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Karl Ove Knausgaard: Master of the Mundane

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The cult of Karl Ove Knausgaard reveals a milder side


Autumn | Karl Ove Knausgaard | Harvill Secker | Pages 240 | £16.99

KARL OVE KNAUSGAARD has often come across to his readers, most of whom worship him for his anarchistic and abrasive ways, as a likeable cad. He had been a committed liberal over hot topics in Europe such as welfare and migration. But he wrote without any sense of foreboding or partially censoring details of real-life characters he knew only too well—among them were close relatives including his father, former girlfriends and wife—unmindful of how they would feel about his reckless public admissions about his relationship with them, their vices, his own wild sexual fantasies, indiscretions, his prolonged psychological battle with premature ejaculation, his indifference towards uncles, aunts, wife, children and friends. So much so, that his writer wife Linda cried after reading the manuscript of his mammoth, 3,600-page autobiographical sketch that he calls a novel, My Struggle, spread across six volumes. Knausgaard’s no- holds-barred introspection of his own life from early childhood earned him comparisons with Marcel Proust and his iconic work Remembrance of Things Past.

Knausgaard is a man of contradictions. He advocates soft immigration policies, voices support for humanitarian causes, but shows utter lack of respect for the privacy of those who wished to keep their secrets a secret. His streak of irreverence and the display of his famed insensitivity seem to have contributed partly to the halo acquired by the Norwegian writer over time.

And when he started to write for foreign publications, notably a longish travel account for The New York Times driving down through North American settlements of the Vikings and the American Norwegians of yore, a kind of “tongue-in-cheek Tocqueville”, as the editor had suggested, we could see for ourselves certain spiritual traits of the celebrated writer, who, by his own confession, believed in destiny. This spiritual aspect was a culture shock for his loyal readers who were used to his extreme rationalism and caustic commentaries of people and places. He starts his two-part My Saga series in The New York Times referring to ancient Norwegian words of wisdom that those who lose money finally gain money, referring to his earlier tours to America when, in New York, he lost his passports, credit cards and almost all his valuables. He wrote of his faith that he would still get by. Thanks to a series of miracles, he did finally get them all back. This is a Knausgaard you did not know before in his works. And at that moment, you learn that, like his eminently elaborate style that keeps you hooked, you must always expect the Norwegian with a brooding sense of humour and quietude to spring surprises.

Yet, re-reading one of his My Struggle books takes you back into a state of inertia, of expecting stereotypes from a cult writer like him. For those who grew up gorging on the likes of Carlos Fuentes, Ruan Rulfo, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and their predecessor novelists, what’s admirable in their writing is their versatility, their long-held beliefs and convictions, their political affiliations and reinforcement of stereotypes. While this is a trap very few wriggle out of, their greatness as writers gets associated with a range of attributes, including their ability to develop a pastiche and therefore a vague sense of predictability—not so much with the style of writing, but with the treatment of their characters. But be warned, authors who stick to predictable endings and narratives don’t always get it wrong.

Now, Knausgaard’s passionate essay on footballer Angel Di Maria is in line with his persona of celebrating manliness, love for an iconoclast from a third world country and a fascination with the Beautiful Game which is as subaltern as subaltern can get, despite the humongous money and corruption involved. During the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Knausgaard exchanged letters with writer Fredrik Eklund, who had travelled to the South American country to watch the game, before they published their interactions. Knausgaard had wanted to visit Brazil, too, but couldn’t stay away from home around then for one full month.

In Autumn, Knausgaard reveals his humane and softer nature, as if there is a rapid makeover in the man. Perhaps his faithful readers didn't expect him to have a softer side at all

This time, in Autumn (Harvill Secker; pages 240; £16.99)— the English edition of which has recently hit the stands—the first of his Seasons quartet of the author’s reflections on life and philosophy, Knausgaard reveals his humane and softer nature, as if the man has had a quick makeover. Perhaps his faithful readers, mesmerised by his unpitying style, didn’t expect him to have a softer side at all, that of a doting father, a man in love with nature and full of compassion and curiosity for the bounty of planet earth. To be fair, he had given us a glimpse earlier of what he actually is, a tad different from the insecure child in a broken family trying to project himself as strong man. Writing in The New Yorker in 2015 about the 2011 mass-murder of 77 of his countrymen by right-wing radicalist Anders Behring Breivik, he had conceded, ‘Like many Norwegians, I cried when I learned what had happened, and in the days following.’

For a man who had endured a complicated relationship with his father that most likely rendered him insecure about himself, the 48-year-old writer’s Autumn starts with a Letter to an Unborn Daughter. As a struggling young writer, he had found bringing up children a tortuous experience, but in this latest collection of essays, he recalls with great affection the births of his first three children, Vanja, Heidi and John. He also talks about his views of what they are today: each of them with a personality entirely their own. Then he writes about what she is going to be, if his next, unborn child is a girl: ‘I assume that is how it will be with you too, that you already are the person you will become.’

He details the importance of family in the letter, a pronouncement that is quite unlike Knausgaard of My Struggle vintage. This is how it goes: ‘Three siblings, a mother and a father, that’s us. That’s your family. I mention it first because it’s what matters most. Good or bad, warm or cold, strict or indulgent, it doesn’t matter, this is the most important thing, these are the relationships through which you will come to view your world, and which will shape your understanding of almost everything, directly or indirectly, both in the form of resistance and of support.’

In this first essay in his new book, the author asks a simple question that is often asked but means nothing to a child: what makes life worth living? ‘No child asks itself that question. To children life is self-evident. Life goes without saying: whether it is good or bad makes no difference. This is because children don’t see the world, don’t observe the world, don’t contemplate the world, but are so deeply immersed in the world that they don’t distinguish between it and their own selves. Not until that happens, until a distance appears between what they are and what the world is, does the question arise: what makes life worth living,’ writes Knausgaard. Again, not all unborn children have fathers whose words will appear like gold dust later, once they grow up: ‘I want to show you our world as it is now; the door, the water tap and the sink, the garden chair close to the wall beneath the kitchen window, the sun, the water, the tress.’

Though this book lacks the splendour of his earlier works, perhaps this one shows how the writer thinks and how he builds his narratives, what is important to him and how he comes up with the most unexpected lines and phrases.

Knausgaard covers fingers, bottles, infants, badgers, cars, loneliness, experience, lice, oil tankers, flies, vomit, dawn and much more, offering both humour and unpredictable logic

In another write-up titled Apples, he offers some key takeaways from his observations about life, love, preferences, eating habits, choices and so on. He states the obvious and then goes beyond the obvious to make a stunning statement that we might wonder how we always missed it. The author notes that in the Nordic countries, fruits are ‘easily accessible’ and you just have to pluck it and eat it because the skin of the fruit is smooth. As you go down south in Europe, you get fruits with thick inedible skins. Knausgaard says that he prefers the latter because, according to him, ‘the notion that pleasure must be deserved through prior effort is strong in me, and because I have always been drawn towards the hidden and the secret.’ Yet, as a father, he hints, he might defy his own preferences only to make his children happy. It is here he learns to unlearn and goes after new priorities that keep his children (obviously apple lovers) happy.

The author deserves praise for his keen sense of observation of everything from wasps to first teeth to plastic bags to petrol and frogs and much more. For instance, he writes about peeing. He states that at the time of his writing about piss, he had been alive for roughly 16,500 days, and goes on to track the evolution since infancy of peeing, which he says has to be learnt, from peeing in one’s bed to the time when one feels a faint titillation. Quite interestingly, what comes to the fore in this book is the writer’s penchant for giving the mundane its due. This is a process, we assume, that helps him immeasurably in his creative pursuit as a writer with an eye for fine detail. He places under the radar other such commonplace yet universal themes to weave a story around them: lightning, blood, bee-keeping, chewing gum, a mouth and so on.

Here is a dose of his imagination, this time about chewing gum: ‘…I am reminded every time I am in town, where pavements and squares outside the main public buildings are covered in white spots distributed as randomly as the stars in the sky, and in the darkness, lit up by street lamps and shimmering faintly against the black asphalt, what the gum-flecked pavements most resemble is indeed a starry sky.’

In all, he writes three letters to the unborn daughter in this book, first in the month of August, then in September-end and then towards October-end, each time following up with 20 write-ups a month for three months. So there are 60 brief essays besides the three letters. Somewhere, Knausgaard tells the unborn child that if she happens to be a girl, she would be named Anne. And then goes on to write about everyday things such as rubber boots, fever, jellyfish, labia, war and so on. Explaining the oblong folds on a woman’s body, he comes up with gems such as these: ‘The main battle between shame and desire is waged over sexuality.’

Knausgaard covers fingers, bottles, infants, badgers, cars, loneliness, experience, lice, oil tankers, migration of birds, faces, tin cans, flies, vomit, dawn and much more, offering both humour and unpredictable logic.

He also pens his thoughts on Vincent Van Gogh. He dwells at length on why Van Gogh would have been an ‘untalented friend’s still untalented friend’ had the artist lived during the Renaissance or the Baroque or the Impressionist era because the iconic painter had a difficulty in painting people. Writes Knausgaard: ‘Van Gogh tried to commit himself to the world but couldn’t do it, he tried to commit himself to painting but couldn’t do it, therefore he rose above them both and committed himself to death; only then did the world and painting become possible for him.’ Such a statement might kick up a controversy, but then this is one author who has no qualms about speaking inconvenient truths even of those alive and who could potentially sue him.

More commonplace subjects come up: telephones, dawn, pain and so on. The writer then talks about Gustav Flaubert. He calls his Madam Bovary the world’s greatest novel. He explains why: ‘Flaubert’s sentences are like a rag rubbed across a windowpane encrusted with smoke and dirt which you have long since grown accustomed to seeing the world through. The feeling you get then, when for the first time in a long while the world shines brightly again.’

Other topics that he takes up only to offer some extremely contrarian views are chimneys, ambulances and thermos flasks. He has some insightful views on silence, too. ‘Literature about life and living is more closely related to nothing and lifelessness, night and silence, than we imagine it to be. Letters are nothing but dead signs, and books are their coffins. Not a sound has issued from this text while you have been reading it,’ Knausgaard writes.

The stunning artwork by Vanessa Baird adds to the charm of the book and the stellar translation keeps the reader enthused. This book is important as it lays bare the endless sources of inspiration for one of the world’s most successful writers of fiction. Reading this book is a tour through the fecund mind of Knausgaard.

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