By Karl Ove Knausgaard
Penguin. 192 pp. $27
Reviewed by John Timpane
In Spring, Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard has thrown us an unexpected move, so unexpected that it pulls everything straight.
Since September, English translations have been appearing of his collections of short nonfiction essays themed to the seasons. Autumn and Winter have been reviewed here, and now we have Spring. With their sometimes anxious, often tender glimpses of otters and stars, buttons and children, the two previous volumes were celebrations of the concrete things of this world. They felt like their seasons, Autumn rich and melancholic, Winter mordant and dark. Yet there was an unnamed undertow, something coiled at the bottom of the dark lake of Knausgaard's soul.
In Spring, it uncoils. And what happens in this short book forces us to reconsider the first two, indeed the whole project.
As Autumn told us, Knausgaard dedicates these four books to his daughter Anne, still in utero when he began, and born in 2014. Keep that in mind. Also keep in mind that Knausgaard's tempestuous marriage to fellow novelist Linda Boström, who struggles with bipolar disorder, ended in 2017. And if you have read Knausgaard's far-famed My Struggle books, you know that family secrets often destroy, or threaten to destroy.
Spring is a nonfiction novel taking place on one day in the life of the Knausgaard household. The author, soloing, gets the kids ready for daycare or school, wheels the baby in the pram around the neighborhood. Much is lovely, like this description of a beach walk,
a windblown, grass-covered area which in the summer could be almost unbearably beautiful, on days when the air stood motionless in the heat, when the sun went down in the west and the sea lay perfectly still and glittering ...
But much is turbulent, as thoughts dive and run. He tells his infant daughter:
The life I live is separated from yours by an abyss. It is full of problems, of conflicts and duties, things that have to be handled, fixed, of wills that must be satisfied, wills that must be resisted and perhaps wounded, all in a continual stream where almost nothing stands still but everything is in motion and everything has to be parried.
The need for adults in the adult world to "parry," to fend off, and the fear that some have no such defenses, suffuses the book. Something's wrong; we can feel it; it will come.
As we read, we realize the purpose behind Autumn, Winter, Spring, and, this summer, Summer. Knausgaard writes in a desperate bid to throw his daughter a lifeline, well before she even needs one. You go back, reread those tender, intense books, return to Spring, and see: This man is writing to save his daughter's life.