By Karl Ove Knausgaard
Translated by Ingvild Burkey
Illustrations by Anselm Kiefer
Penguin Press. 416 pp. $30
Reviewed by John Timpane
For the last year, I have been reviewing a series of season-themed books by Karl Ove Knausgaard, the mountainously prolific Norwegian author now among the best-known writers in the world. It's a Knausgaard moment in the United States: The final volume of his mammoth six-volume, somewhat-fictionalized autobiography, My Struggle, comes out next month in English, as does Inadvertent, the second installment of his Why I Write series. Can't stop, won't stop.
Autumn, Winter, and Spring preceded the present dark star of a book, Summer. Knausgaard began the series when his daughter Anne was in utero; now she's a toddler, laughing, pouting, emerging as a real person. Anne is also, putatively at least, his focal point, for Knausgaard has written the series to tell her about the world, about life and living, and about himself. (And to give him credit, he admits in Autumn that he probably is writing it for his own benefit.)
That connects the season books to My Struggle. Both concern family: That way lies suffering, and the failure, pointlessness, and shame that haunt the author. Spring, released a few months ago, linked the season series with My Struggle, when we learned that Knausgaard is writing in part to rescue and protect Anne from family legacies of instability and self-destruction.
Like the other season books, Summer is composed of short essays on things of this world. Several are masterpieces. In "Slugs," these humble creatures, both dignified (being slow) and repulsive, are called "aged majesties, the rulers of the forest floor, emperors of rotted leaves and moist soil." "Wasps" might be the best in the book: We are left (as so often in these essays) with a breathtaking idea: that a wasps' nest is a communal mind, an expression of intricate, purposeful intelligence. In essays like these, subjects glow in the light of fierce attention.
Knausgaard interlards "diaries" of his summer activities, mostly as a dad, and a fictionalized tale of a real-life woman who abandoned her family to run off with a Nazi. We see Knausgaard driving the kids around, dropping off and picking up, bicycling across the landscape, weeding, barbecuing. Like many dads, he's often comic, often perplexed. He enjoys being both with the kids and (with shame) away from them, being both a dad and a writer. I note the near-total absence of his then-wife, fellow novelist Linda Boström, from whom he was divorced last year. These books portray a man all but entirely alone with his children.
Knausgaard does not want to lie to Anne. His view is existentialist and tragic; many essays end with a reminder of death. In "Ladybirds," a swarm of insects leads him to look out over gorgeous Öresund Strait and realize "that one day the world will perish, a day as beautiful and ordinary as this."
Yet he can become transfixed with the glory of the everyday, the wordless eloquence of landscape, sky colors at sunset, the hills of Norway. Such near-ecstatic homage pulls against his insistent darkness. He delivers perhaps his greatest single lesson for Anne near the end, in "Repetition":
The world is untranslatable but it is not incomprehensible, as long as you know the simple rule that nothing of what it expresses through its myriad lives and creatures is followed by a question mark, only by exclamation marks.
Also pervading Summer is art, what it is, why it is crucial. The diary entry for June 7, 2016, meditates on literary art, why art must be ruthless, tell the truth no matter how we feel about it (as Knausgaard tries to do here). Utterly remarkable, this passage could be a mini-primer for a course on literature. He shows his talent as an art critic in "Backer," a simple yet precise account of a painting by the brilliant Norwegian artist Harriet Backer. And in "Ekelöf" he gives a startling entrée to a great poet's work.
So it's in keeping with Summer that through its pages, scattered like August flowers, are watercolors by the great German artist Anselm Kiefer. Fields are crowded with multicolor blooms, beautiful yet with gritty reality, summery and summary. To be sure, we get jets and orgasmic women as well. But in Kiefer's watercolors, "fullness" (a topic of a Knausgaard essay) is everywhere, the year pushed to its furthest richness. Kiefer, like Knausgaard, holds back neither color nor darkness. Although there will be much that saddens and disturbs, Little Anne may well grow up grateful for this record of a father's world and soul.