Book Review: Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard
There is a subcategory of stand up comedy which is commonly referred to as observational humour, where a comedian will draw material from the most common everyday activities and situations. The aim there is to establish the most basic context that will be immediately familiar to their audience, and then point at these mundane things and make subversive comments about them, as jokes tends to do. One of most well-known comedians to do that was George Carlin, who referred to them as “these little things that we have in common; little universal moments we share separately; things that make us the same. They’re so small, we hardly ever talk about them.” This description could very well be the blurb to Knausgaard’s Autumn, the first book of his Seasonal Quartet.
The book is framed as a letter to his unborn daughter, where Knausgaard is preparing to introduce her to this world that she is in, but which she hasn’t yet seen or experienced. What follows each fragment of the letter (one for each month of Autumn) is a number of stand-alone short pieces of writing with a very specific subject. These range from objects like rubber boots, bottles, and buttons, to abstract notions like pain and forgiveness. While it’s intention isn’t to be funny, most of these bits contain a subversive element towards the end, where the writer sort of catches you off-guard. For example, in one of my favorite bits about bottles, he starts describing the shapes and functions of bottle in the most basic and detailed way. Of course, his reader is familiar with this object, they know what a bottle looks like, feels like, what purpose it serves, how it can break if it’s made of glass, but Knausgaard still devotes a whole page to describing this. It’s never boring, as you know the idea here is to describe the bottle to an unborn child who has no such knowledge, but this part also serves to ease you into his point of view by starting from a common framework, so that when he starts comparing bottles to literature, you’re already with him in this thought process. Here he talks about how form influences a literary work, in the way that a bottle determines the shape of the liquid stored in it. Then he goes on, in true Knausgaardian fashion, to relate this to an incident from his childhood, and even there you follow him quite easily, and understand how he felt.
I have read some criticism on this book from people who put it down as a simple writing exercise made into a book. I would agree with that criticism in principle, as not many writers could get away with writing about the most mundane of objects and their own insights and make it work, which just goes to show what an exceptional writer Knausgaard is. You don’t start reading because you want to know how buttons work, you read because you know there’s going to be a turn in the narrative that will change your perspective and give you a glimpse into the way someone else observes the world.
BA English Literature, MSc Publishing. Passionate about contemporary literature, noir comics, beautifully shot films, and whiskies that are old enough to order their own whiskies. Can bore you to death with La La Land songs, Hollywood trivia, George Carlin references, and extensive knowledge on Leonard Cohen.