Karl Ove Knausgaard's Summerby Robert Blaisdell
Karl Ove Knausgaard
(Penguin Press, 2018)
Translated by Ingvild Burkey
How come Knausgaard can concentrate his attention on seemingly anything in the world and deftly uncover the dances and dodges of mind and feeling?: “… every time I see a slug these days I am struck by how it inverts qualities that normally belong to the intimate human sphere and there express great beauty—nude is vulnerable, soft is arousing, lungs are the spirit of life, the forest is pure nature—for the slugs’ nakedness, the slugs’ softness, the slugs’ lungs and the slugs’ forest are instead repulsive, deeply undesirable and loathsome.”
Why is Knausgaard so good?
I’ve read all four books of the “Seasons” series twice: Autumn and Winter are a matched pair: twenty essays a month on a variety of phenomena. So homey, those darting explicatory personal essays! I wondered at Knausgaard’s orderliness. Spring, on the other hand, labeled a novel, is an account of one man’s one day of domestic duties with four young children and a depressed, devastated wife.
Summer is a collection of Knausgaard’s essays and diary entries and is the least orderly, least focused or purposeful of the bunch. It’s possible that even if you love Knausgaard you won’t ravenously devour Summer. There are 36 two-to-four-page essays and about 170 pages of diaries. Where Autumn, Winter, and Spring are tight and brief, Summer looks and feels bulky, as if Knausgaard was leaving on a long trip and in his haste couldn’t figure out what to pack, so he just brought it all!
You wonder: The more Knausgaard the better? As a devotee of the epic My Struggle, I think so. Life asserts itself on the artist, and he, like soft clay, lets it make its deep fine impressions on him: “The struggle against shame is old, I have been battling it since I was thirteen, but part of the problem with shame is that it is always new, that it always comes as if for the first time—and that, I suppose, is something it has in common with the other emotions that take control over us, desire or infatuation, jealousy or shyness, they are pure, in the sense that they contain nothing but themselves, they are devoid of self-reflection or experience.”
I enjoy the spontaneity of Knausgaard playing whatever cards he’s been dealt, because the rigor of the writing he does now depends on his exposure of the immediate moment: “Only by forgetting that one is writing can one write and give an external expression to the internal thought without it being marked or prevented by shame, as all other external expressions are.” We are there with him, again and again, at the birth of an idea. And there are so many ideas, so many exquisite moments with his children—in the car, on bikes, at the table. The more he recounts the more you will recall of your own life.
Summer doesn’t even follow the chronology of the “Seasons” quartet; the three previous volumes stretched from September 2013 through May 2014. This is 2016. (In the summer of 2014 he was writing the marvelous letters, ostensibly about the World Cup, published in Home and Away; they are much more about his home life than about soccer.) His wife is now for the most part conspicuously mysteriously absent. Knausgaard seems to button his lips or hit the delete key only in relation to her. We know not from this book but from the news that he and the Swedish poet Linda Bostrom Knausgaard split up in the fall of 2016. A couple we “know” and root for have finally called it quits.
In 2016 he was, seemingly, the primary parent and he was thinking, as in the previous seasons, of his youngest daughter, a toddler who would one day grow up and read these pieces. What Knausgaard restores for me is what Tolstoy gave to me the first time I read Anna Karenina as a teenager: the feeling that everything to which we give our undivided attention is interesting and that life is always intense, often at a breaking point, with rare unexpected exultant moments of revelation:
When [a bat] wakes in spring and its heart begins to beat faster, is it then immediately familiar with itself and the life that awaits it? Or does it feel as we sometimes do when we return to our house after a long holiday, that everything has a faint shimmer of strangeness? Most likely it has barely registered its absence from the world, it probably falls back into itself and its own existence within a fraction of a second. But that may be enough for satisfying or even pleasurable sensations to arise within it: once again it will fling itself into the mesh of sonar impressions and fly through the labyrinth of its own mind.
Scattered amid the diary entries is a short story told from the point of view of a Norwegian wife and mother who left her family at the close of the Second World War for a Nazi soldier she had nursed. More captivating than the fictionalized tale of a housewife’s fateful escape from a conventional life, however, is everything else Knausgaard has written. For example, after preparing for barbecues two summer nights in a row, he reflects:
The shame I feel so strongly occurs only on the surface of the soul, it is a bit like the flame over charcoal, it is fuelled by lighter fluid and dances above the blackness, lightly and almost non-committally, whereas the glow within the charcoal is something quite other and deeper. I haven’t killed anyone, even though it sometimes feels as if I have, and the things I anguish so much about are inconsequential in the bigger picture, they have to do with superficial matters in the world of social interaction, what others might think or believe, and the anguish is inconstant and flickering, not embedded in anything essential.
One of the reasons Knausgaard is a great artist is because he persuades us that awareness of the moment is an inexhaustible topic:
The feeling that I no longer belong with my memories and thoughts, that they are just passing through me as if I were a sort of station, doesn’t have anything to do with my age, nor does it have anything to do with any kind of existential dimension … It seems more likely that it is connected with what I do: that I have written down my thoughts and memories, and that others have read them, and that in all the events I take part in I sit talking about my thoughts and memories in front of an audience. The feeling that they don’t belong to me is reasonable, I have given them away, and I continue to give them away.
Let’s hope Knausgaard keeps giving.
ROBERT BLAISDELL is writing a biography of Lev Tolstoy. He teaches at Kingsborough Community College.