Can we eat them?

Rivka Galchen

A century or so ago the astronomer Percival Lowell made a series of maps of Venus that showed curious spokes running across the planet’s surface. The lines were difficult to understand; no one else had observed them. Were they canals, or craters? And how was Lowell seeing them through the thick cloud of Venus’s atmosphere? In 2002, Sky and Telescope magazine ran an article that mentioned the very narrow aperture Lowell had used to view Venus when making his maps: he had narrowed the aperture to reduce glare because Venus was so bright. Several optometrists and ophthalmologists, reading the article, realised the explanation for the mysterious spokes. The aperture had made an ophthalmoscope of the telescope. Lowell was looking at his own eye, and the spokes corresponded to vasculature on his retina. His distant planet was himself. The ‘spokes’ were a telltale sign of dangerously high blood pressure. Lowell made his last Venus observations in 1914, and he died of a brain haemorrhage two years later.

This sounds more associatively dire than it should. But Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Seasons Quartet puts the reader in a highly associative state of mind. Autumn, which begins the project, announces itself as a letter to an unborn daughter, Knausgaard’s soon to be fourth child. ‘I want to show you our world as it is now: the door, the floor, the water tap and the sink.’ The letter ends with a swerve: ‘You will come to see it [the world] in your own way, you will experience things for yourself and live a life of your own, so of course it is primarily for my own sake that I am doing this: showing you the world, little one, makes my life worth living.’ Although the medical scenes experienced by the Knausgaard character don’t have the air of mortality of the spokes of Venus, there is a sense of lugubriousness and depression – Knausgaard’s version of depression often manifesting as a sense of being overwhelmed by the world’s beauty. The quartet – with one eponymous book for each season – reads as a long record of melancholy.

The letter to an unborn daughter is followed by pages that resemble extracts from the journal of a slightly mad 19th-century naturalist. Sections have headings such as ‘Wasps’, ‘Chewing Gum’, ‘Tin Cans’, ‘Toilet Bowls’ and ‘August Sander’. Some of them are great. I’m still thinking of the one about a plastic bag Knausgaard came across in the ocean years ago. Most of these entries could be characterised as meditations; there are few of the scenes from daily life that made up large parts of his six-volume autobiographical novel, My Struggle.[*] Occasionally, as in ‘Apples’, the first of them, they culminate in bombast. The narrator and his children find an apple tree: ‘Can we eat them, they asked. I said yes, go ahead, take as many as you want. In a sudden glimpse, as full of joy as it was of sorrow, I understood what freedom is.’

At least as abundant are wonders of observation like this oddly nostalgic account of watching boats being filled with petrol as a kid: ‘The petrol was then completely colourless and transparent, but at the same time it caused the surrounding air to tremble.’ The passage goes on to connect petrol to the remains of dinosaurs, and to large machines: ‘the kinship between the bulldozer and the dinosaur was obvious to any child – but not the connection between the power of petrol and the mysterious beauty of the small trembling rainbow swirls in the many puddles of the 1970s.’ The curiously loose weave of Knausgaard’s prose allows it to return parts of the reader’s own life to them – maybe this is especially true of readers who are around his own age.

Descriptions of ordinary objects, such as chairs or noses, written as if for an alien intelligence, are often the starting point for these entries. It’s as if Knausgaard is putting together a textbook for those newly arrived on the planet, like his daughter. These entries tend to work best when even the most mundane personal detail is included. One is on telephones: ‘So slow is the internal processing of reality that when I think of telephones, the image that comes to mind is still the grey standard model in use in Norway in the 1970s and 1980s.’ Knausgaard goes on to observe that the formal speech that used to be associated with speaking on the telephone feels ‘ridiculous and touching’ when used on a mobile phone, and then the piece makes one last emotive leap: ‘I find myself thinking of the figure of the dictator, one day all-powerful and controlling every aspect of life, the next, when the people revolt, completely naked and exposed.’ The size of that leap – it’s not where the reader would go – helps the passage avoid feeling like a performance, or a cover-up; less successful passages seem to be trying to disarm, or hide, or sound deep.

At some point, one gets tired of marking individual entries with a mental thumbs up or thumbs down. Around the point of the telephone entry I began to concentrate on the methodology. It was a bit like watching someone close to me go through a daily exercise aimed at trying to get away from, or around, their own consciousness, to escape their own mind’s eye. It’s like walking past tai chi practitioners every morning. It also feels like watching someone very unhappy programmatically trying to survive.

By the second season, Winter, the algorithm – look at something outside one’s self, try to follow the thread – begins to weaken for Knausgaard. Has he exhausted the strategy? One late entry, ‘Habits’, obliquely questions the whole project. The speaker seems to fear he has become too good at the formula; he also seems to want to see this as proving a general rule: ‘If habit is allowed into literature and not kept outside, it is no longer literature, merely still more scaffolding around life.’

By Spring, the project has broken with its original form and is now framed as a straightforward autobiographical novel (at least, it features a married Norwegian writer with four kids). Spring chronicles the family as child protection services come to the house after the wife takes too many sleeping pills, following a long period of severe depression. The shift in form prompts the reader to wonder what kind of work she has been reading. To some extent it is a diary project, but when read as a diary most of its strengths are obscured. It even lacks the thrill of disclosure. A sense of melancholy and privacy – understandable after the revelations of My Struggle – form a dense steam around the author and his thoughts.

There’s a missing year (or two) in the project. The gap isn’t clearly explained. In Autumn, Knausgaard’s fourth daughter is not yet born, but by Summer Anne is talking. Autumn and Winter list months, but don’t attach a year to them. The first full date the reader is given is in the epilogue of Spring: ‘Today is Wednesday the 13th of April 2016 … and I have just finished writing this book for you.’ In Summer, Knausgaard is considering taking a writing assignment on then presidential candidate Trump. (He wonders how he might react to meeting Trump: ‘Would I try to ingratiate myself with him or wouldn’t I? Renounce everything I believe in, in the hope of making him like me? Unfortunately that’s what would have happened.’ He declines the potential meeting.)

When Knausgaard is waiting to be visited by child protection services, he starts to think of his home differently. Although there’s no real sense that the children are at risk of being taken away – something tonally reassures us – we do feel a mood of darkness. Even as a terrible situation is revealed – the children’s mother has become so depressed she can hardly function – it remains a mystery why this is all happening. The usual suspects are present: Knausgaard is in many ways an aloof presence; the wife has had low episodes in the past; the publication of My Struggle exposed many of his close friends and family in a way that must have been unpleasant; maybe Knausgaard and his wife just don’t want to be together any more. On one level, Spring investigates the mystery of the unhappiness of a family living an ordinary, blessed life, with four healthy children and more than enough money. What could there be to be sad about? Knausgaard inspects his own household’s gloom – and his own serial exits from the household – more carefully than in his other works: ‘That I was constantly noting her mood, that I interpreted everything she said and did as a part of a larger pattern, was not unlike what I had done with my father when I was growing up. Then as now, I was engaged in a kind of meteorology of the mind because my own existence in a sense depended on it.’

The most interesting moments in Spring, however, are the ones that feel off-track. Consider the sensory awareness in this moment:

Every object in here, such as the two large bars of soap that lay on the shelf beneath the changing table, ready to be grabbed by whoever was in the bath, one light blue, almost turquoise, the other sand-coloured, still with the brandname etched on the surface, or the little stack of folded flannels next to them, appeared to rest in itself, as if independently of the light, which was so discreet and so evenly distributed throughout the room that it seemed invisible, and yet it was the light that made everything stand out. The plastic bottles of shampoo and conditioner, white with green caps, the blue plastic bag bulging with nappies, the toothbrushes in the cup on the sink, red, white, yellow, blue, green, blue. All these objects were not just lying there, they made up the room.

Just after this, Knausgaard uses the lavatory and discovers blood when he wipes.

Another light-obsessed moment seems like a clue. Knausgaard describes being in Sydney with his wife, a few years earlier, and discussing having a fourth child – the child to whom the quartet is addressed. Standing on the waterfront he feels unmoored from the present and imagines himself in the Bergen of the past, and, of all possible things, remembers:

Once when I was a child, I entered the living room of the house where I grew up, the television set was turned on, no one else was there, and I glanced at the screen, where a headless person was walking up a staircase … [It] must have been a Sunday, since I was home. I can’t have been very old, maybe seven or eight, and it frightened me more than anything I had ever experienced. That it happened in broad daylight made it that much worse, it was as if there were no safe places left. If you are afraid of the dark, you seek the light. But what do you do when even the light is filled with terrors?

Why was the child Knausgaard so affected by that image? Why does it return to him as an adult? He writes in the paragraph that follows that the figure signified ‘the shadow of the unknown’ or ‘the darkness within the light’, but this feels like just one notecard in a deck of possibilities.

Although there are many interesting moments in Spring, the reader basically wants out, as the characters do. A bit after the middle of the novel, the Knausgaard character describes feeling disappointed in his wife’s inability to drag herself out of her depression:

Life had been good for a long time, there had been a turnaround, and we were even expecting a child. What would become you already existed inside her belly. A new life. In the middle of a wonderful summer. With three delightful, suntanned children running around. In a magnificent garden. How could she turn away from all that? How was it possible that she didn’t see it, how good everything was?

We feel strongly in this passage that he is talking about himself, and to himself.

*

With Summer, a feeling of recovery arrives. Early on, in a section headed ‘Summer Night’, Knausgaard gives an example of how, even when he most feels he has escaped his isolation and made contact with another person, he finds he is in error. The passage describes an evening spent with a woman he loved, a fight they had, and then a feeling of moving past the fight as they sit on a bench at the end of a pier. He experiences the beauty of what they see as a sign of their togetherness. Within two days, they have broken up. ‘It still hurts to think about it, that we were together that night, which is the most beautiful night I have experienced, and that we can’t have shared any of it, as I thought we did. The “we” I had felt so strongly held only me.’

Watercolour plates of flowers by Anselm Kiefer separate the months in Summer, a book made up of long, dated diary entries between pensée-like pieces like those in Autumn and Winter. In a June diary entry, we read about Knausgaard visiting Kiefer to choose the illustrations. It’s a relief for the reader to find herself in one of the long, meandering scenes for which Knausgaard has such a talent. Comedy, which has been largely absent in the quartet, returns. Kiefer, wearing a pressed blue wool suit, rides a bike down his hallway and asks Knausgaard if he likes to fly helicopters, adding that he should really try it. Kiefer, Knausgaard writes, is known for dramatic gestures, for buying horses to entertain his children, for drying flowers wherever he goes, never throwing one away. Knausgaard ends with a take on what is central to Kiefer as an artist, and, in doing so, offers another take on himself:

All this magnificence, these grand gestures, which might lead one to think of him as a sort of prince among artists, weren’t the main thing about him, they were not even important, at least that is the impression I got in the few hours I was there. Everything was about his work, his paintings, his artworks. And where did they come from, what had given rise to this possession, this obstinate blindness to everything else? It couldn’t be anything other than a way of coping, he must at some point have discovered a way to open himself up to his inner greed, that which could never be filled or satisfied, only temporarily stilled.

Here as elsewhere, Knausgaard’s slide into overstatement – ‘it couldn’t be anything other’! – signals that this is a personal feeling not a rigorous thought. He goes on: ‘He told me that he hadn’t known any other children when he was growing up, only his grandmother, they lived in Schwarzwald in the years after the war.’ Knausgaard sees Kiefer’s life story running through all his work, ‘like a thin, almost invisible thread’. This is telling not because it’s true or untrue, but because it is what Knausgaard finds it worth remarking on. He sees Kiefer’s body of work as a manifestation of his success in coping.

A few pages later, Knausgaard connects this even more directly to his own work. He describes feeling guilty when he sees his youngest child, now a toddler, and realises she has memorised the lines in the television programme she is watching. He explains: ‘Playing with you for more than ten minutes at a time is a test of patience for me, I feel I have to do something, preferably write, but if I can’t do that, then work in the garden or tidy the house … it is a method I use to cope, and it works, so I see no reason to stop using it.’

Then overstatement again sneaks in, suggesting something is being covered up. ‘All problems arise from relations with other people,’ he announces, ‘and if one minimises one’s relations with other people, one also minimises the problems.’ He then talks about how much he used to dread summertime, the expectation it placed on a young man to be swimming or boating with other people. Writing solved this social awkwardness, he felt, and then he says: ‘When the children arrived, the problem of loneliness vanished definitively … but by then the writing had become so entrenched within me, as a method and a solution to all problems.’

Knausgaard seems to want or need out more than most, which paradoxically seems to make the escape more difficult. He even includes an entry that tries to get into the mind of a bat, most likely in dialogue with Thomas Nagel’s essay ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ His encounter with the bat begins, ‘Only once have I seen a bat close up,’ then moves quickly to his parents’ divorce, and on to what he describes as his inability to be free: ‘And this is how it has been whenever the gates of freedom have opened before me later in life, I have never felt guilt-free enough to walk through them.’ It feels flattening and wrong to describe this book as a record of his movement towards divorce, yet it also feels absurd not to mention it.

Reading these books I felt at times like I was near a caged animal I desperately wanted to set free. I felt this much more in the quartet than in My Struggle, even though this project is far less straightforwardly autobiographical. In its best pieces, Knausgaard does seem to escape his extreme self-consciousness, if briefly; but then like a kid who manages to tag but immediately gets tagged back, he’s still stuck being It. Why can’t the ‘I’ of this writer become, say, a dog, or a prime minister, I found myself thinking. Knausgaard talks about the ‘I’ he works with at various points in the project, and goes on about its not really being himself. But still. In one diary entry in Winter, he is reading Swedenborg and, following a cloudy associative link, finds himself thinking that ‘my inner being, the person I am to myself, has changed in recent years, and how often I get the feeling that I am no one, that I am merely a place which thoughts and feelings pass through.’

About halfway through Summer, Knausgaard’s ‘I’ becomes that of a 73-year-old woman. He has freed himself, for a bit anyway. In what follows a story about an old woman living in Malmö is interpolated between diary entries; the story was told to Knausgaard by his grandfather, who was friends with the Austrian soldier who plays a recognisably dramatic role in the woman’s past. A good old-fashioned yarn has sneaked into the project at nearly the last moment. Thank God for the escape, the reader may feel like saying. But why is escape so difficult for Knausgaard? If his writing is a monument to the ongoingness of his cage of sadness, why so sad? And will the heavy feeling ever shift? One clue or motif of his sadness that gets returned to often – his father and his father’s alcoholism – does shift over the course of the project. In Autumn, Knausgaard excerpts a brief passage from his father’s diary, and describes two possible explanations of it:

‘I have always been able to recognise the lonely,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘They don’t walk the same way as other people. It is as if they don’t carry any joy, any spark within themselves … I am looking for a word for the opposite of loneliness. I would like to find a different word to love, which is far too overworked and inadequate. Tenderness, peace of mind and soul, togetherness? … In brief what I have just now so clumsily tried to express is that I have always been a lonely man.’

At first he gives a generous reading of the diary entry, suggesting that his father drank, basically, because he felt too much – because what was going on between people, that ‘noise’, was so intense for him. Knausgaard then pivots – ‘the thought strikes me now with horror’ – and suggests that his father heard nothing of the sounds between people, that he was ‘maybe … standing on the outside, observing how all the others were bound by something he didn’t understand?’ It’s a very harsh interpretation.

In another entry, Knausgaard goes on an unsatisfactory bike ride with his son, and catches sight of what he imagines might be his son’s image of him as a father. It’s an image that we as a reader are supposed to feel would be wrong. And eventually the narrator implies maybe his mostly unrelentingly negative image of his father might be missing something. And after early on catching sight of an image of his father in his own reflected face, the narrator eventually goes beyond identification. One of the most generous images of his father comes in an entry in Summer labelled ‘Mackerel’. The two of them are pulling in ‘fish after fish, we are past utility, we are past reason, we have caught the fever of the inexhaustible, we are intoxicated by overabundance’. The young Knausgaard experiences this as a joy that turns the corner to nausea, but, he notices, ‘in my Dad’s face I couldn’t find even a shadow of unease, he was happy, and I now think that boundlessness corresponded to something within him, and that during that hectic hour he was free.’

The moment, which reads with love, felt like the sequel to the image in an earlier Summer section, ‘Clinker-Built Double-Ender’, about a boat they built:

My father smoked a pipe at that time, and I remember him sitting on the aft thwart with the pipe in his mouth and his hand on the tiller as the boat thumped its way slowly out of the sound. I also remember thinking there was something not right about it, that it was a mismatch, the boat was much too slow for him. Now I think of it as a child’s way of understanding a fundamental thing about him. That the speed he had inside him was greater than the life he was living, and that it was only a matter of time before the force of this asymmetry could fling him out of the trajectory which included the wooden launch, the pipe, the house and the children, and into another one, faster and wilder.

These images seem not only more generous but also more truthful than those of the father in My Struggle. It is as if Knausgaard is growing up. In these moments, the project seems to be a portrait of the father more than a letter to a daughter. At other moments it shifts back. In a passage in Winter titled ‘Chairs’, Knausgaard cites the scene in Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander where the father tells the children a story of an ordinary chair (‘You think this is a regular nursery chair? Once it belonged to the empress of China’). Knausgaard characterises the scene, with its open and imaginative play, as ‘deeply alien to everything Ingmar Bergman had hitherto represented in his films’. In the movie, the father will soon die, and the chair shines in the children’s recollection – Knausgaard surmises – not because of the story, but because their father told it.

These insights are unstable, and transient; it would be more than misleading for any of them to be centre stage for too long as the answer to the mystery that seems to drive Knausgaard’s literary production. By the end of Summer, he has had his bleeding checked out – the doctor doesn’t seem worried – but then, at a publishing party in London, he faints. Shortly before, someone has asked him what else he is in town for and he feels embarrassed, realising that it seems odd that he came just for the party. Why the passing out? Is it connected with the bleeding, or social embarrassment? Or just the unassimilable knowledge that he’d rather be in London? Knausgaard now lives half the year in London, and is engaged.

[*] Fredric Jameson wrote about the last volume in the LRB of 8 November 2018.