By Karl Ove Knausgaard
240 pages, $27
Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard is known for his autobiographical novel in six volumes, “My Struggle” (sounds upbeat, right?). Since the “My Struggle” cycle, he’s garnered quite a following, and such a following will not be disappointed by “Autumn,” the first novel in Knausgaard’s latest series.
In “Autumn,” Knausgaard addresses his audience through letter-essays to an unborn daughter. He provides his fans with another look into his personal life by way of these letter-essays: the daily operations of his family life through the fall season, musings on everything from wasps to rubber boots to vomit, every now and then punctuated by Vanessa Baird’s exquisite, compelling illustrations. Knausgaard’s writing to an unborn daughter serves him well, enabling him to use simple, straightforward language to describe some difficult concepts. It’s sort of like he’s writing to the village idiot, which gives way to some beautiful descriptions and stripped-down explanations: “the sound of thunder always heightens the sense of being alive”; “The mouth is one of the five body orifices, and thus a site of exchange between the body and the world”; “Shame is like a lock, it shuts away what must be shut away, and is one of the most important mechanisms of social life.”
Sometimes, however, this strategy of simplified, direct language is ineffective, or turns melodramatic. The result is text that feels like a cheap Scandinavian imitation of Ernest Hemingway. An essay about badgers from the middle of the book comes to mind -- reflections about global warming, rage, sin and dead animals on the side of the road seem faux-deep. Other encompassing sentiments -- “For me, as a man, holding a child close against my body is the only physical intimacy I know of that isn’t sexual” -- fall flat. While Knausgaard is understandably sharing his personal perspective, sometimes that perspective feels tired, not fresh.
I have no doubt that Knausgaard has another hit on his hands with “Autumn,” especially as American fans head into the pumpkin spice-scented season and search for the perfect book to curl up with during brisk September evenings. “Autumn” has moments of gorgeous astuteness as well as moments that are overexplanatory or dull. Nevertheless, Knausgaard has established himself as a captivating figure in the collective consciousness of literary circles -- this aspect alone will help his American book sales. Time will tell if his audience will stick out the other seasons with his subsequent books.