by Derek Neal
Going back and reading one’s favorite authors is like seeing an old friend after a long absence: things fall into place, you remember why it is you get along with and like the other person, and their idiosyncrasies and unique character reappear and interact with your own, making old patterns reemerge and lighting up parts of you that have long been dormant.
Most, if not all my favorite authors, simply write and re-write the same book over and over again. This is often leveled as a criticism, but it is also a compliment. It means that the author in question has developed an individual voice and style that is present in all their works, often being refined over successive books until they eventually write the book that they’ve been trying to write in previous attempts, and this emerges, like a pearl, as the culmination of a lengthy process.
These were the thoughts I had upon recently reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s novel/memoir/letter Spring, published in English in 2018. I guess the appropriate publishing term for Knausgaard’s writing is “autofiction,” but it doesn’t really matter, Knausgaard just writes about his life and looks at himself and his actions with such unflinching honesty, and the world around him with such open and sincere curiosity and attention—also characteristic of his My Struggle series—that he is one of those writers who merits his own adjective—Knausgaardian, or Knausgaardesque, or perhaps people today would say Knausgaardy, although this feels flippant and inappropriate, so I’ll go with Knausgaardesque, also because I like the resonance it has with how Kafka’s style is Kafkaesque.
Spring is ostensibly a recounting of one day in Knausgaard’s life, written in the form of a letter to his newborn daughter, but it’s also much more than that, in the same way that My Struggle was much more than just a recounting of Knausgaard’s life to that point. I made it through five and a half of the six volumes that make up the autobiographical My Struggle novels, reading them as soon as they came out, obsessed in a way I hadn’t been since Harry Potter, when we would buy the books at midnight and sit on the curb of the outlet mall, reading by streetlamp before our parents dragged us home. And yet I couldn’t finish the sixth one; I had run out of steam, and it didn’t help that Knausgaard interrupted the story, the recounting of his day-to-day life, to go on extended tangential essays spanning hundreds of pages. I preferred reading about him making coffee in the morning, or taking his kids to daycare, or doing the dishes after a meal with friends.
These daily events would be interspersed with the meditations, thoughts, and flashbacks that they engendered, and soon we would be seeing the world as Knausgaard saw it, inside his consciousness, and if we were lucky, upon closing the book this sense of the world would stay with us, even becoming our own, at least for a little while. But as I said, I eventually burned out, and even though Knausgaard kept writing new books, I forgot about him for a while and moved on to other writers. I knew he’d be there, waiting for me whenever I decided to return to him, and so he was, good old Karl Ove, when I “picked up” (checked out the e-book from the library) Spring this past month.
While this piece could be considered an extension of My Struggle, it’s also a distillation of those books; it’s shorter (just 179 pages), focused on one day, and what at first appears to be a journal with no organization is actually a tightly controlled exploration of life and death, focusing on his wife’s descent into a severe depression and the contemporaneous birth of their fourth child. The story sneaks up on you; what seem like trivial details—the heat in their first-floor bedroom during summer, or Knausgaard’s absentmindedness—take on increased significance in the climatic moment of the book, when Knausgaard’s family threatens to break apart and is then reconciled.
We realize that everything has been leading to this moment, or least it has in Knausgaard’s version of things and the way in which he understands his own life. He might not have given such importance to these details, but he does, they are harbingers of things to come, and he blames himself for things that aren’t his fault because that’s the person he is. This moment that I’m writing about in the story, which I’m purposefully leaving vague for those who might read it, is utterly devastating, combining an extreme act of despair with the renewing power of love.
The thematic outlook of the book, connecting his wife’s depression, the birth of their child, and Knausgaard’s sense of self, is the connection between what we might call the physical world, a world without meaning because it exists independent of humans and the significance we give to things, and the human world, a world filled with meaning by way of the importance placed on times, places, and events through language and culture. Knausgaard is interested in how these two worlds relate to one another and structure human existence: in the case of his wife, it is her inability to merge these two worlds, to assign meaning to the people and things in her life, that is cause and effect of her depression; in the case of his newborn daughter, she is learning to connect the two worlds as she becomes a socialized person; in the case of Knausgaard himself, the meaning he assigns to things and the way he relates to the world make him who he is, and what is refreshing about Knausgaard as our guide through the story is that he accepts himself as he is, faults and all, with no interest in changing. He understands that he is the product of forces beyond his control, and he accepts his fate; he is the antithesis of the contemporary person who is always striving for self-improvement, self-growth, self-whatever.
Spring begins by imagining the consciousness of Knausgaard’s infant daughter, allowing us to perceive the world as she might. Knausgaard writes, “first you grow outwards, by gripping and holding on to the things around you…thereby bringing them into being.” The exterior world does not exist for the baby, not in the way we understand, until she can relate herself to it and orient herself within it. It is through the senses and the mind that things are “brought into being.” Knausgaard continues: “the whole array of objects in a house, all meaning deriving from the relations within a family, the significance that every person dwells within, all this is invisible, hidden not by the darkness but by the light of the undifferentiated.” This could perhaps be seen as a solipsistic worldview, this idea that the external world is just a projection of our inner consciousness, and that it would not exist without us giving shape to it and forming it, but it’s not: Knausgaard informs his daughter that after a few years and after “the world has been constituted,” she will “begin to discover all that grips [her].” Reality will act on her, both with and against her.
I’m reminded here of the idea of “beginner’s mind” from Zen Buddhism, which asks people to observe the world around them in a new way by abandoning the heuristics and assumptions they use to structure the surrounding world. In effect, this is what Knausgaard is asking us to do. Later on, in the bathroom and after giving a detailed description of its contents, he writes that “all these objects were not just lying there, they made up the room. It was easy to think of the room as essentially an empty cube that had been filled with things, but that room existed only in our minds, it belonged to our way of thinking…Even a bathroom, visited several times a day and more familiar than any other place, is held together by an assumption about reality, and can, if one makes an effort and resists the perception of the room created by that assumption, turn into…something chaotic, a monstrous accumulation of forms and patterns, colors, and planes.” One imagines that this may be something Knausgaard practices, stripping the world of its artifice to see it anew, and this is one reason why his writing is so powerful, because he allows us to experience the world in a way we never have before.
But Knausgaard is also aware of the dangers that this approach brings; after his long monologue about the bathroom, he asks a rhetorical question: why would one do this? He knows that to live in a world without routine, structure, and familiarity is to live in chaos in the original sense of the word: a gaping void, an abyss, empty immeasurable space.
This is the world to which his wife descends. He writes to his daughter that “between this external world and the inner reality that your mother lived in, there was almost no connection any more…what merely a few weeks ago had seemed beautiful to her, was no longer beautiful, it was nothing.” Following this section Knausgaard enumerates all the mundane, daily activities that go on around her—mowing the lawn, listening to the radio, the voices of the neighbors, to name a few—and how these things would have had no significance for her. In my mentioning them they may seem to have no importance either, but in Knausgaard’s telling, as the list grows and swells, we see that these things do have meaning, are indeed what make up a life, but that it is up to us to focus our attention on what surrounds us. If we don’t, then “all those sounds and all that life” will seem to be “something painful, that she herself wasn’t a part of.”
At the end of the book, Knausgaard relates the story of “Walpurgis night,” a spring festival celebrated in Sweden, and an event that he finds emblematic of the connection between the two worlds that he has articulated throughout the story. He relates the natural beauty of the spring night and the primal thrill of the bonfire that’s been created to celebrate and honor it, and juxtaposes this image with the manmade things also present: the bottles of condiments, hot dogs, a camping table, and says that “it was as if I was standing in a banal world and gazing into a magical one, as if our lives played out in the borderland between two realities.”
These two realities, or two worlds, have been Knausgaard’s subject matter for many years now, and his exploration of them is what makes his writing so fascinating and compelling. Long may he continue.