For some reason, Volume 6 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle has been delayed until next year. Having read and enjoyed the first five (I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed with them – they’re good, I like reading them, I look forward to the final volume), I turned to Autumn not knowing what to expect. It’s still in the first-person, and that person is still apparently Karl Ove himself, still talking about the family and friends he’s written about in My Struggle.
The biggest difference is that rather than the extended, digressive and time-hopping Proustian personal saga of those volumes, we have here their seeming opposite: 2-3 page prose poems about various mundane subjects like “bottles” and “cans,” or more affecting ones, like “eyes” or “death.”
Now the “prose poem” is a suspect genre itself, a slippery middle stance memorably satirized by David Foster Wallace. And there is some that is worthy of that satire here – the pattern itself does wear thin sometimes as we move from totally quotidian, exacting description of, say, a stick of gum, and then moving onward to a final, overreaching generalization about life and finitude. There is actually a moment where anyone who lived through the late 90’s will wonder if American Beauty is actually being quoted directly when Knausgaard writes these words:
One of the most beautiful things I have ever seen was a plastic bag adrift in the water beyond a jetty on an island far out at sea (18).
In American Beauty this moment was clever because it allowed us to chuckle just a little at the naive teenage idealism of its speaker, but what can we do with it here?
Except — a floating plastic bag can be beautiful, and all the assembled moments Knausgaard has chosen to memorialize in this “letter to an unborn daughter” (he repeatedly addresses his fourth child, just months away from emerging from her mother’s womb) — all these moments actually do work, in their own way, to form into some kind of vision of the world, fate, experience, existence, Dasein, whatever concept you’d like.
But I don’t really know what kind of a vision. This book is more like a painting, that you would need to consult again and again for the meaning, or the effect, to emerge: I read it relatively quickly, and it really is almost like bathroom reading in that its sections are so short, you barely get to really reflect too deeply on any of the moments before they’re over. Which creates its own sort of effect, its own sort of impressionism.
I assume/think I read that Knausgaard has three more volumes forthcoming, about the other three seasons. I’ll probably read them but I’m pretty sure if he hadn’t written My Struggle (or the in some ways superior A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven – a series of realist retellings of old testament tales, which really did strike and remain with me in a way few books do), I don’t think I’d have read Autumn.
But I have read all those books, and that did mean I enjoyed this one, if only mildly. It probably didn’t help that while I was waiting for the fall breezes to inform my perceptions, and somehow confirm the universality of Knausgaard’s glimpses, a totally unnatural heat wave overtook Chicago, and it’s been 90+ for almost a week.