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The latest drama, after ‘My Struggle’

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Review | 7 minute read
How is Karl Ove Knausgaard following up his epic series of autobiographical novels? Surely not with more of the same...?

Before I interviewed Karl Ove Knausgaard in 2013, his publicist warned me: ‘Karl Ove doesn’t do small talk.’ This was both disappointing and surprising. I like small talk, in part because it can lead to bigger talk, and to say you don’t do it is daft, as we all have to do it at some point. Knausgaard’s books are full of flat dialogue and the details of everyday life, so I had expected to find in the Norwegian writer a fellow champion of small talk. His six-volume My Struggle series of autobiographical novels, which take us from his childhood, through his angst-ridden youth, to his angst-ridden middle age as a stay-at-home dad and novelist, reminds us that even the most mundane aspects of our lives can be poignant and worthy of contemplation.

In the interview, Knausgaard appeared shy and, when I asked him about particular lines in his books, said he didn’t remember writing them. He became animated when I mentioned the band he forms in Volume One and the scene when they play a disastrous gig at a shopping mall. Why are bands in novels always crap? I asked. ‘The band I played in when I was fifteen were bad,’ said Knausgaard, ‘but the band I formed later at university with my brother could have made it.’ There was something pleading about the way he looked at me when he said this. He repeated: ‘We could have made it.’

In My Struggle, Knausgaard thinks often of roads not taken: he fantasises about boarding the boats that sail by the town where he grows up; later, he finds his marriage suffocating, feels emasculated when pushing a pram around Stockholm, and considers leaving his young family; he yearns for the other lives that might be waiting for him out there. Marcel Proust wrote: ‘The countries which we long for occupy, at any given moment, a far larger place in our actual life than the country in which we happen to be.’ Knausgaard would probably agree and yet My Struggle is an attempt to close the gap between art and life, to say what happened and how it felt. In that sense, it doesn’t matter that Knausgaard’s band could have made it. All that matters is that they didn’t make it.

All six volumes of My Struggle were published in Norway between 2009 and 2011. English language readers have been playing catch-up since they started appearing in Don Bartlett’s translations in 2012. Every spring, I devoured a new volume on publication (I could have read the proofs earlier but wanted the ritual of buying and gripping hardcovers). Everyone was talking about Knausgaard but My Struggle achieves such powerful intimacy that I always feel like I’m the first person to read it. It sparks reveries, so I’m constantly putting the book down to stare into space and think about my own life. The disappointing New Year’s Eve party in Volume One makes me reconsider the fruitless nights of my youth. The family’s Sunday visits to Karl Ove’s grandparents in Volume Three unlock memories of my deceased relatives. In Volume Five, the downtime and confusion of student life is captured perfectly. The books are cathedrals of banal memories and small talk elevated to the level of all that’s best and highest.

This year is the first since 2012 that a new volume hasn’t appeared in English. Tantalisingly, we’ve now had five so there’s one to go. Perhaps Bartlett needs a rest, which would be understandable, or perhaps Knausgaard’s publisher is keeping readers hungry for the sixth and final volume. To sate Knausfiends’ appetites in the meantime, Home and Away – a magnificent collection of correspondence between Knausgaard and the Swedish writer Fredrik Ekelund about the 2014 World Cup in Brazil – was published a year ago. Now comes a new series – four volumes, one for each season, appearing at quarterly intervals. Autumn and Winter, the two volumes to appear so far, are translated from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey and come with illustrations by the painters Vanessa Baird and Lars Lerin respectively. Anselm Kiefer will provide the illustrations for Summer.

At the beginning of Autumn, Knausgaard’s wife is pregnant with their fourth child. Knausgaard addresses his unborn daughter: ‘I want to show you our 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.’ He will return to this letter through the two volumes and he goes on to deliver meditations, which are usually no longer than three pages long, on subjects including winter boots, the nose, sexual desire, the mouth, adders and chewing gum. The seasons books are billed as a new project for Knausgaard but, on the evidence of Autumn and Winter, topics like trains, roosters, Q-tips, coins and birthdays are merely jumping off points for Knausgaard to write about the life he’s leading today and to plunge back into his past.

It’s difficult to know how seriously to take the idea that Knausgaard is writing to his unborn daughter. Other books addressed to children, such as James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963) or Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (2015) were born of their authors’ urgent need to equip their young with the wisdom they would need to survive in an unjust society. You couldn’t say the same about Knausgaard’s decision to share his thoughts on buses and owls. Initially, it feels like there’s little at stake in the seasons books and that Knausgaard is merely acting out his Michel de Montaigne fantasy.

Montaigne retired from public life in 1571 and holed up in his chateau in the Dordogne to write his ‘essais’. Today, Knausgaard has retreated from the attention and anguish (some family members threatened legal action over the way they were depicted) that accompanied the shock success of My Struggle, to his large house in the Swedish countryside. Across the yard, he has an entire cottage for his office. Knausgaard leads a comfortable life but money has never been part of his struggle, which is probably down to Norway’s oil wealth and the Scandinavian countries’ enlightened attitudes to welfare. Writers there simply don’t live with the same insecurity as many of their American and British counterparts.

That said, Knausgaard has criticised the Swedish welfare state and blamed its generous paternity leave system for a ‘softening’ of Swedish men. In Volume Two of My Struggle, he rages against what he sees as the culture of conformity in Swedish society, sneering at the other young dads he meets in parks and nurseries, and upsetting his wife’s friends. It makes for splenetic comedy but he sounds mired in the outdated modes of masculinity that made men of his father’s generation so uptight. This is surprising for a writer who has written at length about his emotionally remote and frightening father, and who has said that, when he became a father, above all else: ‘I did not want my children to fear me.’

On the other hand, no writer has made me want to have children more than Knausgaard. In Volume Two, the fifty-page account of his third child’s birth is exhausting to read and unforgettable. In Home and Away, he writes about cooking a stir-fry for his kids or taking them swimming at the beach with such intensity that these activities sound exciting. One of the most exquisite moments in the new books arrives in the essay ‘Operation’ when Knausgaard takes one of his daughters to hospital for an operation on a hearing impairment.

What’s really at stake in Autumn and Winter is Knausgaard’s need to write. Whether or not you need to read them is another matter. They don’t feel essential, in the way almost everything else in his oeuvre does. They’re lighter than My Struggle, their humour is more deliberate, although this is significant because, at times, it reveals another side to people we have met already in My Struggle. Knausgaard’s father, for instance, is occasionally presented in a different light. In the essay ‘Fireworks’, from Winter, Knausgaard describes his father on New Year’s Eve:

‘I never saw him as happy as during those moments, with the lighter in one hand, the other shielding the fuse, how he stood up abruptly and ran a few steps towards us… and how his eyes shone in his face when the burning fuse reached the powder and the rocket took off.’

Here Knausgaard appears to feel more warmly towards his father than he did in My Struggle. It’s clear that their relationship remains unresolved, as perhaps all parent and child relationships do, and it suggests Knausgaard will continue writing about his father.

It’s obvious from the seasons books too that Knausgaard still yearns for life elsewhere, even if he recognises the superficiality of that yearning in the short essay ‘Trains’:

‘The train’s escape… is almost an embodiment of longing, as it winds slowly through the landscape, never stopping long enough in one place for any commitments to be undertaken… The train never goes from being “here” to being “there”, and this it has in common with longing, which as soon as it reaches “there” transforms it into “here”, which by its nature it doesn’t accept and therefore begins to direct itself toward a new “there”. And so life goes on.’

A couple of years ago, when the second half of My Struggle started to appear with volumes four and five, I wondered how I’d feel when it was all over. I anticipated a hole in my reading year and a minor sense of bereavement.  But in 2017, we’ve started to see the emergence of post-Knausgaard fiction.

His influence was already apparent in Rachel Cusk’s novels Outline (2014) and Transit (2017), and the novelist and memoirist Tim Lott has described feeling energised to write about his life again after reading My Struggle. Three of this year’s most celebrated debut novels – Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, Edouard Louis’s The End of Eddy and Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends – read like their authors have absorbed the influence of Knausgaard, each in their own way. They’re not imitating Knausgaard – far from it – but I sense that they have felt liberated by reading him, and by reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, to use their own lives in their fiction.

Knausgaard has spent the past five years in the strange situation of promoting books in English that he wrote in Norwegian almost a decade ago. Autumn and Winter are his first real attempts to move on from My Struggle but, rather than marking a radical departure, they are merely the next stage in his autobiographical writing project.

Autumn and Winter by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Harvill Secker)

Max Liu’s book, The Best Man, is currently funding at Unbound