Book Review: Winter by Karl Ove Knausgaard



by Karl Ove Knausgaard



Karl Ove Knausgaard’s second volume of his Seasonal Quartet, Winter, follows on the same threads as Autumn, with three more letters to his unborn daughter (the last one written in the hospital just after her birth) framing a series of short observational pieces about his surroundings. Where Autumn was a book about change, in nature as well as society, Winter digs into the feeling of collective hibernation that swallows up the northern hemisphere; a period of stasis and preparation.

Autumn is a transition, a time of emptying – of the light in the sky, the warmth in the air, the leaves on the trees and plants. The winter that follows is a state in which immobility reigns. The earth stiffens, water freezes to ice, snow covers the ground.
— Karl Ove Knausgaard, Winter (p. 129)

In many respects, the books are very similar, and appeal to the same kind of reader. What is remarkable in both of them is the way the range of topics is often unexpected. For the month of February, Knausgaard writes about Roosters, Fish, Buses, Winter Boots, Conversation, Habits, Bonfires, and the Feeling of Life, among other things. Some of these topics , when spotted on a list, might give the impression of fertile topics to write about, but the usual suspects receive a two-page treatment, while seemingly dull topics can be mused on for twice that length, or more. For example, Rooster receives a more detailed treatment: Knausgaard starts with the now-familiar physical description and goes on to talk about the underworld in Norse mythology and Norwegian epic poems.

One of my favourite pieces is about toothbrushes, and illustrates the flow of the book. The toothbrush analysis gets double the exploration than, say, Fireworks, but that is precisely because toothbrushes relate to the everyday in such a direct way that it opens the door for a closer look. This is where Knausgaard excels: the quotidian. Both Autumn and Winter take cues from objects whose use is so ingrained in our experience, since our early childhood memories, that they completely fade into the background of our lives. The reason why these passages are longer in Winter is because Knausgaard’s art is to draw out elements from this background, bring them to the light, put them under the microscope and make sense of them; to paint this part of life lived otherwise unremarkably.

The family’s toothbrushes are in a cup in the bathroom bristles up, looking a little like flowers in a vase, with their handles like stems and their brushes a kind of corolla.
— Karl Ove Knausgaard, Winter (p. 145)

The piece describes the cup of toothbrushes in his family’s bathroom, how his children will grab and use any toothbrush without a sense of ownership over them, how when he was a child using someone else’s toothbrush was unthinkable and a clear sign of lack of hygeine, and ends up (somewhat unsurprisingly, one might say) talking about his father. The first time he lied to his father he was ten years old and his lie involved brushing his teeth when in fact he hadn’t. This small detail from his memory is large in its significance, as he writes that it lead to a revelation: he could lie about certain things and never be found out, therefore not brushing his teeth became a symbol of rebellious freedom.

This introspective progression from an object to something deeply rooted in his memory, usually from his childhood, is perhaps the most recognisable and successful formula for the short pieces of prose that make up Winter, which at times seems to be an amplified version of Autumn.



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.



Platon Poulas