The “seasons quartet” by Karl Ove Knausgaard comprises four books. In order of publication, their titles in English are: Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer. Made of paper (unless they’re in electronic form), each book resembles a flat rectangular box with three sides open and hinged lids on top and bottom. Inside are sheets of paper, bound with glue and thread to the “closed” side of the box. The cover of the box …
Never mind all that Knausgaardian verbiage. What’s really inside each book? Autumn’s chapters—“September,” “October,” “November”—start with “Letter to an Unborn Child”; short personal essays follow. Winter follows the same scheme, with “Letter to a Newborn Daughter” heading each month. Spring steps out of the group with a novelly structure. Summer falls more or less back in step with essays followed by diary entries, per month.
I was able to read the four books over their publication schedule. Spring I read straight through. Autumn, Winter, and Summer I put down and picked up at leisure. This is the way to do it. A forced march through the essays is not recommended. Even avoiding surfeit by taking them three or four texts at a time, I pondered if these books would have been better, more honest, with the dreck trimmed out, published as a single, longish book.
I didn’t feel that way about Knausgaard’s autofiction opus My Struggle, the first five volumes of which I read twice in a row (the sixth is not yet available), or A Time for Everything, his mind-boggling novel which tells of biblical angels and retells a few Bible stories I’d assumed I knew pretty well.
Those earlier books formed my conviction, shared by many (but not all, for sure), that Karl Ove Knausgaard is one of the greats whose literary works will live. Even given the enthusiasm carried by conviction, though, it’s plain that the seasons quartet would not stand without Knausgaard’s name on them. Leaving aside commercial ploys—banking on the author’s fame to sell a four-book project—should the seasons books have been published as they are, entirely?
Yes, they should have been published as they are, entirely.
The seasons books—and the wonders within—show the process of a literary writer. Sometimes he blathers. Sometimes the writing feels forced; sometimes it’s cutesy. Sometimes … you fall under that old Knausgaard spell, and if you can mark when that happens, you get to see a writer in his “flow.” Through the best and the worst of the seasons quartet, Knausgaard’s well-known quest for authenticity, exercised in My Struggle, is more transparent than ever. Authenticity, or truth, if you will: It’s the quest of every literary writer, from the most cynical to the most idealistic.
The project was conceived as a series of messages to Knausgaard’s then-unborn fourth child. At the beginning of Autumn, he addresses the child directly: “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.”
Clearly, the unborn child is muse, not reader. This disconnect makes the tone disingenuous. In “Chairs” (Winter), the description is made for someone who hasn’t the foggiest idea of what a chair is: “A chair is for sitting on. It consists of four legs on which rests a board.” Of course, by the time the child can read these books, or can read at all, hopefully she’ll have the hang of chairs, doors, floors, etc.
So why describe the chair? (And not even that well, in this case. If you’re so naive to furniture that you need a chair described, and someone says it has four legs, won’t you think of a dog’s or cat’s legs? Four legs and a board to sit on. Picture it and laugh!) Should the editor have persuaded the writer to trim out from the books all the “A chair is for sitting on” bits?
No. Even if the descriptions fail to give us a child’s-eye look at mundane objects, the build-out of tedium can be marvelous. The essay “Winter Sounds” (Winter) starts with the less-than-brilliant observation: “Walking in the forest in winter is quite different from walking there in summer.” And moves to: “The screech of a crow … which in summer is just one note in a greater tapestry of sound, in winter is allowed to fill the air alone, and every single nuance in its rasping, hoarse, seemingly consonant-filled caws stands out: how they rise aggressively at first, then descend mournfully towards the end, leaving behind a sometimes melancholy, sometimes eerie mood among the trees.” Then to a close with snow falling: “That sound, which is no sound, only a nuance of silence, a kind of intensifying or deepening of it, is the sonic expression of winter’s essence.”
The main problem with reading too many of the essays in one sitting is that they can be formulaic. Physical description of an everyday object: “A chair is for sitting on …” Ruminations on the object’s use/activity in everyday life. Digression into deep thoughts. Close with an insightful non sequitur. Bada bing! You almost cringe in anticipation.
At times, the thoughts are trite, better to have been laid to rest in the closed covers of a journal. At times, they can reach right into the heart of life. “A household of family … exists in the real and aspires towards the ideal. All tragedies arise out of this duality, but also all triumphs.”
Then he goes on, “And the feeling of triumph is what prevails in me now, when the kitchen in the house on the other side of the lawn, lit up like a train compartment in the darkness, where only a few hours ago I did the Christmas cleaning, is sparkling clean and bright.”
Should the last bit have been edited out? Wouldn’t the text be more powerful ending with “A household of family,” which beautifully evokes Tolstoy’s opening of Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”?
That wouldn’t be Knausgaard. He doesn’t “edit out.” Nor is he beginning a book about a tragic love affair in the glittering courts of imperial Russia. He’s writing about his family and about himself, a man taking a smoke on the lawn of a modest country house in early 21st-century Sweden.
Spring stands apart. It’s a novel—autofiction along the lines of My Struggle—following the time frame of the other seasons books: the period around the birth of the youngest daughter. It’s ripping, heartrending, and like My Struggle, it raises the ethical problem of family-centered memoir and autofiction. On one hand, it’s the author’s and his family’s business. On the other hand, published, it becomes the business of whoever reads it. The exposure the family takes in Spring is daunting.
In Summer, Knausgaard’s diary segues in and out of a fiction whose narrator is an old woman looking back on a disastrous love affair. It’s somewhat in the footsteps of Knausgaard’s college mentor Jon Fosse, though not nearly as perplexing as Fosse’s fiction (at least, what’s available in English). Each time Knausgaard announces the story, within his diary entries, it’s with a similar device: “While so far in this text ‘I’ have represented a forty-seven-year-old Norwegian man residing in Sweden with a wife and four children, ‘I’ will soon, as soon as this sentence ends, represent a seventy-three-year-old woman who is sitting at a writing desk in an apartment in Malmö on a summer evening.”
The old woman’s story never goes far; it’s like an abandoned novel whose ending I didn’t particularly regret missing, though I enjoyed reading what there was of it. The problem was, after the first entry, the transition began to seem gimmicky, a clever device—should the old woman story have been deleted? Or the transitions made in a more conventional, less self-conscious way, by a space in the text, for example? Should the story have been gathered up into one segment, rather than scattered throughout the diary?
No. Leave them in, just as they are. The story and the way it’s told share the writer’s process.
Knausgaard writes most compellingly in the seasons books not of objects like toilets and toothbrushes but of his family’s life. He gazes on the belly of his pregnant wife and sees the child move within “almost like the ripples in water when a sea creature moves just beneath the waves.” He watches his son “curled up in a way I have always been affected by, with one knee pulled up to his belly, his head resting against his arm.” He doesn’t stifle the futile, aching urge to protect his children, nor conceal the shameful urge to judge and disparage them over trifles. He lets out the sheer fun of being with his children, both inside and outside their sphere. He lets us in on the joy of family and the deep fear—the deepest kind there is—that comes with deep love. And then he’ll rattle on about something like coins or kitchen utensils.
The spirit of Knausgaard’s seasons quartet lies in its process and its flaws, its moments of physical loveliness, the hapless insights, emotions joyful and big-hearted, petty and bitter. Like My Struggle, but using a different method, they show us a man (with a more-than-ordinary talent for putting himself in words). You might not identify with him at all, but you feel him. At times you’ll be glad you don’t know him personally. At other times, he’s a given, like a friend you’ve known almost too long: a friend who can irritate the hell out of you, whose messes you more or less forgive, whose gifts win you over time and again.
One thing you could always say for me: I was a finisher. I may not have been a great reader, but by God I was dogged, and if I made it through the opening 10th of a book, then I was going all the way to the end. Though this started as merely an inclination, it eventually became a rule, for reasons I can’t quite understand. There are, after all, so many books that deserve abandonment, and to this day I admire readers like my wife, who can jump ship after 80 pages. But I suppose my years as an altar boy left their mark, both in a too-easy conflation of negligence and sin and in a deeper, anthropomorphic sense that even a bad book might at the last minute change into something singular and not-to-be-missed. “Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life,” as Grace Paley put it, in her own American idiom. And if I was to be the little god of the worlds I made when turning the pages, then who was I to let a little boredom or disappointment turn me away? I mean, isn’t the real God, if there is one, a finisher, too?
This isn’t to say there weren’t challenges. The Book of Disquiet took me over a year, and several running starts. Ditto Being & Time. Proust I read over four summers, and though there was never a moment when he sunk me in the swamps of saudade, or gave me whatever is German for brain-freeze, it took a certain monogamous willfulness to return to, say, The Fugitive when fresher titles beckoned from the shelf.
But then came baby #3. Let’s call her N. She was not, exactly, planned on, though for several consecutive springs when my manic phase rolled in I had this sense that my own open destiny would probably include throwing myself out of the fatherhood plane one more time. Capping the family at two kids would have felt like stopping Proust after book six, somehow. I hasten to say of baby N, as of Proust: totally worth it.
Except that all of a sudden I couldn’t finish anything. When N was born, back in February, The Great War raged in Robert Musil’s diary. Socialism, in G.D.H. Cole’s five-volume history, had entered its anarchist phase. Now, in December, poor Robert Musil still hasn’t reached an armistice, while socialism retains a markedly anarchist flavor.
Here was me in the first few months after the delivery: I would open a novel, read along perfectly happily for a day or two, and then let it drop. I was waiting for the thing that would sweep me up and carry me through. But perhaps my reading list was too ambitious for my circumstances. (Like, who outside of grad school reads Musil at the same time as G.D.H. Cole?) I told myself I would move, temporarily, to something more sensible. But to no avail. My study grew littered with dog-eared New Yorkers, foreshortened short stories, longreads I sputtered out halfway through. Many of which I enjoyed, and hope to finish in the near future. For now, though, my year in reading comes back to me as a mixtape, as hip-hop: a swirl of enticing samples. Bits and pieces of Laura Oldfield Ford’s ’zine cycle, Savage Messiah. Phosphorescent sentences from Jaimy Gordon’s Shamp of the City-Solo. Andrew O’Hagan’s essay on Satoshi Nakamoto. Ian Frazier’s on New Jersey Route 3. The poem “Far Rockaway” by Delmore Schwartz. The part of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Time for Everything when Antinous Bellori spots some angels in the woods. The part of Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil where Virgil arrives in Brundisium and the translation hasn’t yet gone bananas. The unimprovable first paragraph of Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days. And Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer,” whose allegorical valences were not lost on me. Here I was looking down from the deck of a ship, not quite where I ever thought I’d be, while down there in the water, untethered but unreachable, swam another, truer self.
Okay, so I guess I did finish the Conrad. And by summer there were other things, small things, I was managing to see to the end. Like several short stories by Mavis Gallant, including “Speck’s Idea,” probably the single most perfect piece of fiction I read this year. Gallant at her best is every bit the equal of Alice Munro, Deborah Eisenberg, or Joy Williams. Whose story “Stuff” was another highlight. As was Claire Vaye Watkins’s “I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness,” from the Granta “Best of Young American Novelists” issue.
Or like the essays in Zadie Smith’s forthcoming collection, Feel Free. Several years ago, I thought I noticed a turn in Smith’s nonfiction, a loosening of the burdens of her remarkable erudition, like an astronaut swapping out the gravity boots, or like a swimmer kicking off from land. The places she now consistently reaches in her essays—on Joni Mitchell and Get Out and Anomalisa and joy—are not only nearer to the distant philosophical goalposts of the true and the just and the beautiful…they get us there with truth and justice and beauty of their own, and with an extraordinary, dab-worthy grace. In short, I feel lucky to be alive at a time when these essays are being written.
People must have felt similarly fortunate reading A Room of One’s Own a century ago, or hearing it in its original form, as lectures. I somehow made it to 38 without having read it, and in a weird way, I’m glad I did. In a college classroom, I might not have understood it as I did this summer in Maine, as a book not only about feminism, or art (as if these were ever “only”), but about how to live, for everyone, everywhere. That was a good week for finishing things, come to think of it, because I also, finally, tackled Evan S. Connell’s Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, those sterling examples of love as an act of ruthless attention. And I read much of Neil Sheehan’s A Bright, Shining Lie, a monument of narrative nonfiction that belongs on the national required reading list.
There was, too, the compellingly terrible first couple hundred pages of Harlot’s Ghost, part of an ongoing personal Norman Mailer project I probably won’t complete short of a vasectomy. There are times these days when I find bad writing as exciting as good writing. Maybe more. And apparently it’s not just me, because Mailer seems to bring the best out of his critics. Witness Elizabeth Hardwick, in her long-overdue Collected Essays: “the demonic, original clutter of Mailer’s high style.” Or witness Jonathan Lethem: “If, as in the Isaiah Berlin formulation, ‘the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,’ then Mailer’s gift and curse was to have been a hedgehog trapped inside an exploding fox.”
Other, more recent titles I should mention: Ben Blum’s Ranger Games, a gripping and thoughtful blend of memoir and true-crime. George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, which I can’t make up my mind about—usually a good sign. And Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “My President Was Black,” with its arresting final cadences. I had read, and felt conflicted about, the epilogue to Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power when it appeared as a stand-alone in The Atlantic. (This is how I read now: epilogue first). If the evidence was hard to reproach, the rhetoric seemed to me flawed. But the book as a whole makes the argument far more persuasively, and—I know this is a little contrarian—I think it’s a more fully realized piece of analysis than Between the World and Me. Coates is that rare thing in our public life: a writer willing to let us see him becoming. We’ll need more of that in the year to come.
And finally, while on the subject of public life and presidents and the winter that is now upon us, I suppose it’s time—with apologies to any of his supporters left reading The Millions—to invoke He Who Must Not Be Named. For, as much as I’ve been pinning my distractibility on baby N (which would suggest I only have to persevere till she sleeps through the night), a novelist friend of mine recently proposed a counter-explanation. “Oh, yeah, man, that’s not you, it’s everyone,” he said. “All of our colleagues, everyone I talk to, my mom and stepdad, their neighbors…It’s been everyone’s worst year in reading.” His argument was that we’re so inundated just at present with narrative and fantasy—with one particular person’s narrative and fantasy—that the last thing we want in our reading lives is more imagination. If democracy dies in darkness, then dispense with the dreaming. Just give me the facts.
Now, if I were a Trumpist, I’d probably say “just give me a break.” There goes the liberal culture industry again, blaming him for their own failings, for every last thing they don’t like. To which I simply ask: aren’t you, too, tired of it? The insults, the feuds, the hysterical touchiness, the drag masculinity, the swamping of the drain, the bull in the nuclear china shop? Not to mention the buck stopping perpetually elsewhere. If politics has become a reality show, we’ve progressed in the last 18 months from the guilty pleasure of The Apprentice to the absurdity of The Celebrity Apprentice to, like, Season 7 of Real Housewives…and did anyone not stuck on an airplane even watch Season 7 of Real Housewives? Haven’t you, too, found far more of your brain given over to Donald Trump than you should have give over to even a good president? Or to put it another way: isn’t one definition of “a good president” “one you don’t have to constantly keep your eye on?” Speaking personally, I’m realizing that I read just as much this year as any year…it’s just that hundreds of my hours were given over to news, lest I fail to be aware of some developing crisis. And in the station wagon of representative government, the driver’s not supposed to be hunched over his twitter feed, leaving everyone else to watch out for hazards. We – I mean to include Trump voters here, too – deserve better. We deserve, at a minimum, adult hands on the wheel.
As to what duties an informed citizenry does have, in this or any other time, it’s worth asking: is newspaper prose plus a handful of cultural swatches anyone’s definition of an inner life? Will even the richest fragments be enough to shield us from ruin? Somehow, I don’t think so. In the short run, the con man who now has the car keys may have exposed our gullibility, sending all of us scrambling to find out things we never had to know before. But the long-term damage may be to a quantity so abused as to have fallen into shame and disrepute: the capacity for belief. We will need, if we are to stitch ourselves together again, to find stories that bridge the unbridgeable, stories that make sense of the senseless, or simply present it in all its mystery, stories that respect the difference between facts and truth – stories worth believing in. In some small way, then, seeing a novel or a poem or a work of imaginative nonfiction through to completion may turn out to be not an irrelevance but an act of subversion. Or better yet: preparation.
Here’s to being a better finisher in 2018.
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