This latest addition to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ongoing seasonal quartet is a tightly controlled story about risk, the kind associated with birth.
From the beginning, this series of memoirs has been directed toward a single future reader: Knausgaard’s fourth daughter. The books so far have been meditations on life, occasionally interspersed with artful definitions of things above, like the sun and the moon, and things below, like wasps, chairs, sugar and Q-Tips — a kind of glossary for a new being seeing the world afresh. “Spring,” by contrast, is a stand-alone narrative and, while the concluding “Summer” is still to come, may prove the best of the lot.
Set within a single day, “Spring” focuses on a road trip that also becomes a mental journey to the past. (That structure may be a tip of the hat to Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries”; the late director is a minor character in the book’s backstory.) Knausgaard travels with his infant daughter from the family home in Skane, in southern Sweden, to see his wife in Helsingborg, about an hour away. We do not immediately know why his wife is there, but life has clearly become messy. Knausgaard recently had to visit Child Protective Services. “We as a family,” he notes dryly, “had approached the zone where third parties had the right to get involved.” He lets us know, too, he has a bad temper — “There’s a reason why it’s called the nuclear family” — and that, during a trip to a bathroom this very morning, he passed blood.
All of which is more than enough to give Knausgaard a distinct sense of life’s precariousness — not that he needs a reminder, with the tot strapped in the car seat in back. Along the way, he recalls the events that lead up to his daughter’s birth: a happy time, full of far-flung family trips, including an academic conference at Bergman’s Faro Island home, but also one plagued by the physical and emotional complications of his wife’s increasing depression.
Knausgaard reveals his life and tries to impart some wisdom to his dozing infant passenger. One insight is that a parent’s love is “the only love that doesn’t bind you but sets you free.” Another is that even for an admittedly self-centered person like himself, the need for others is absolute. “The person with no attachments is an anomaly,” he writes. Life alone is a horror. He lets her know that self-deception “isn’t a lie, it’s a survival mechanism” and that she must be true to herself even though peer pressure is inevitable.
But as he recalls his wife’s difficult pregnancy, the very idea of birth seems to test his own views on life. He is preoccupied with how it all ends; his father’s wretched alcoholic death casts a shadow over his own life. So does the fact that he and his wife have chosen to bring another child into the world.
He never directly asks, “What compels people to have children?” but it is a question he seems bent on investigating. He weighs the promise of life against the meanness, cruelty and tragedy that await us all. Existence is full of spontaneous threatening swerves.
Knausgaard’s assets are on full display, including his precise writing style and his unerring sense of detail. He is constantly attuned to his surroundings, noting the changing weather and the colors of flowers, which may account for why he is so successful at what he does: transforming quotidian life into drama.
Perhaps it is the Proustian in him, this desire to impart the full benefit of experience, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. Domestic life is his territory, and he enlarges it.
Likewise, this volume is strengthened by the fact that he is less inclined to go off the deep end. All the empty pontificating and ponderous philosophizing of the previous “Winter” has been put in storage.
For anyone who is curious about this writer but has not felt the urge to invest in the full 3,500 pages of his autobiographical series, “My Struggle,” “Spring” makes for an excellent introduction. It is the shortest book he has ever written, but it is all muscle, a generous slice of a thoughtful, ruminative life.
Rodney Welch frequently writes about books for the Columbia, S.C., Free Times.
By Karl Ove Knausgaard
Translated from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey
182 pp. $27