Essays, story collections, vignettes—they allow us the opportunity to read a variety of thoughts, on varied subjects. Devoid of any centralized focus, we’re invited to partake in them occasionally, like a painting, to engage deeply in the realm between the frame and then, satisfied, saunter off, perhaps to a new painting, a new sensation, or perhaps to our own thoughts.
Karl Ove Knausgaard has made a name for himself ruining the demarcation lines in his own memory, letting thoughts interrupt or interrogate moments otherwise mundane, charging them with a force flowing and vivid. It’s the struggle of a man coming to grips (in near real-time) with what it means to remember, to impart meaning in memory, and the tension between trying to impose some meaning on it now versus what must have been dredged from it then. We read this process page-by-page and feel we gain through it, if not an insight into our own relation to our past then through the fantastic, coherent confluence of another’s.
Autumn, by contrast, is a group of short pieces written chronologically, ostensibly to his then-unborn daughter, introducing her to the world. Its subject matter is precisely the mundane: teeth, twilight, fingers, chimneys, vomit. In Knausgaard’s hands they are rendered into tiny points of reflection and rumination, as when he transmogrifies shame into glee. Or, like their topic, they are more mundane, less filled with light, and while most do become interesting many begin with scientific descriptions of the topic at-hand. The joy of exploration sometimes becomes a slog.
The most compelling thing about Autumn, however, is not any particular section but the liminal space between them, when you turn the page from one fragment to the next. Each piece is an essay, an attempt, to reach some level of veracity with the subject, and when Knausgaard thinks he’s gotten there he’s content to end. It has (a degree of) closure, and must have felt so for him, given the remit of the book (one piece a day, each day). For the reader, however, such pacing is impractical, and the pieces aren’t suited to that level of deliberation. (Koans they ain’t.)
Instead there’s much joy to be found the the space between them. In an early piece, “Wasps,” he procedurally recounts an encounter while painting, ending it with taping off some vents and trapping the wasps. This leads to “Plastic Bags,” which contrasts the artistic listing and swaying of the bags with their more problematic place in nature. As he stares at one bag, in water, he feels not any great resolution but the sense that he “was still in the middle of something and always would be.” The parallels are suggestive and inviting.
But the most rewarding is halfway through the book. In “Autumn Leaves” he uses the item to evoke apples and family, the tart taste and cidery smell conjuring genealogies of both the apples he’s eating and the family he’s sharing them with. Yet while this evocation is felt, it brings about the larger realization that his current life is the one he’s fixated on, not the past one. “I think of it every day, that what matters is now, that the years we are living through now are when everything important happens,” he writes, leading to a conclusion where he proleptically mourns this moment, one where he’s trying to be present, to appreciate. It’s not about the past, it’s about the now.
Except it really isn’t, since the next piece, “Bottles,” is a humorous childhood story of a town drunk. It’s all reflective, vivid yet reduced in typical Knausgaard style. It begins, as many others, with an exploration of bottle-as-object, but it’s impossible to hide the smirk that forms when he segways into the memory. It seems such a playful refutation of what came before, and invites the reader to guess at Knausgaard’s thoughts: is he aware of this contradiction? Does he find it a joke? Or as a point to be proved? I’m not quite sure myself, but ask me tomorrow and I may have a new thought on the matter.