by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Published 2017 by Penguin Press
$27.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0399563300
By Noah Sanders
“I want to show you our world as it is now,” Karl Ove Knausgaard writes to his unborn daughter in the opening chapter of his new book, Autumn. What follows is just that: short essay after short essay after short essay digging into the author’s ideas about very specific, very mundane objects and abstract concepts. He ponders piss, the labia, mouths, frames, chewing gum, lightning, August Sander, vomit, rubber boots, and much more. The essays, though ostensibly tied to the autumn season and aimed at creating a moment of reflection for the daughter he will soon welcome into the world, are more than anything just an opportunity for Knausgaard to wax philosophical (amongst other things) about his life, his past and the very world that we all live in.
Knausgaard is the internationally acclaimed author of the 7-book My Struggle series—a massive autobiographical undertaking—and is a master, quite possibly the master, of sussing deep, deep meaning from the most banal of things. If the sheer word count of My Struggle is too much to grasp, Autumn is like a condensed primer for Knausgaard’s particular style and way of thinking. Each piece—none longer than three pages—is Knausgaard’s almost stream of conscious mental noodling on a subject, any subject, of his choice. But, Knausgaard’s ability to derive complicated, yet clearly explored, interpretations is thrilling. The reader finds themselves devouring each short entry, trying to see where he’ll go, what tendrils of fascinating thought he’ll form on the subject of say, “Piss.”
In “Piss,” one of the books strongest pieces, he writes, “The little stench in one’s own piss stands in roughly the same relation to the great stench as the single cigarette does to death: it produces a faint titillation.” From there he connects the shame of pissing oneself to the last time—as a 15 year old at camp—that he himself pissed himself and how after he realized he wasn’t going to be caught, he thought, “oh God, how delicious it is to pee yourself.” Knausgaard toes the line of pretentiousness, but never stumbles over it. His pieces are the work of a big time thinker, but he isn’t trying to beat his readers over the head with how smart he is. There’s humor and poignancy strewn throughout, and they only serve to deepen the enjoyment of Knausgaard’s voice and style.
A reader can get lost amongst Knausgaard’s thoughts about such a wide spectrum of subject matter, but there are running themes—if not any kind of narrative. In “Frames” Knausgaard writes, “Identity is being one thing and not the other,” and this concept, of being something born out of comparison to whatever it is you are not, is sprinkled liberally throughout the book. “Lightning” is more memorable than the other components of a storm—wind, water, clouds—because it is framed against the familiar: “Contrary to lightning and thunder, which only occur now and then, during brief intervals which we are at once familiar with, and foreign to, just as we are at once familiar with and foreign to ourselves and the world we are a part of.”
Items only gaining import in context, plays nicely with Knausgaard’s theme of understanding huge concepts by focusing on singular parts. A human to Knausgaard, is too much to consume at once, so he focuses on a single body part, deriving their existence from the contextual clues. Which, though this may be grasping at straws, seems the point of the book: a sort of cliff notes of the entirety of the world for his daughter to be. In “Stubble Fields” he writes, “Since the main thing in the upbringing of children or in living with children is precisely to ensure that they get the feeling that the world is predictable, that it is graspable and at all times recognizable.” Which Autumn helps to do, it shows us the underlying meanings in simple things, making connections—heady but comfortable connections—between, well, everything. Knausgaard has created an abstract map of his own thoughts, and in doing so has crafted a sort of existential “how-to” for his soon to be born daughter.
This isn’t a book to read from start-to-finish, though the bite-size pieces make it somehow, strangely bingeable. Though themes do emerge as you plow through “Infants” and on to “Cars,” Knausgaard’s meandering thoughts can lose a bit of their luster if too much is consumed at once and not every piece is as strong as say, “Piss,” though all of them are at worst food for thought. Autumn is a book to digest slowly, over the course of a month or a year or even a season.