In Defence of Knausgaard's Seasons Quartet
Critics turned on Karl Ove Knausgård after Autumn, the first of his seemingly self-indulgent Seasons Quartet. We never like to see a poor literary superstar bullied, so Scandinavian Correspondent Dominic Hinde throws him a lifeline as Winter publishes
Autumn, the first in Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård's seasonal quartet, following the global success of the My Struggle project, received mixed reviews – being accused of cliché, sentimentalism and repetition. Sadly for the Knausgård marketeers, Winter is more of the same. The set up is simple: Knausgård takes objects and concepts and writes about them as a series of notes to his unborn child. The problem for reviewers seems to be that he is a novelist and not a journalist. Knausgård is under no obligation to make things relevant or interesting to the reader, and writes with the confidence of someone with a multi-book publishing deal and money in the bank who doesn’t care all that much what the Spectator’s literary editor thinks.
With My Struggle, Knausgård achieved that rare thing for a writer from a narrowly-spoken language and a small country – being put on a pedestal in the English language book world as an author of global stature. There was even a cameo in a BBC documentary about Alan Bennett when Knausgård, towering over Bennett like Chewbacca over Mark Hamill in Star Wars' throne room scene, appears at the New York public library to be awarded a ‘library lion’ medal. It isn’t apparent exactly what he has done to earn the award, but he accepts it with good grace together with the other big names the library has dragged in to attract donors.
The construction of Knausgård as a literary celebrity has had a strange effect on his whole output. Like the crowds flocking to see the re-hashed films of that aforementioned Star Wars 'franchise', the fan base is big enough that anything with the brand on it will sell. It is a position that could be a prison but seems instead to have set him free. In Winter, Knausgård appears entirely uninterested by the events of My Struggle and has gone back to basics, almost unashamedly self-indulgent in his metaphysical wandering.
Winter is a book best read a few moments at a time. The strong metaphysical bent to Knausgård’s prose is part of a long tradition of Nordic writers who have explored big questions in few words. The collection never really goes anywhere, so while it is lovely to read, the last page has much the same tone and pace as the first. Knausgård is a man passing through, but reluctant to reveal any destination. This mood is even expressed directly in a short monologue about watching a train race by a railway crossing, knowing that it has a fixed terminus and a timetable.
This is the problem with metaphysical writing – the conclusion is in the form and the form needs to be translated well to make the writing work. The decision to use Ingvild Burkey – a Norwegian poet – means that the Norwegian sensibilities remain largely intact even if the English is sometimes lacking in resonance as a result.
Another important factor in understanding what Winter represents is that between being written and it being translated, Knausgård separated from Linda Boström, the Swedish poet and mother of the unborn child at the centre of the cycle who is a constant presence in all of the My Struggle series. This makes the book melancholy and insightful for slightly unintended reasons. Boström is remarkably absent from Winter even though she is vital in the process of Knausgård having another baby.
The thing that remains from the My Struggle books is Knausgård’s fascination with childhood development and primitivism, including his own. He talks about the jealousy he feels when his own child celebrates his birthday and the idea that birthdays are important, something he did away with long ago. He also ponders at length about the difference between sex had in the early days of a relationship at distance and the closeness of family and cohabitation, and how children are taught all about sex as a visual but forbidden experience at the same time as the notion of romantic love is hammered into them. The point of all this self examination is to expose Karl Ove’s unwillingness to embrace his own sexuality for fear of underperforming for the woman he desires most in a constant repetition of his own teenage angst.
Sex only merits one entry, but other subjects include ‘Bus’, ‘Operation’ and ‘The Moon’, like a list of words a toddler has collected assuming that what they know is all there is. Even as a fully grown and now very wealthy adult, Knausgård is a child. This is the crux of his writing, deep and precise but simultaneously primitive in its endless fascination with extremely basic processes. Like a toddler standing on a railway platform watching the same trains go past again and again, Knausgård can hold his attention on mundane things and find endless depth in them. The harsher critics of Autumn failed to see any point in this navel gazing, but like its predecessor, Winter invites readers to change their mindset and indulge in a bit of metaphysical naïvety. Give that man-child a medal.
Winter is out 2 Nov, published by Vintage, RRP £16.99