By Karl Ove Knausgaard
Translated by Ingvild Burkey
Penguin. 272 pp. $27
Reviewed by John Timpane
The weather has been so lousy lately that maybe you're not too eager to read a book called Winter. But read it. It's a fine way to see the season out.
Winter is by Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian writer whose fictionalized autobiographical series, My Struggle, has brought international renown. It's far different, however, from those angst-ridden tomes of doubt, family conflict, and growth. It's the second of four short season-themed collections (Autumn, Winter, Spring, and Summer) of brief essays. His insatiable eye gathers up both the immense ("Feeling of Life") and the trivial ("Toothbrushes" or "Q-Tips") and lets them spark his imagination. Whether it's owls, otters, noses, sex, or the moon, Knausgaard seldom fails to render his subject more miraculous, more an object of wonder.
Three chapters, "December," "January," and "February," contain 20 essays each. "December" and "January" each begin with a "Letter to an Unborn Daughter," and "February" begins with a "Letter to a Newborn Daughter" (Anne Knausgaard was born in 2014). This project, we're told, is her gift.
The fascination of Winter lies in watching where the sizzling gunpowder trail of the Knausgaard mind goes. It's often unpredictable, profound, sometimes wryly humorous. It's also wintry, in tone and content. In my review last fall, I wrote that Autumn was suffused with "tenderness: toward his unborn daughter, toward himself, toward the things of this world." So is Winter, except Winter is introspective, mordant, concerned with cold, snow, darkness. Several essays end with death.
But Winter also offers some of his best writing. "Winter Sounds" tells us that "winter not only muffles some sounds and intensifies others, it also has sounds that are entirely its own, unique to the season, and some of them are the most beautiful of all." And with careful, thoughtful clarity, the clean intensity of Knausgaard's best writing, he gives us this example:
When the snow-covered forest lies motionless beneath the faintly darkening sky, it is completely still. If it then begins to snow and the air fills with snowflakes, it is still completely silent, but the silence is different, it seems to grow denser, more concentrated. . . .
The essay "Trains" may be the loveliest, where a train is
almost the embodiment of longing, as it winds slowly through the landscape, never stopping long enough for any commitments to be undertaken, and from the windows of which the view is constantly changing.
Surprises abound, as in "Windows." Human beings live indoors but bring the outdoors in: potted plants, for example, or windows. So we are never all the way indoors, never wholly disconnected from our outdoor past. "Toothbrushes" leads him to wonder whether, if a state overseer saw the way Knausgaard's children live, the conclusion would be: "Foster home placement?" And the brilliant "Hollow Spaces" tells us that the cavities we create - houses, cars, cupboards, rooms, shelves, cups, bowls - define us more than anything else.
This fascinating writer is least fascinating when most mechanistic. He sometimes has recourse to somewhat too-simple applications of genetics and recent science. Not that he is wrong to do so, only that too often he lets it do his own thinking for him.
Most of the time, his intensity and focus are vivid and fresh. His account of Anne's birth is full of a compassionate, remorseless calm: "[Y]ou drew your first breath, not without pain, I assume, and the world flowed into you." The beauty is with the pain, the pain with the beauty.
Winter is like a boyhood game Knausgaard recounts in "Winter Boots." During weeks that were "probably the happiest of my life," he and his pals would ski on boot soles down ice-glassy slopes. His essays, too, are often wild rides that end breathless and alive.