In his first of four seasonal reflections, Karl Ove Knausgaard drifts through autumn, still treading a fine line between the banal and the beautifully unpredictable
At the beginning of A Death in the Family – the first volume in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s internationally lauded My Struggle series – a young Karl Ove watches a news report on the mysterious sinking of a fishing smack. “I stare at the surface of the sea without listening to what the reporter says, and suddenly the outline of a face emerges.” It is a momentary vision, one of profound effect; and one to which his first response is to run off to tell somebody about it. It is, perhaps, a microcosm of the project – the vital need to confess his own unique experience and share it, in all its immediacy, with others.
Autumn’s cover, one of several artworks by Vanessa Baird that illustrate its text, seems to echo that incident – her painting of the sea is almost exactly as described by Knausgaard – while also introducing the underlying theme of these 63 short pieces: that of the wonder and impossibility of the natural world.
After six novels that took introspection to its very limit, Autumn, on first glance, appears to gaze without rather than within, framed as it is by letters to his unborn daughter, introducing the book as an attempt to show her “the world as it is now”. It is a rubric to which he adheres only sketchily: as he writes at the end of that first letter, “it is primarily for myself that I am doing this.”
In Ingvild Burkey’s deft translation, Knausgaard seems at ease in a rural life, painting fences, planting redcurrant bushes, finding inspiration in the natural world around him. This bucolic setting provides material enough to ruminate on the beauty of plastic bags, the appeal of soft fruit, the strangeness of badgers. They are, in the main, diverting reflections, well-structured, surprising in their narrative feints and digressions. However, many can inch close to the trite, seemingly over-impressed with his childlike vision of the world, his images inexact and confusing.
“They are, in the main, diverting reflections, well-structured, surprising in their narrative feints and digressions”
In Fingers he writes that digits are like “worms” or “little snakes”, the nails “little heads”. In The Sun: “Every single day since I was born the sun was there”, an opening line so pointless it colours the remainder of the essay’s more sure-footed exploration of the sun’s relationship to God. Similarly, his take on wasps suffers from an almost pedantic description of their exoskeleton, described as like “armour plating”, like “armour” and like “a knight dressed for battle” in the space of three lines.
As with My Struggle, however, such missteps feel part of the wider work, a dropped stitch as much a part of the tapestry as the exquisite needlework. It is the thematic progressions, the underlying links between pieces, that make Autumn a source of continued intellectual interest. The constant interplay between life and death, between the material world and the natural realm, between what it means to be human and what it means to be animal… this might not be immediately apparent, but it is ticking along in the background, a chorus of cicadas beneath the prose.
Badgers, which somehow manages to connect back to a description of oral sex in Labia – a link made explicit later in one of Baird’s paintings – is typical of this subtle layering of associations that gives Autumn a holistic purpose and a sense of cohesion.
At his best, Knausgaard can take the breath away, his compressed vignettes delivering the same emotional charge as longer sequences from his previous work. Adders and Loneliness, both of which feature the spectre of his father, are distilled and heartbreaking; while the joy of finding an apple tree in a forest in Apples and the strange and brief history of photography in Daguerreotype both strike a note of curious magic in the quotidian.
After the bombast and hype of My Struggle, whatever followed was always likely to be seen in its shadow, and in such a light Autumn can feel something of a coda, or perhaps a bridge to what is to come. And while it is neither a reinvention nor quite a revelation, this first volume of the Seasons Quartet quietly illuminates Knausgaard’s profound gift for making the reader see the world in fresh and unpredictable ways.
Stuart Evers is a book critic at The Guardian