Knausgaard and Narrative

What I think I’m doing here: It turns out Knausgaard was not just a pandemic coping technique (more at the tag at the bottom of the post, if you’re interested).

Perhaps in a novel it is that simple, for novels are written to elucidate some aspect of human life, so that something which exists but perhaps lacks form is given a form and becomes visible. Life has no such form.

Knausgaard in Spring

Knausgaard’s fiction is sometimes described as plotless. Which, ok, I get it. I mean, spend enough time on extended descriptions of smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee and anyone might feel the motivation to continue turning the pages start to fall off a little (although of course, the mystery of Knausgaard is that some of us not only keep turning the pages but can’t stop). It’s not just the detailed description of everyday life that contributes to the loose and wandering feeling of the books – the long essayistic digressions exploring art, literature, and culture don’t increase the dramatic tension. And yet, to describe the work as plotless feels like it’s probably a mistake, or at least an exaggeration.

I recently reread Spring, which may be my favorite Knausgaard book. Rereading it I recognized that part of the reason I enjoy it as much as I do is that it his most tightly structured work in terms of plot – it’s a sort of existential page turner. Using the same tools as any thriller writer Knausgaard starts off early in the book: “Last summer, half a year before you were born, I had been summoned to a meeting with the Child Protection Service. It was a routine meeting, they always arranged one when it happened, the thing that happened here ….” The reader does not know what “the thing that happened here” might be – only that it must be bad (Child Protection Service? Knausgaard is meeting with them alone?). The book continues by interweaving two parallel timelines – the summer when “the thing that happened here” happened, and a single day the following spring, Walpurgis Night, which has its own (more mundane) thrills and chills (Knausgaard forgets his bank card at home, has no milk to feed his infant daughter on a long trip, and almost runs out of gas).

My appreciation for Spring is bound up with my own taste and proclivities as a reader. I remain an addict to narrative – closer to the child reading a Hardy Boys detective story than the sophisticated critic sharpening his analytical scalpel. But beyond that, I think that Knausgaard as an author is at his best when he commits to narrative form and tries to provide some of the payoffs of traditional storytelling (which makes me excited about the potential for his novel coming out in English this fall, The Morning Star). The demands of telling a story give him a form to work with, and to work against. His essayistic digressions work best when they are genuine digressions from something – a plotline, however loose – that pulls the reader through (it’s why I think his book of letters works – the World Cup “story” creates a narrative momentum).

The volumes of My Struggle do have some narrative drive … or at least narrative drift (and A Time for Everything is essentially a collection of narratives, including retellings of foundational stories from the Bible). But the value of narrative is easier to see in comparing Spring to the other volumes in the seasonal quartet project. The entire quartet has a loose structure of a message to Knausgaard’s youngest daughter – descriptions of the world she will be coming into. In Autumn and Winter there are “Letters to an Unborn Daughter” interspersed with essays on everything ranging from chewing gum to pain to the 1970s. In Summer the letters have been replaced with diaries which veer into fragments of fiction (retelling a story Knausgaard had been told by his grandfather – which is referenced in My Struggle as well, I believe – of a woman who ran away with an Austrian soldier during the final year of German occupation). Interspersed throughout all the volumes are paintings – each book with a different artist (Vanessa Baird for Autumn, Lars Lerin for Winter, Anna Bjerger for Spring, and Anselm Kiefer for Summer). Spring is the only volume that can be described as having a cohesive and continuous narrative.

The essays in the series are of varying quality, and at times they risk falling into a sort of self-parody in their descriptive detail. Some of them simply fail to bring to life the thing they’re trying to describe. Knausgaard lets his attention range far and wide, picking out things close at hand and far away, and sometimes the results are brilliant (“Chewing Gum,” “Father Christmas,” or “Rubber Boots”) but many entries are entirely forgettable. The three entries I’ve singled out all include narrative elements, and all three also remind the reader that Knausgaard’s most interesting subject remains himself.

In contrast with the risk of self-indulgence in the other volumes of the quartet, nothing in Spring feels wasted, even when Knausgaard wanders into a meandering essayistic digression. When he considers fate and personality, for example, the reader is interested, because it is connected with the story we are reading of the relationship between Karl Ove, his infant daughter, and his absent wife. The thoughts on fate illuminate the thematic concerns of the book, while at the same time the plot gives the ideas narrative heft – we know that the questions have meaning, because they are somehow connected to the “the thing that happened here” (although, it’s worth nothing that this weight is also a result of the intertextuality of Knausgaard’s fiction – Spring’s slim 182 pages have the 3500+ pages of My Struggle behind them, giving the story a greater depth than it would otherwise have).

The use of narrative only works if it is allowed to gain momentum though. Summer includes fragments of narrative, with Karl Ove stepping into an entirely different narrative voice, but the fragments feel disjointed and incomplete. Even if the events described in the narrative sections are much more exciting and high stakes than the more mundane plotline of Spring, they don’t make up a meaningful whole (and the switch from letters to diaries only increases a sensation of self-indulgence). It feels as though Knausgaard has become bored with his project and is trying to artificially increase tension by inserting the story fragments. Rather than the narrative providing a shaping form, Summer ends up feeling shapeless and haphazard.

Narrative structure gives the reader some momentum to work with. When Karl Ove presents the mystery of “the thing that happened here” early in Spring the reader knows that she is going to find out what that thing was if she keeps the pages turning, and so the pages keep turning. The benefits for the reader seem clear. Are there benefits for Knausgaard as a writer? Is it harder, or easier, to embrace the more traditional form of a book like Spring? Who knows? It does, at least, remind him of the existence of a reader, I think. The quote that starts this post also seems to point towards something – a suggestion that the embrace of form can bring something to light that otherwise would remain hidden – for both reader and writer.