Over the course of his massive autobiographical novel “My Struggle” — whose sixth and final volume won’t be published in English until next year — Karl Ove Knausgaard has tried to make sense of his life by bearing meticulous witness to it, stockpiling and scrutinizing his memories in hopes of gaining perspective on how they all add up.
In his latest book, though, he shifts the focus to the world around him. Written while awaiting the birth of his fourth child, “Autumn” — the first of a planned quartet based on the seasons — is intended as a random field guide to life on Earth for the newest addition to his family. It contains dozens of mini-essays on the different things his child will encounter. These include apples, wasps, plastic bags, the sun, loneliness, chewing gum, cars, lice, Van Gogh, Flaubert and various other features of the landscape, society, and what goes in and what comes out of the body. It’s a diet-plan version of “The Anatomy of Melancholy,” a solitary book that is ultimately about the need for others.
It is also a work consumed by the same question that haunts the author’s voluminous life story. “What makes life worth living?” he asks his prenatal correspondent. “No child asks itself that question. To children life is self-evident. Life goes without saying: Whether it is good or bad makes no difference.” It’s up to Knausgaard to take up the task himself — to go back to the beginning, to break life down to its simplest parts.
For a writer, this poses an interesting challenge. At some level, the book is a series of writing exercises or prompts. Choose a word and see where it takes you, assume no one has ever written a definition for it, try seeing something for the first time. A mouth, for instance, “is made up of the lips, two relatively long and narrow pads which lie horizontally against each other on the forward-facing side of the head, in the lower part of the face, below the nose.”
In some cases, the topical noun makes him think of the reach of the word itself. Picture frames, which “form the edge of a picture and mark the boundary between what is in the picture and what is not,” bring to mind limits and edges. Others evoke memories. Buttons — “those little discs that we use to fasten pieces of cloth around the body” — make him think of the contrast between frugality and abundance. Where his mother used to save buttons and reuse them, neither he nor his wife sews; they would rather replace a shirt than salvage it.
So it continues, essay for essay, as Knausgaard summons all the Proustian and philosophical ramifications of a simple word. Sometimes, he soundly hits the target: “Shame is like a lock, it shuts away what must be shut away, and is one of the most important mechanisms of social life.” At other times, his ideas seem suspect, such as when he sees forgiveness strictly in power-struggle terms: “If one forgives someone, and this does not cause them to lose face, then one is still a victim and the weaker party.”
Collectively, these ruminations disclose a larger vision, which is that we live in a bountiful world that nourishes life but is also indifferent to it, and where human beings — no less than lower forms of life — are ignorant of any environment but their own.
Knausgaard sounds this note whenever the subject of animals comes up. Bees think only of the hive, adders aren’t aware of sound, flies care only for flies, badgers stay close to the forest floor, and we can’t relate to jellyfish at all. But then, people are also remote, “familiar with and foreign to ourselves and the world we are a part of.”
Certainly, it’s true of him. He thinks of his late, friendless father, ponders his limitations, considers how time is passing and who he has become: “a white middle-aged man with a frozen inner self.” The description brings to mind another solitary writer, Wallace Stevens, who felt a similar existential chill as he observed the northern lights in “The Auroras of Autumn”:
The scholar of one candle sees
An Arctic effulgence flaring on the frame
Of everything he is. And he feels afraid.
Knausgaard tries to write himself out of this Scandinavian funk. There’s the promise of another day, the imminent arrival of his new child — and there is also this book. “One of the properties of language,” he writes near the end, “is that it can name what isn’t here.”
In these secular meditations, Knausgaard scratches away at the ordinary to reach the sublime — finding what’s in the picture, and what’s hidden.
Rodney Welch frequently writes about books for the Columbia, S.C., Free Times.
By Karl Ove Knausgaard
Penguin Press. 224 pp. $27