By Karl Ove Knausgaard
Penguin. 240 pp. $27
Reviewed by John Timpane
Summer ends with one of the sweetest reading surprises of the year.
Autumn by Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard, one of the most celebrated writers in the world, is a sweeping, 10-to-4 curveball, something unexpected, tender, intense, and persuasive, an ideal gesture to a moment of equipoise before winter, with pulses of joy, perplexity, and valediction. It's said to be the first of a series of short collections, each devoted to a season.
I have to say: I wish I had this guy's agent, either that or his powers of persuasion. Knausgaard is best-known for his 2009-11 series of six autobiographical novels titled My Struggle. These are thick novels, yo, and you have to wonder how, at this time, during the era of the dying of novels (which it isn't really, but I'm just saying), he got so many people to agree to publish them. There's no question whatsoever how he got millions more to read them: They are direct, mordant, vivid, obsessing.
Here we have a book as different as could be from that maelstrom of introspection. Autumn is a sweet lagniappe of a book, 240 pages, with 60 brief essays, 20 each for September, October, and November; plus three letters to his yet-unborn daughter. The conclusion of the first one tells her:
"I want to show you the world as it is now: the door, the floor, the water tap and the sink, the garden chair close to the wall beneath the kitchen window, the sun, the water, the trees. You will come to see it in your own way, you will experience things for yourself and live a life of your own, so of course it is primarily for my own sake that I am doing this: showing you the world, little one, makes my life worth living."
(Anne Knausgaard was born in 2015, by the way. This book guarantees she'll always have a special way of knowing her father.)
From there on, whether writing of the pleasures of eating an apple (core and all), or of hearing porpoises rush beneath his father's boat, or of the vulva, or of the eye, the emotion holding Autumn together is tenderness: toward his unborn daughter, toward himself, toward the things of this world.
In "Buttons," as so often in this book, we are treated to gentle, unsuspected revelations: "[I]f there is one thing that characterizes nature, it is abundance, a wild opulence of leaves and grass, petals and stems and branches, an unrestrained waste of chlorophyll, which the button, as it neatly and modestly yet firmly holds the shirt together, is the direct opposite of." (As you can see, Knausgaard likes to let a sentence rip out from a percussive start, almost as if a compression wave forces all before it.)
In "Autumn Leaves," we get a meditation that, though expected, manages a piquant wrinkle on the autumnal theme. He thinks seldom of his childhood now, and he wonders à la Joni Mitchell why we never know what we've got till it's gone. Ah, but a loving twist: "Only what slips through one's fingers, only what is never expressed in words, has no thoughts, exists completely. That is the price of proximity: You don't see it. Don't know that it's there. Then it is over, then you see it." I would add that this is what art, whether essay, sculpture, sonnet, or sonata, often does: It embodies what cannot be said, reveals what is so obvious it can't be seen.
In "Dauguerreotype," a shot of a city street by Louis Dauguerre himself contains a man who happened to look up just as it was taken; he's the only one we see clearly. "[T]he photographer never saw what the photograph depicts," Knausgaard tells his daughter. "Louis Dauguerre saw a teeming city street, and possibly didn't even notice this man until hours later when the photograph was developed, and all the others, except this figure, were gone."
The final essay, "Eyes," discusses the mystery of our eyes, how they take in physical light and convert it to images of the world in the brain. This process remains a mystery that is inexplicable even though we understand thoroughly the physics and chemistry of the matter. (That's a double mystery: How a mystery remains even though understood.)
But the eyes also seem to us to send light out, an even greater mystery for which we are even less ready: ". . . [I]n 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. . . . It is the soul, the archaic light of the soul the eyes are filled with."
Like autumn, each essay holds you; each goes by too quickly. This summer, I haven't been able to lie on a beach and read. If I could, though, I'd lie on the beach and read Autumn. Whether on the sand, on a mountaintop, in Venice, in bed, among falling leaves, on a city street, or in any quiet pause, I encourage you to spend your autumn reading it.
John Timpane is book editor of the Inquirer.