“Many writers are very bad communicators in life, but they are great writers. The writers I know are fucked, wrecked, destroyed: Not all of them are aware of it themselves,” Karl Ove Knausgaard says, over a mid-afternoon glass of water at an Auckland hotel. Not just Scandinavian writers? “No, there’s a lot of fucked up people all around the world.”
Despite the unrelenting detail of his 3,600 page “indiscreet” memoir My Struggle, Knausgaard has a rep for being less than forthcoming in conversation. The “existential loner hero with four children,” Zadie Smith said, has “many contradictions.” “I tried desperately to think of something to say. We had to have something in common,” Knausgaard recalled his awkward lunch at Jeffrey Eugenides’s home. “But no, I couldn’t come up with a single topic of conversation.”
Knausgaard is jaggedly handsome and sharply dressed, six feet, four inches tall and firm of handshake. Scandinavia’s leading literary figure of the last decade has things to say, seasoned with gesture and glance. He can be minimalist with his responses, though: Some questions and observations elicit “Yeah” or “Yeah. That’s true,” accompanied by a nod, a raised eyebrow, or─most tellingly—an affirming smile or laugh. Knausgaard is a fine exemplar of Scandinavia’s dry, deadpan humor. In My Struggle, he can be very funny. He writes about being a teenager doing a creative writing course, surreptitiously looking at Peter Paul Rubens and Eugène Delacroix nudes in a library art book. The comedy of trying to get laid for the first time, and dealing with premature ejaculation. And writing graffiti like “U2 stops rock.”
Knausgaard is attracted to New Zealand (and the Auckland Writers Festival) by the remoteness and the similarities with his native Norway. “The fjords look the same.” His frankness writing about everyday challenges through My Struggle’s six volumes and the Seasons Quartet─someone close to you being seriously depressed or an alcoholic─resonates with many readers worldwide. “The loving care she sought was bottomless,” he writes of his Swedish ex-wife’s depression in Spring.
Spring, and its lyrical descriptions of nature─“the smell of wet snow in winter,” “the beauty of the world means nothing if you stand alone it”─aims to inspire. “The great and terrifying beauty does not abandon us, it is there all the time,” Knausgaard concludes, “in the sun and the stars, in the bonfire and the darkness.” He is passionate when asked to elaborate about Spring’s message. “Life can be incredibly hard, life can be incredibly difficult, but it’s always worth living. That’s the book essence … Writing a novel is nothing other than making a place where it’s possible to say something simple and true. That message is such a true thing, it’s very banal too, you need a novel to say it so then it becomes true, you understand what it is.”
The 49-year-old father of four says Spring is especially for his youngest daughter, who was in utero when her mother attempted suicide. “It was such a fantastic, idyllic summer. The sun was shining everyday. The children were laughing and swimming. My then-wife was so depressed that she was in bed all the time, and drew all the energy in there. It was so hard to understand, how is this possible to be so disconnected from the world? To not see that happiness and joy, that it just does not mean anything. I have had friends and people I know been depressed and kill themselves. If you just stay there for three more weeks it would be OK. Your life would have been better.”
Knausgaard confides that he himself can still find life a profound struggle. “Life is so hard that you think, ‘what’s the use? Why should it be so fucking difficult, everything?’ I want my daughter to know that life is always worth living.”
Humor is one of the things that can make life worth living, the drummer and soccer enthusiast agrees. “Books Four and Five are especially funny to me, tragic but in a funny way. It’s a deadpan humor. I have friends who think Book Four is the most terrible thing they ever read because they identify so much with it they don’t see the humor. My editor always says to me: In life and in writing, take one step aside and everything looks differently. And humor is that step. When you are there, it’s not funny at all, but it is funny. And it was fun to write about.”
In Summer─among odes to “Barbecue,” “Dogs,” “Ice Cream,” “Bicycle,” and “Repetition”─he praises Monty Python. “A [teenage] revelation,” he adds. Further comedies enjoyed include Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Seinfeld. Like Seinfeld, My Struggle is about everything, though it has been said to be about nothing? “Yeah, that’s true. I’ve also thought that about Seinfeld, that there is a relation somehow,” Knausgaard smiles.
Though his English publishers describe My Struggle as autobiographical novels, the self-dubbed workaholic (“writing to escape myself”) says that they are “novelized autobiographies,” poetic truth. Literature should go for the hurt and fear and be ruthless, Knausgaard adds. “You’re not a real writer until you have enemies.”
My Struggle: Six, released in English translation during September, caused controversy in Scandinavia for its coverage of Adolf Hitler and Anders Breivik. Knausgaard—now in a relationship with his U.K. publisher Michal Shavit─counters that he dislikes Sweden’s journalistic and academic cultures. “It’s so monological. It’s very one-sided. I wrote an essay about it called “In the Land of the Cyclops.” There’s a monopoly of meanings. If you have an opinion outside of that it’s impossible. I’m being compared to Nazism and Breivik because of that. It’s very different than Norway. My English is not good enough to explain. You can see it now in the crisis about the Swedish [Nobel] Academy. That’s a very interesting thing that’s happening. It’s only one version [of events] that’s dominating. There are other possible versions, but they’re just not present.”
Knausgaard (recently in The Other Munch) is currently adapting his debut novel Out of This World for cinema, and greatly likes films such as Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure and The Square. He is intrigued by Lars Von Trier’s serial killer movie, The House That Jack Built. “One hundred people walking out [at Cannes debut]. I think he’s a genius, absolutely brilliant. I hope I will never meet him.” He double-checks a new Von Trier quote on his phone: “‘I’ve never killed anyone myself. If I do, it will have to be a journalist.’” That sly smile again. “I don’t think he means journalists like you.”
Photos: James Black
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.
Out this week: Warlight by Michael Ondaatje; That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam; Come West and See by Maxim Loskutoff; The Lost Empress by Sergio De La Pava; Belly Up by Rita Bullwinkel; and Spring by Karl Ove Knausgaard.
We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month — for more May titles, check out our First-Half Preview. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!
(Also, as Millions founder and publisher C. Max Magee wrote recently, you can help ensure that these previews, and all our great books coverage, continue for years to come by lending your support to the site as a member. The Millions has been running for nearly 15 years on a wing and a prayer, and we’re incredibly grateful for the love of our recurring readers and current members who help us sustain the work that we do.)
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje: From internationally acclaimed, bestselling author of The English Patient and Divisidero among his other works, this new novel from Ondaatje is set in the decade after World War II. When their parents move to Singapore, 14-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, are left in London under the watchful eye of a mysterious figure called The Moth. As they become immersed in his eccentric circle of friends, they are both protected and educated in confusing ways. The mystery deepens when their mother returns months later without their father, but gives them no explanation. Years later, Nathaniel begins to uncover the story through a journey of facts, recollection, and imagination. If only Anthony Minghella were still with us to make the movie. (Claire)
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner: In her third novel, two-time National Book Award-finalist Kushner writes about a woman named Romy Hall who is serving two consecutive life sentences (plus six years) in a prison in California’s Central Valley. The year is 2003, and the Mars Room in the title refers to a strip club in San Francisco where Romy used to dance; according to the jacket copy, Kushner details “the deadpan absurdities of institutional living…with humor and precision.” George Saunders calls Kushner “a young master” and Robert Stone wrote that she is “a novelist of the very first order.” Check out this short excerpt published by Entertainment Weekly. (Edan)
Some Trick by Helen DeWitt: If you periodically spend afternoons sitting around wondering when you will get to read something new by DeWitt, this is your season. In May we get 13 stories from the brilliant writer who brought us The Last Samurai—one of the best books of this or any millennium—and the evilly good Lightning Rods. In this collection DeWitt will evidently apply her mordant virtuosity to territory ranging from statistics to publishing. (Lydia)
Not That Bad, edited by Roxane Gay: In this age when (some) sexual assault survivors are finally being listened to and (some) sexual predators are being held accountable, there couldn’t be a better time for an essay collection examining just how pervasive and pernicious rape culture is. Gay has become a champion for survivors of sexual assault since the beginning of her writing career, so she is the ideal editor of this book that attacks rape culture from all angles. From essays by well-known figures such as Gabrielle Union to emerging writers, this book explores all elements of this ill from child molestation to the rape epidemic in the refugee world. (Tess)
Motherhood by Sheila Heti: Heti’s previous two books have created and followed lines of inquiry—with Misha Glouberman she wrote a book of conversational philosophy, The Chairs Are Where People Go. Heti’s novel How Should a Person Be? is an early work of autofiction that delves deep into art-making and friendship. Some called it a literary form of reality TV, making James Wood’s backhanded assessment of the book as both “unpretentious” and “narcissistic” quite the unintentional compliment. Heti’s new novel Motherhood follows in a similar line of existential questioning—the narrator approaches the topic of motherhood, asking not when but if she should endeavor to become a mother at all. (Anne)
That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam: “Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s easy.” Priscilla Johnson says those words to Rebecca Stone early in Alam’s novel. Rebecca’s just given birth to her son Jacob, and the novel’s first scene feels both dizzying and precise—a visceral reminder of life’s complex surprises. Priscilla is the hospital staffer who most calms Rebecca’s anxieties, so much that she asks Priscilla to be Jacob’s nanny. A few years later, Priscilla’s own pregnancy ends in heartbreak. Rebecca’s decision to adopt Andrew is complex: she loves and misses Priscilla, and dearly loves this boy, but is she ready for the reality of raising a black son as a white mother? Alam’s sharp narrative asides—lines like “Some percentage of the things she did for the children were actually for her”—carry such weight and truth that we trust his route toward the bigger question of the book: are we ever ready for the pain and joy that life delivers us? (Nick R.)
Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo: Five characters arrive in the megacity seeking to make a new start, leaving behind traumatic situations born of Nigeria’s sociopolitical complexities and mingling their fortunes in what Booklist calls, in a starred review, “a tangy Ocean’s Eleven–esque escapade that exposes class and ethnic divides in the country even as it manages to mock the West for its colonial gaze toward the African continent as a whole.” (Lydia)
Spring by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Ingvild Burkey: This is the third book in the master’s Seasons Quartet, a novel rather than the essays that characterized the previous volume. With Spring, Knausgaard explores a family disaster, explaining to his daughter (the intended audience of the Quartet) why it is that they receive visits from Child Services, and what it was that caused her mother to leave. (Lydia)
Last Stories by William Trevor: Prior to his death in November 2016, Trevor told a friend that the book he was working on would be called Last Stories. That is this book—the last we will ever have from the Irish author. Six of the 10 stories included here have never been published before, and what preview would be sufficient? Perhaps just this: if the engine of accomplished fiction truly is empathy, then you will be hard pressed to uncover a finer practitioner of the core humanity that inspired and inspires this deliberate, and personal, epitaph. (Il’ja)
Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau, translated by Linda Coverdale: A newly translated novel from a Prix Goncourt winner who Milan Kundera called the “heir of Joyce and Kafka,” Slave Old Man is the hallucinatory journey of an old man who has escaped enslavement on a plantation in the forest of Martinique, pursued by his former captor and a fierce dog. In a starred review, Publishers’ Weekly writes, “Chamoiseau’s prose is astounding in its beauty.” (Lydia)
Like a Mother by Angela Garbes: Several years ago Garbes, a food writer, wrote a viral and absolutely bananas piece about the mysteries and miracles of breastfeeding. Now she brings the same spirit of inquiry and amazement to a related and equally bananas process, filling a lacuna she faced when she was pregnant with her first child. The result is a deeply reported, deeply felt book on everything surrounding reproduction and its effects on the body and the mind. (Lydia)
Calypso by David Sedaris: In this, his first essay collection in five years, Sedaris uses a family beach house as a starting point to explore mortality and age with his characteristic humor and aplomb. (Read Sedaris’s latest essay, on his mother’s alcoholism, here at The New Yorker.) (Lydia)
The Ensemble by Aja Gabel: A novel about art and friendship and the fraught world of accomplished musicians—four young friends who comprise a string quartet. Mat Johnson said Gabel’s novel “deserves a standing ovation.” For a taste of Gabel’s prose, read her Best American Essays-notable piece on grief and eating ortolans in France. (Lydia)
The Lost Empress by Sergio De La Pava: De La Pava’s first novel, A Naked Singularity, was the rare self-published novel to receive critical acclaim, including the PEN/Bingham Prize. The Lost Empress is as ambitious as his first, a 672-page doorstopper that takes on both football and the criminal justice system. The novel has a large cast, but centers on two characters: Nina Gill, the daughter of the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, and presumed heir to the franchise; and Nuno DeAngeles, “a brilliant criminal mastermind,” who gets himself thrown into prison in order to commit a crime. (Hannah)
A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley: New York-bred writer Brinkley (and Year in Reading alum) delivers this anticipated debut story collection. Ranging from encounters on the New York subway to a young boy’s first encounter with the reality of racial hierarchy, these sensitive and probing stories promise to captivate. If you’ve read Brinkley’s title story “A Lucky Man” in A Public Space, then you know that he’s a talent to watch. (Ismail)
The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel: Abel’s debut centers around a group of young people who converge in a utopian summer camp in a small town in the Colorado mountains, exploring American obsessions of freedom, ownership, property, and class against the vagaries of the Reagan and Bush years. In a starred review, Publishers’ Weekly calls this novel “politically and psychologically acute.” (Lydia)
Belly Up by Rita Bullwinkel: Bullwinkel’s stories are fantastic and fabulist feats that (often) address our messy, cumbersome bodies in thrilling and imaginative ways. For example: in lieu of a bra, a man is hired to support a daughter’s breasts; a woman whose plastic surgeon, when fixing her eyes, leaves her with a turkey neck (not literally but); twin brothers Gleb and Oleg, surgeon and sculptor, live in a prison infirmary and perform a thumb transplant. A compelling new voice, Bullwinkel has had stories in Tin House, Guernica, and Noon. Her first book, the story collection Belly Up, will be published by A Strange Object. (Anne)
Meet behind Mars by Renee Simms: In stories taking place across the United States and ranging in style from fabulist to realist to satyrical, Simms, a professor at University of Puget Sound, writes scenes from the American experience, focusing on the connections and inner spaces of a large cast of African-American characters. Tayari Jones calls this “an exciting debut of a vibrant new voice in American literature.” (Lydia)
Kickflip Boys by Neal Thompson: We all turn out like our parents to some degree — an unsettling revelation when we remember our own missteps growing up. In Neal Thompson’s new memoir Kickflip Boys, he recalls his rough-edged upbringing as he raises his skateboard-obsessed boys and wonders about their own emerging rough edges. Thompson is a magazine writer and the author of four prior books, most notably his biography of Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley. (Max)
The Pisces by Melissa Broder: You may know Broder because of her incredible So Sad Today tweets. If you do, you won’t be surprised to hear about her novel, The Pisces, which follows a Ph.D student in love with a Californian merman. The student, Lucy, has a breakdown after nine years of grad school, which compels her Angeleno sister to invite her to dogsit at her place. On the beach, a merman appears, and Lucy embarks on a romance that seems impossible. (Thom)
The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar: A novel about the Syrian war and the refugee crisis, juxtaposing the life of a modern girl fleeing Homs across land and sea and her medieval counterpart, a girl who traversed the same territory while apprenticed to a renowned mapmaker. Simultaneously an homage to Arab intellectual history and a lament of modern chaos. (Lydia)