Sunday 18 February 2018

A grown-up antithesis to the midlife crisis novel

Essays: Autumn, Karl Ove ­Knausgaard translated by ­Ingvild Burkey, Harvill Secker, hardback, 240 pages, €19.48

Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard. Photo: Colin McConnell
Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard. Photo: Colin McConnell
Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Ingvild Burkey

Anthony Cummins

Karl Ove Knausgaard says goodbye to navel-gazing with a new seasonal quartet dealing with subjects from chewing gum to the evil within frog eyes.

Shadowing the brain surgeon Henry Marsh at work for a newspaper profile, Karl Ove Knausgaard observed that Marsh was "entirely open but not confessional; all our conversations seemed to lead to more serious matters almost regardless of where they began". Readers of Knausgaard's radioactively autobiographical novel My Struggle might have guessed this probably wasn't just down to Marsh.

Autumn, Knausgaard's new book (translated from the original Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey), confirms that suspicion. The superlative first instalment of a new seasonal quartet, it is made up of dozens of micro-meditations on (for instance) petrol, frogs (whose "repulsive" eyes contain "everything we associate with evil"), forgiveness, plastic bags, beekeeping ("which shows human beings at their most subservient and perhaps also at their most beautiful"), labia and jellyfish ("when we contemplate the meaning of life, it is towards the jellyfish... that we must turn").

Knausgaard wrote these entries, one a day, during the second trimester of his wife's pregnancy with their fourth child, Anne (now aged three). You could see the book as a reinvention: a riposte to anyone put off by the narcissism of My Struggle - a switch from navel-gazing to (literally) star-gazing.

Even admirers of My Struggle, the last volume of which is yet to appear in English (reportedly it reflects on Hitler, Anders Breivik and the breakdown of Knausgaard's wife), might have felt after the third instalment that Knausgaard's struggle had become our struggle. It represented the point at which the sequence became just like any other portrait of the artist as a young man: all aching virginity and burning ambition. From that volume onwards, Knausgaard (feeling the heat from family members burned by the first volumes) more or less bound himself to writing from the point of view of his younger self.

Autumn, though, returns to the scintillating tangents that characterised the early volumes of My Struggle, when he still allowed his midlife self airtime. On each subject he combines an almost comically microscopic focus with a stealthy flair for producing a bigger picture that is all the more arresting for arriving by surprise.

Take his piece on chewing gum, which "usually comes in two forms, either as small pillow-shaped pellets or as flat oblong sticks". This dry gambit leads him to recall his anxiety, at the home of a German journalist, about where he should put the chewing gum he'd forgotten to discard before. There's no bin, so he lodges it in his cheek, then hides it in his palm - but won't he have to shake the man's hand at the end?

This is classic Knausgaard, a scene reminiscent of the neuroses and pratfalls that give My Struggle its often-overlooked comedy. Knausgaard reflects on how, as an author and "therefore artist", gum-chewing didn't suit him: he could more respectably "cut off his own ear" or "maybe even shoot up some heroin in his bathroom". But, having made us laugh, he has another move up his sleeve. He's reminded that he's not alone in his "infantile" addiction to gum:

"Every time I'm in town, where pavements and squares outside the main public buildings are covered in white spots distributed as randomly as the stars in the sky, and in the darkness, lit up by street lamps and shimmering faintly against the black asphalt, what the gum-flecked pavements most resemble is indeed a starry sky."

You are ambushed with these moments of unlikely beauty. Witness the entry on vomit, "especially revolting... right after a meal, where for example chunks of pizza are still intact and recognisable" - "and then it has struck me that this reaction is odd, since pizza, or pizza topping, itself looks like vomit" - which ends, via the memory of a bus-bound calamity with his daughter, in an assertion of paternal love.

"I am no longer preoccupied with my own childhood," he says here, nearly 50. "Not interested in my student years, my twenties. All that seems far, far away." Enough struggling, in short.

The raw self-exposure of My Struggle lingers: an entry headed "Piss" recalls how Knausgaard wet himself aged 15 on a school ski trip; wasps thwart an attempt to paint the house ("humiliating... compared to me they were so tiny"). But where part of the struggle in My Struggle concerned the chafing between Knausgaard's family and his art, the two dovetail in this calmer work.

"Of course it is primarily for my own sake that I am doing this," Knausgaard tells the unborn Anne. "Showing you the world... makes my life worth living."

At one point he describes us as "a mere collection of cells that have realised an inherited trait and been modified by experience, and that are activated and deactivated in tiny electrochemical storms, causing us to feel, think, say, do something in particular". The whole of the book tries to show why it's so much more wonderful than that.

Perhaps his English publishers are using his seasonal quartet as a placeholder while the translation of My Struggle: Volume VI is in train. But it's the next instalment of this sequence that I'm looking forward to more (we don't have to wait long; Winter is coming in November). It is the grown-up antithesis of the midlife crisis novel, comfortable in its own skin, autobiographical without being exhibitionist.

In the last entry, Knausgaard admits he will "never be able to understand how eyes work", trading mysticism for science in a concluding crescendo that reminds you that, before he was marketed as a tell-all merchant, back when his English publisher was still calling him Karl O Knausgaard, he published A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven, about the nature of angels.

Rehearsing the physics, he stumbles on how, as well as receiving light, eyes - "all the eyes we meet, known and unknown" - "emit" light:

"Maybe you take notice... maybe not, in the course of a life we gaze into thousands of eyes, most of them slipping by unperceived, but then suddenly there is something there, in those very eyes, something you want and which you would do almost anything to be close to... For it isn't the pupils you are seeing then, not the irises nor the whites of the eyes. It is the soul, the archaic light of the soul."

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