By Karl Ove Knausgaard
Translated by Ingvild Burkey Illustrated.
254 pp. Penguin Press. $27.
“Winter,” the second collection of essays in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “four seasons” quartet, comprises 60 short pieces, punctuated by three letters addressed to his youngest daughter. Framed as a “lexicon for an unborn child,” the collection evokes the shape of nondirected, unbounded thought, and an artist’s sensibility, free from conventional judgments of what’s worth noticing. They are impressionistic records, a constellation of bits that accumulate in an appealing miscellany of objects and concepts — the moon, the 1970s, winter sounds, manholes. Each essay is about three pages long.
A short essay isn’t just a truncated long essay; it has its own distinct pacing, prosody and form. A three-page essay is intensely interested in constraint. It depends on its final moment of arrival, which is sometimes preceded by one or more smaller or more temporary arrivals. Knausgaard seems to recognize this — the placement of several of the best essays, at the end of the book, indicates a sense of the ceremony of endings — but most of the essays in “Winter” read like excerpts from, or preambles to, longer essays. They read not just as though their initiating subjects were noticed quickly but as though they were written quickly; they seem uninterested in pursuing the goals of the short essay, which are precision, originality and speed.
It is impossible to read this book without also considering “My Struggle,” Knausgaard’s six-volume, oceanic work of autofiction, its thousands of pages translated, published and admired around the world. “My Struggle” is fearlessly expansive. It probes the banal content of life to the point of exhaustion. It takes its time. It is interested in endurance. It is less interested in omission, compression, silence.
Fans of “My Struggle” will find some finely articulated passages in “Winter,” written by a gentler, more mildly tempered narrator than that of the longer books. Knausgaard realizes while fishing that “the expectation of an answer runs so deep that it is presumably fundamentally human, the most characteristic trait of our nature.” He turns a painterly eye to fields “covered by a thin layer of snow, with the brown soil showing through in places, as when a wound is visible through strips of gauze.” In one of my favorite passages, his shame about his messy house “flaps around in me like one of those large hollow figures through which air is blown and which sometimes flutter about outside shopping centers or fast-food restaurants.” “Windows,” the last essay in the collection, ends: “How ambivalent we are in relation to these categories of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ becomes apparent if we consider the coffin, which by virtue of being our final dwelling, our last defense against the elements, our final ‘inside,’ in large measure denies our true nature, but not entirely: In that case, the coffin too would have windows.”