer, is less propelling — a combination of musing on his quintessential subjects and diary entries. Midway through the book’s June diary, Knausgaard writes about having once considered crafting a religion-themed thriller under a pseudonym, giving me reason to anticipate some genre fun after the great tease of Spring.
The quartet’s parts, which are fragmentary and epistolary, do not have the stand-alone world-building weight of, say, the individual volumes of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet; Summer, in particular, is uneven and uncategorizable. Ingvild Burkey, who so capably and poetically translated Autumn, Winter, and Spring, has returned to finish the series; Scandinavian artists Vanessa Baird, Lars Lerin, and Anna Bjerger, respectively, illustrated the first three books, while German painter Anselm Kiefer provided Summer’s art. Each month is organized by topics — Lawn Sprinklers, Fainting, Ground Wasps, and the recurring subject The Bat (one of my favorites) — with June’s and July’s lists followed by diary entries. The diaries comprise his day-to-day activities, such as going to the doctor for a checkup on his bloody stool (a cliff-hanger from Spring) only to find himself on the table studying his own nakedness, embarrassed by what he considers to be a disappointing penis size. As always, he is unflinching in self-examination.
Surprisingly, in these diaries the first-person narrative is taken over by the voice of a 73-year-old Norwegian woman remembering her affair with an Austrian soldier during World War II. Based on an actual woman his grandfather knew, her narrative is underwhelming, and not nearly as interesting or courageous in its revelations as Knausgaard himself. Taking on a female perspective is refreshing, but he fails to give this character equal gravitas. He also rather disappointingly leaves out an ending diary for August, though his final chapter “Ladybirds” brings a sufficient conclusion by considering the Anthropocene — when every part of the globe seems to either be freezing, flooding, or frying at any given time — and thus suggesting the inevitable world’s end.
Despite his despondency, Knausgaard is, finally, an optimist; his way of seeing in the quartet most often leans toward description of nature’s inexhaustible beauty, such as this rhapsody in praise of birches:
[H]ow in winter they lost their volume entirely, like dogs or cats with shaggy fur who seem to shrink when they get wet; how their thin twigs were covered with pale green buds in spring, which no matter how old the trees were — and some of them must have been my grandparents’ age — made them look young and bashful; how their small sequin-shaped leaves hung in dense garlands in summer, so that their foliage resembled gowns; and how in the early-autumn storms they could look like ships with sails stretched taut by the wind, or swans beating their wings as they rose from the water.
Beauty abounds. Here, on the subject of Summer Night and disappointment in love, Knausgaard gently sets the scene at a hotel with a woman he loved:
We didn’t say anything, we didn’t need to say anything, I thought, it would just spoil it, for the silence was like a vault above the landscape. From here we could see the moon suspended high above the forest, perfectly round. With no competition from mountains or cities it owned the sky. Though the water around us was still and smooth, it seemed to well up, I thought. Now and again a faint splash sounded, from fish feeding near the surface. Isn’t it beautiful, I said. Yes, she said. It’s very beautiful. And soon it will start to get light, I said. Yes, she said. Neither of us knew then that it would be the last night we spent together, but over the next two days everything that had lain unspoken between us came out, and we found no other way to handle it than to break up. It still hurts to think about it, that we were together that night, which is the most beautiful night I have experienced, and that we can’t have shared any of it, as I thought we did. The “we” I had felt so strongly held only me.
In a February 13, 2018, BBC News interview, Knausgaard insists that he’s the opposite of the narcissistic brooder some readers assume he is: “I am a very positive and optimistic person,” he says. Despite all that is happening politically in this world, “there are more good people than bad people […] more clever people than stupid people.” He proclaims his happiness, asserts that writing brings life to him. When asked what purpose or message this quartet may hold for his daughter, he answers, “Life can be and will be incredibly hard, but it is always worth living.”
This may come as a surprise to his steady readers, and to those who feel the world is falling apart. For the past six years, one of my oldest, closest friends has been answering calls at a suicide hotline from staggering numbers of those who increasingly believe the opposite about life. My nephew’s bar mitzvah fell only a few days after the Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain suicides, and his group of seven finished their respective presentations with the stats on American suicides and those hospitalized for attempts. The audience gasped.
This also might be the kind of moment we have come to expect from Knausgaard — from Norwegian writers, in general. Hanne Ørstavik’s 1997 novella, Love, which was published this year in English with a translation by Martin Aitken (co-translator of Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book Six), follows a young mother and her 10-year-old son as they wander separately at night through a carnival in the town to which they have just moved without knowing that the other is also out alone in the snow. The pacing of their inner turmoil, loneliness, and psychological dread never lets up — it’s a relentlessness reminiscent of Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier’s Thelma (2017) and Oslo, August 31st (2011), as well as an endless succession of these countries’ desolate works. We assume Scandinavian artists favor bleak inner landscapes, and they appear especially adept at portraying the kind of despair so many feel, all over this globe.
In Knausgaard’s Spring, he flashes back to a singular happy trip to a festival in Sydney with his (now ex-)wife during which they discuss the particular relevance of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage to their own relationship. Teased with this comparison, I wanted to read Knausgaard’s specific Scenes, rather than the beautifully protective interstitials and enclosed miniatures (I assume to shield his daughter) that are meant to foil what the reality of living with mental illness has otherwise been for them. I wanted to shake each scene like a snow globe for more fascinating possibilities, even if his periodic restraint throughout Spring serves the tension between darkness and the romance of living.
Whenever he opens wide in the dark, where things are seriously falling apart, he always returns, like a mindfulness teacher, to the idea that if he is still and notices what is around him — nature, objects, sound, or even just the room he sits in — he can find infinite and inspiring awe. I have found myself painting leaves in frost, seaweed, and pebbles on asphalt, then wondering would they be my subjects had I not read him. He brings it all alive in his prose, makes it shimmer. Whether intellectually parsing for meaning or playing this existential video game of political turmoil, horror, and heartache, his writing flows easily from quiet, thoughtful engagement to ecstatic communion with the world.
Early in the Summer diary entries, Knausgaard is reading the Swedish scientist-cum-mystic Emanuel Swedenborg to try and understand how his transformation occurred and observes,
The shift from the outer to the inner world is so abrupt, and the inner world so chaotic and heavy with meaning that at first it is nearly impossible to orient oneself in.
What is happening with him?
When I was reading his journal earlier this evening it struck me that my inner being, the person I am to myself, has changed in recent years, and how often I get the feeling that I am no one, that I am merely a place which thoughts and feelings pass through.
These thoughts and memories no longer belong to him, he concludes, because others have now read them — he has given them away. He decides that ultimately there is freedom in that, since the writing process becomes a self-less state:
When the person writing about him or herself has moved out of the self, thus incorporating an external gaze, a strange kind of objectivity arises, something which at one and the same time belongs to the inner and the outer, and this objectivity makes it possible to move around in one’s own self as if it belonged to another, and then we have come full circle, for that movement requires empathy.
Over lunch in a beautiful cabin overlooking the woods, a good friend, also a writer, blurted out, “I have a great relationship with my mind!” As this seemed to come out of nowhere, I burst into laughter. It felt impossible; I experience constant subconscious chatter within mine. I wondered if having a great relationship with one’s mind is a necessary ingredient in constructing a solid self-narrative, as well as in achieving a hint of serenity. Knausgaard’s deeply personal, bracing internal explorations surely suggest that it is. He may be done with this quartet, the My Struggle series, and autofiction altogether, but I still want more of it. That kind of passionate literary intimacy is rare. And wanting more and even more — isn’t that just like being in love?