Karl Ove Knausgaard suffers from the kind of honesty that could peel paint. In his six-volume autobiographical novel, “My Struggle,” he wrote with mesmerizing and unsettling intimacy of his childhood in Norway and of his married life with the writer Linda Boström Knausgaard and their children.
His ambition, unabashedly lofty, has been generously rewarded: Since its publication began in 2009, “My Struggle” has turned Knausgaard into the kind of international literary star whose every word is now of interest.
His compulsive honesty has won him almost as much condemnation as praise — with the guilt-ridden author himself frequently leading the charge. In 2013, he told the Paris Review that “My Struggle” so embarrassed him he wished he could burn it. Some family members cut off contact with him, and threatened to sue. The relentless exposure may ultimately have cost Knausgaard his marriage as well: The couple recently divorced
Knausgaard’s new book, “Autumn,” springs from the same confessional impulse but in a somewhat softer register. The first in a quartet based on the seasons, “Autumn” was composed as a series of letters to his then-unborn fourth child, Anne. In 60 short essays, the writer blends large questions with the quotidian. (Accompanying illustrations, by Vanessa Baird, only incidentally complement the text.)
Unlike the daunting volumes of “My Struggle,” these pieces are tailor-made for brief attention spans. Readers may miss the leisurely unfolding that, in the novel, somehow led them along for hundreds of pages, without quite going anywhere. To the extent that nothing happens, Knausgaard taught us how to read him as we went.
The same small-bore exactitude and refusal of grand conclusions mark “Autumn”; so do the familiar Knausgaardian emotions of exhilaration and estrangement, anxiety and shame. But “Autumn” can feel frustratingly truncated, as though, just as you settle into a thought, the baby needs attending.
“My Struggle” overtly concerned Knausgaard’s effort to elude the toxic shadow of his deceased father, a cold and controlling figure who terrified his son. Expelling the father, he said in a 2014 interview, “has been my project — to get rid of his presence inside of me.”
A few thousand pages later, he announces in “Autumn” that he has moved on. It is a rare moment of self-deception.
In “Autumn Leaves” he writes of feeling no continuity with his father and grandmother, whose interest in apple growing he lacks. This pleases him. All that matters now is his own growing family. “I am no longer preoccupied with my own childhood,” he declares.
Yet in “Adders” up pops a searing incident in which his father brutally kills a snake. “Loneliness” movingly confronts what Knausgaard now perceives as his father’s isolation. It is a stretch to imagine he will ever leave the man behind.
For Knausgaard, the immersive experience of childhood represents a paradise of lost meaning. With time, he tells his daughter, something happens, and “a distance appears.” The question of what makes life worth living arises.
In “Twilight,” distance becomes physical: From the studio where Knausgaard writes, he observes his family going about their lives in the main house next door. “The only things giving off light are the rooms behind the window, which from here, inside the little house that I am sitting in, look like aquariums.”
Such spatial distancing can offer perspective and help recover meaning. Yet meaning can also drain away through the distancing effects of time. Describing the three churches near the family’s home in the Swedish town of Glemmingbro, he notes that churches have lost their function as central gathering places: “[N]o one seeks the divine level of reality anymore,” he observes. “There is nothing left to long for other than longing itself . . . ”
Knausgaard nevertheless tries to recapture the spark. Borrowing his unborn daughter’s fresh vision, he ponders such everyday objects as telephones, bottles, and buttons. Even more than in “My Struggle,” he seems to inhabit every age simultaneously: He is boy, adolescent, and father at once.
Shame, which Knausgaard almost seems to have patented, recurs in graphic musings on toilets, vomit, urine, head lice, and female genitalia — even chewing gum. The churches may have gone silent, but for this once-devout writer, confession marches on.
As in “My Struggle,” works of art rescue Knausgaard’s inner adult — “Autumn” contains insightful pieces on Van Gogh and “Madame Bovary.” For the most part though, Knausgaard continues to cast about for moments of illumination. If hard truths insist on hiding in the deep, these essays suggest, a hand-line will do as well as a drift net to haul them in.
By Karl Ove Knausgaard
Penguin Press, 224 pp., $27M.J. Andersen, a former member of the Providence Journal editorial board, is author of the memoir “Portable Prairie: Confessions of an Unsettled Midwesterner.”