Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Book review

Christine Foster Meloni
Washington, D.C.

Karl Ove Knausgaard is a prolific writer, and the variety in his areas of interest is remarkable. His best known work is, of course, his six-volume autobiographical My Struggle, which has received both praise and condemnation. He has also written a study of his fellow countryman Edvard Munch, although he does not claim to be an authority on art.

One of his latest endeavors, a seasonal quadrilogy, was written for his unborn daughter to prepare her for what she would find in the world she was about to enter. Autumn is the first volume, followed naturally by Winter, Spring, and Summer. For those who have not yet attempted to read any works by this acclaimed author, it would be an excellent place to begin. 

One is struck by Knausgaard’s intense power of observation and his extraordinary ability to transform what he sees and feels into lucid prose. The book is divided into three chapters (“September,” “October,” and “November”). Each includes 20 three-page essays. Because these essays are so short and on a wide variety of topics, they can be read a few at a time and savored without worrying about losing sight of a plot. 

In these essays, the author continually asks himself, explicitly or implicitly, what it is that makes life worth living. As he searches for beauty, both in nature and in human-made things, he also studies the warmth—or lack thereof—in personal relationships. 

He often finds beauty in surprising places. In his essay “Plastic Bag” he writes, “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.”  

He also finds joy in unusual circumstances. After his father died, he chose to take his rubber boots because he could dissociate these boots from his father with whom he had an unhappy relationship. In his essay “Rubber Boots,” he describes the sense of sovereignty he feels walking through deep water while wearing them. He writes, “To be invulnerable, to be protected, to be a separate entity in the world? Yes, oh yes, that is precisely wherein joy over the properties of the boots lies.”

He often takes something familiar and sheds a new light on it.  Take the fly, for instance. What could possibly make this annoying insect interesting and worthy of respect?  He explains the miracle of the fly’s minute body that is covered with thousands of tiny hexagonal eyes that can see in all directions. That is why flies are so adept at avoiding death by fly swatter. One more thing. Their taste cells are dispersed all over their bodies, not only in their mouths. “Therefore, they need only to stick their foot into what they want to eat to find out how it tastes.”

He dedicates one essay to chimneys. He sees a building with only its chimney standing after a devastating fire and ponders the tremendous victory of that proud chimney over the raging fire that had tried in vain to destroy it.

His book ends on a joyous note in his final essay “Eyes.”  He begins by describing how the human eye functions and how it receives light and projects images for us to see. He explains that the eye also emits light, an interior light. Sometimes, looking at a special person, we see more than simply pupils, irises, and whites. What is it that we see? 

“It is the soul,” he answers, “the archaic light of the soul the eyes are filled with, and to gaze into the eyes of the one you love when love is at its most powerful belongs among the highest joys.”

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Autumn, translated by Ingvild Burkey, is available in hardcover and paperback editions from major booksellers.

Read Christine Foster Meloni’s reviews of the entire quartet:

Part 2: Winter

Part 3: Spring

Part 4: Summer

This article originally appeared in the December 27, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and philosophy of education, and a doctorate in international education.

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