Karl Ove Knausgaard
Karl Ove Knausgaard is the writer since Roberto Bolaño and David Foster Wallace, both alas dead mid-career, for whom the highest claims are made internationally. His multi-volume My Struggle saga asks to be taken as seriously as a work of fiction can be. It may read, at least at first, as a Proustian ambition meeting a Dave Eggers skill set and ambit, but for those who’ve struggled through the intensities and longeurs of the book that shares an overarching title with Hitler’s Mein Kampf, there is the expectation of a kingdom that will last a thousand years or whatever proximate immortality the crowning glory of a literary moment can amount to.
It’s funny but at least since the heyday of modernism we have been allowing the essayistic when it’s fictionally positioned to arrogate to itself the status of poetry: hence the way Proust can read like a commentary on an action that’s greater than the action alone would be. But this tendency reached its zenith not so much with Thomas Bernhard but more lyrically and portentously with those midnight sun masterpieces of W. G. Sebald.
And it’s Sebald territory that Knausgaard is appropriating and colonising in Autumn, which is a grand meditative survey of cabbages and kings and whatever apparently random subject upon which the Norwegian author wants to expend his sombre sense of purposiveness and rigorous scrutiny of every hair that can be split. It is a suite of encyclopaedic anecdotes that have been collected as a prefiguring of what life will hold and disclose for the daughter who was on her way as he wrote.
It was never hard for the unbelieving to suggest that Sebald’s variety of “faction” was given a higher place on the shelf than, say, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s masterpieces of nonfiction simply because they took themselves so seriously. And there’s a sense in which Knausgaard’s little prose lyrics for Thermoses and head lice, for toilet bowls and vomit and ambulances, are analogous to the bits of jeu d’esprit that Thurber or Chesterton or (later, in Australia) Charmian Clift would write about the gleam and shadow of the randomness of the world and the way the billowing of the washing on the line, the heft and hallooing of kids playing games, might rival the wisdom and intensities of the ages.
It’s true and maybe some kind of caveat that Knausgaard has the power to make good on his pretensions. This book about a hundred particularities, lyrically and philosophically apprehended, does have a vibrancy and a formal power of realisation that will keep all but the coolest sceptic going and musing and feeling some sense of wonder.
He has the sensibility of a writer who sees eternity in a grain of sand or a bit of dreck and if the upshot is both consciously grand and objectively sweeping in its imaginative largesse and splendour, what’s not to like?
In practice, Autumn is a collection of reflections and refractions through a glass darkly which have a moody power that finds the phantasmagoric in the mundane and amounts to a half-repressed self-portrait that somehow – at least sometimes – encompasses a world. It’s a bit like – to compare modern things that tower with ancient things that soar – the Shakespeare of the sonnets, with his monotonies and his obsessions and tortured repetitions, compared with the Shakespeare of the plays.
But you can tell from the Knausgaard of these doodling definitions and divagations for a daughter, that you are dealing with a gargantuan talent with a natural attraction to the grandiose.
Here he is at a characteristic moment of plangent panegyric, on ambulances and the way time is slowed down, all but infinitely, when finitude and finality hover with their dark wings:
In our own time we are like trees, dark and motionless, at a frequency of time so low that no movements are registered other than the very greatest, such as the alternation of seasons, and even they only faintly. Thus the dying speed along the roads in the ambulance, as slowly as trees grow.
What was it Stephen Dedalus said to himself in Ulysses in a moment of Joycean self-mockery? “Put a pin in that chap.”
Well, Knausgaard does have a breathtaking quality despite the majesty of his hot air, not least because he has pretty extraordinary intellectual equipment and also the ability to dramatise it in a prose of such high-grade stainless steel it might pass for silver.
Whether he’s talking about piss or teeth or frogs or Van Gogh, he does it like the ringmaster of the greatest show on Earth, and the effect for all its darkness of tone and flashes of elephantine humour has a power of articulation and a kind of mesmeric and irreducible personal voice that elsewhere made us want to sign up for a 3000-page multi-volume autobiographical novel.
Here, it is a modest 240 pages, produced on beautiful cream stock with evocative colour pics by the Norwegian painter Vanessa Baird, in a translation by Ingvild Burkey far above the contemporary average. At $35 Autumn is a beautiful book by one of the master spirits of the age – it can only be described as a steal.
Listen to Knausgaard, a spellbinder even when he’s delivering the higher mumbo jumbo, on Van Gogh:
Van Gogh tried to commit himself to the world but couldn’t do it, he tried to commit himself to painting but couldn’t do it, therefore he rose above them both and committed himself to death, only then did the world and painting become possible for him. For the entire force of these paintings, all their manic light and singular power of penetration, which make them appear as though the celestial were suffusing the earthly and lifting it up, is contingent on the look he casts upon it really being his very last. QSS
Harvill Secker, 240pp, $35
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 9, 2017 as "Karl Ove Knausgaard, Autumn". Subscribe here.