Summer by Karl Ove Knausgaard 2016

Knausgaard, the 52 year old Norwegian writer, was vaulted to fame, notoriety, and admiration by his six volume series entitled ‘My Struggle’ in which he wrote about the most mundane details of his daily life from a difficult childhood through his present.  I tried to read the first volume and gave up after 50 pages of relatively boring prose.

That was not the case with his four volumes titled with the names of the seasons.   ‘Autumn’ was written when his fourth child was still in utero and described his hopes for this yet-t0-be-born child.  It was followed within two years by ‘Winter’ when his daughter had just been born, ‘Spring’, and now ‘Summer’.  Each book contained essays reflecting Knausgaard’s extraordinary ability to observe the details of daily life and make the quotidian interesting, important, and signifying something towards the paradox of the everydayness and insignificance of life day-by-day and the passion and overwhelming urge we have to LIVE.

He does this with 2-3 page essays about the mundane—lawn sprinklers, slugs, ice cubes, earthworms, bicycles, butterflies, eggs, ladybugs.  His detailed observations are accompanied by his ruminating about how each of these fit into the beauty and meaning of the world—not an easy task when faced with skin or ground wasps.  Many of these observations occur while he is driving car pools, getting dinner on the table, or simply mowing his lawn.  They’re all worth reading and thinking about.

What distinguishes this volume from the other three is that embedded in its midst is a fragment of a novel about a Norwegian woman who abandons her family to run away with an Austrian soldier who had been housed with them while recovering from a serious wound.  It’s WWII and the woman gives up everything for this unlikely and uncontrollable passion.  We meet her in Malmo, many years later, her Austrian long dead, and eavesdrop on her reminiscing about her earlier life as Knausgaard observes, “…do we all die happy?….what we think comes more often from places we ourselves are unaware of than from places we know.”

What makes this ‘book within a book’ so interesting is that Knausgaard doesn’t set this novelistic insert apart from his musings.  He simply says “When her I takes the place of mine in the next sentence….” and we are transported to Malmo.  Several times I missed this transition and couldn’t figure out who the “I” was, but the fictional conceit worked and I was as engaged by the ‘novel’ as I was by the essays.

Another beautiful and unusual feature of this book is a series of reproductions of paintings by Anselm Kiefer, one of the most honored painters of our time.  Not sure how Knausgaard and Kiefer are connected, but the presence of these luminescent illustrations in this volume adds immeasurably to the pleasure of reading it.

This is a wonderful quartet of books that I would urge anyone who likes the personal essay to dive into.