JANUARY 25, 2018
WHILE NORWEGIAN LITERATURE has long punched above its weight, the Karl Ove Knausgaard phenomenon has made one of the reasons for this prominence clearer. For all the horrors of contemporary Nordic literature — murder, frozen death, rape, and alcoholic suicide — there is an assumption in first-world social democracies such as Norway that civilized life will continue undiminished. In Knausgaard’s case, this assumption results in literary sincerity that is a balm for those of us dealing with democratic turmoil in southerly climates. The implicit reassurance accounts for the author’s particular appeal among readers who share his comfortable middle-class circumstances. Knausgaard made his reputation for sincere realism with his autobiographical epic “novel” My Struggle, published in six parts from 2009 to 2011. Though his new release Winter abandons the earlier work’s severely confessional writing, readers will find it equally sincere, if somewhat less dramatic.
Winter is one of a quartet of seasonally themed essay collections Knausgaard originally structured as letters to his yet-to-be-born daughter. (His fourth child was born in January 2015, so the Spring and Summer volumes ended up addressed to a person living in the world.) The second to be translated into English (Autumn was released stateside last year), Winter is an intriguing read, and since his hometown critics have acclaimed the other volumes, we clearly have much to look forward to when Spring and Summer arrive here.
In writing to his unborn child, Knausgaard deploys multiple forms of address through a masterfully eclectic array of topics that range from manhole covers and human noses to wondering where a soul is located. He begins each month with an earnest, almost cloying direct speech to the fetus and then settles into a range of voices that teach, preach, philosophize, and perform. Each month comprises 20 topics, each essay two to three pages. Knausgaard makes some effort to stay focused on the winter season across several pieces but soon roams when remembering details of people’s faces or speculating on the philosophy of mind. Of course, we know the writer is quite aware of the adult reader eavesdropping while he ostensibly introduces his unborn child to the life to come.
Knausgaard evokes the smells, the light, the sensory experiences of everyday events such as going to the store or watching the delivery man come up the road. His fans already know his mastery in the art of sensitive observation. While his novels are known for weak narrative threads, his observations are compelling outside of story structure. They are presented to his daughter as open-ended if not random selections from anyone’s journey through life. The presence of death in several pieces emphasizes a belief that we should all engage life as a finite journey even as we begin it. He is somewhat ambiguous about the triangle of life, death, and non-living objects. When he writes of an accidental drowning after a car runs off the road, Knausgaard treats death as inanimate. At other times, death is depicted in dialectical relationship with life. There is also understandable ambiguity in how he broaches sex, death, and meanness, since he wishes to spare his daughter from the worst that life might offer.
The reader comes to understand that topics justify themselves, as they can introduce us to an observed life and a meditation on how life is separate from the inanimate. Knausgaard consistently manages to redeem even the most unlikely topic: the toothbrush essay, which begins with the cliché of toothbrushes in the cup resembling flowers in a vase, turns into a revelation about his adult indulgence — the self-destructive freedom not to brush his teeth. Three January essays about Knausgaard’s isolation on a remote island stand out for his striking evocation of winter’s silence and the heavy, dark clouds that turn the ocean black. We recognize the setting from Knut Hamsun, Tarjei Vesaas, and Per Petterson, but Knausgaard seems wary of romantic tropes when he spends time on the great Norwegian coastline. Lars Lerin’s illustrations for the book give us the great darkness of a Nordic winter while Knausgaard attends to indoor matters, such as humans’ love for the hollow spaces in houses, wardrobes, and skulls.
In My Struggle, Knausgaard is remembering and observing his own past “performances,” both exploring the reasons he did what he did and speculating about how his actions were perceived by others. Although he shifts through time and space without undue allegiance to narrative continuity, he does remain in the past. In the Winter essays, he can actually “perform” in the present and so is no longer obliged to return to reflect on the performance. Early on, in a December essay, he goes outdoors to describe the lifelessness of the frozen winter, but, as if provoked by this lifelessness, he cannot resist the bravura of taking on the role of winter himself: “[S]nowing is the only thing I know. And I do it really well. Why compare myself to summer?”
Of course, we adult readers have long had our chance to discover the world and so we can be pleased and renewed by Knausgaard’s descriptions. In Norway, it is a well-known statistic that 20 percent of the nation has bought a copy of My Struggle, but even more interesting are the literary groups that have internationalized him. Why has an impassioned worldwide audience found Knausgaard? A variety of critics (including in LARB’s pages) have found his elevation of the banal compelling. He is direct, naïve, and without irony.
This is not the first time Norwegian literature has stood as a distinct European perspective on the possibilities of democratic life. Hungarian critic Georg Lukács singled out Ibsen as a true realist of the bourgeoisie for his work in the 1870s because Norway had not suffered the failed revolutions of 1848 that much of the rest of Europe had. Its nationalism was still democratic, and the Norwegian was still a free individual. In contrast, French and German writers had to resort to superficialities and irony to avoid the inconsistencies of their failed democratic revolts. We start to realize that American writers confronted with today’s politics have been distorting themselves. In the second decade of our new millennium, the liberal project has been transformed into the tyranny of the marketplace, and the writer must turn to apology, irony, or isolated self-regard — the writing may not be in service to authoritarian masters, but it certainly bows to the bullying power of finance capitalism.
In contrast, there is lucky Norway, still financing its citizens’ pursuits, still shielding its writers from the need to immediately impress a profitable audience. The 2011 massacre conducted by terrorist Anders Breivik (which Knausgaard addresses at length in My Struggle: Book 6) tore down any complacency about Norway being outside the current madness. But the reaction to Breivik by Norwegians and their government shows that the center still holds — corrupt home-security measures were not installed as they have been in hysterical responses to mass murder in the United States and other countries.
This is a message of hope for Western liberalism. Knausgaard writes a degree removed from the decay of democratic discourse. He spares us largely from the addictive interruptions of the digital screen, except for a brief glimpse of his family and their mobiles. It can still be an old-fashioned life. The Norwegian psyche has long since adapted to the limits of natural resources. Indeed, Knausgaard tells his daughter that Nordic people long ago articulated and accepted the end of the world in a series of Loki myths. He retells them in one essay and refers to them again in another. Having accepted the world’s end, a Norwegian can go on to teach that life is good. So Knausgaard chooses to direct his daughter toward the world’s many wonders rather than the anxieties of civilization. Americans and others are fascinated by how a man can speak so directly in the chaotic circumstances of the 21st century. They are shocked to realize that irony and other strategies of avoidance have become background noise in our literature, and that Knausgaard has largely eliminated that noise. His earnestness comes from a confidence that readers will take an interest. Only in such a country can one be confident without being complicit in the regression toward inequality and cheap marketplace values.
Given Knausgaard’s position as a thinker on the sane periphery of Europe, we can read him as if he were taking us back to the dawn of civilization. His awe of the world becomes a noble scientific inquiry, and his topics recall Aristotle and other Greek philosophers’ examinations of the units of matter and the body, how they described them to form a taxonomy of basic natural forces. Knausgaard has no regard for taxonomy, but in describing the world to his daughter he reproduces the ancient Greek search for various causes, however unwittingly. He writes, for example:
For animals a key survival skill has always been to merge as much as possible with the darkness at night […] From that perspective, the danger that the car and the train represent is so new that it still hasn’t impressed itself on the behavioral pattern of the animals.
Perhaps this behavior is a formal cause, but Knausgaard himself became the final cause when, as he confesses, he once killed a deer with his car. In another essay, Aristotle inspires Knausgaard to analyze the material cause of cold air.
This Aristotelian mode is subdued in the novels, in which the main character is on the brink of tears, full of pain, feeling humiliated so much of the time. But even in My Struggle there is an artlessness that comes from Knausgaard being at home in his life. The essays in Winter display an admirable refinement of the earnestness that drew so many readers to the earlier work. The damage that his father might have done can be repaired. In writing for his daughter, Knausgaard is renewing the great possibility of a civilized life spent exploring the world with curiosity and wonder.