Summer completes Knausgaard’s seasonal quartet

Book review

Karl Ove Knausgaard

Photo: Berit Roald / NTB scanpix
Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard (born 1968) became known worldwide for his six autobiographical novels, titled My Struggle, and has been described as one of the 21st century’s greatest literary sensations.

Washington, D.C.

With Summer, Karl Ove Knausgaard completes his seasonal quartet addressed to his newborn daughter. As in the preceding volumes, he divides it into the three months of the season and writes 18 short essays for each month. One major difference is the addition of diary entries to the essays in June and July. He continues to amaze the reader with his keen sense of observation and his ability to describe what he sees in a uniquely perceptive way.

In June, he writes on a vast array of topics, including lawn sprinklers, cats, campsites, tears, and summer rain. He often discovers remarkable connections to his topics. Take, for example, his essay “The Chestnuts.” After describing the chestnut tree in his garden, which he admits had never meant much to him, he explains why he suddenly looks at it with different eyes. He had been studying the paintings of Edvard Munch and one in particular had struck him, a blossoming chestnut tree on a city street: “its white flowers are painted like little posts amid all the green, where they shine like little lamps.” This painting, “made me understand for the first time that a chestnut tree was standing there,” he writes.

He describes the foam he sees whenever there is a gale at sea, “when white heads of foam spring up and vanish again on the grey-black or grey-green surface. Snorting, hissing, soughing, they surge forward like horses’ heads, go under, then reappear.”

In “Wolf” he ponders the characterization of wolves in his society, reflecting on the expressions “hungry as a wolf” and “lone wolf” as well as the Norwegian folk names, gråbein (gray legs), gråtass (gray paws), and varg (robber or outlaw). He points out that in fairy tales, the wolf is always “the ruthless one.” But he concludes this essay by describing how he and one of his daughters became wolf lovers rather than wolf haters when a wolf ate the sheep of a local farmer and everyone else wanted this wolf killed.

In July, his essays are on topics such as ice cubes, sea gulls, playgrounds, and mosquitoes. His essay on the grass lawn is particularly captivating. He makes the unlikely comparison between plants (in this case, grass) and human beings. Both, he points out, have the will to live and to expand. “That this will is found in grass, which has no brain, no bone marrow, no nervous system, no heart or lungs, and neither nose, ears nor eyes, and which accordingly has no clue where it is, who it is, what it is not, why it is, this makes the same will within ourselves seem equally alien.”

The topics in August include clothes, ice cream, earthworms, and cynicism. The title that promises to be the most boring, “Repetition,” turns out to be one of the most interesting. The author admits that he likes repetition: he likes to write every day and to do it always in the same place and at the same time. 

Writing brings to his mind Cicero’s assertion that all that is necessary for a person to be happy is a garden and a library. When he was younger, he felt it “an expression of bourgeois mentality, a truth for the boring and middle-aged.” He now accepts it and understands the connection between literature and gardens, both of which he cultivates. They are “small areas where something in other respects undefined and boundless is nurtured.”

The diary entries following the June essays cover 112 pages and are, as in most diaries, highly personal and subjective. On June 11, 2016, he considers his surname and why he likes it. He had considered taking his maternal grandfather’s name, Hatløy, because he found it beautiful. He decided, however, that it was a weak name and he needed a harder name because he himself was weak. That is why he likes Knausgaard, which has “a stony ring” to it, as knaus means “crag” in Norwegian. “A name,” he writes, “is like a bag with one’s entire identity inside, or like a carrying case. When we die, only the case is left, gathering together all the feelings and thoughts associated with our person.”

At 58 pages, the section devoted to diary entries after the month of July is long but shorter than June. In one of the most revealing entries, he talks about his sense of shame in realizing that he is very self-centered and talks so much about himself. He knows that people notice this. “Since I am aware of this perception of me, I always try to talk about other people, ask them questions, in a mechanical way, and on those occasions when I forget and say something related to myself, shame comes rushing in, what must they think of me, and I try as hard as I can to think of something else to say.” He goes on to declare, “Narcissism is an infantile state, but so is trying to get out of it.” Given the immense popularity of his books, his narcissism seems to be acceptable.

To accompany his words in this book, Knausgaard has chosen the artist Anselm Kiefer to provide some stunning illustrations, watercolors that are mostly lovely shades of pink and green.

Knausgaard, Karl Ove. Summer. (2019). Norwegian title: Om sommaren. Translated by Ingvild Burkey. New York: Penguin Press.

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

Part 1: Autumn

Part 2: Winter

Part 3: Spring

This article originally appeared in the June 26, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.