A Return to Form, and to Ruthlessness

Posted May 8, 2018 4:24 p.m. EDT

The first time Karl Ove Knausgaard saw Linda Bostrom, the Swedish writer he would later marry, he dropped everything he was holding. The first time she turned him down, he sliced his face to ribbons with a piece of broken glass. The first time they kissed, he fainted dead away.

Those would prove to be the good old days.

In his six-volume autobiographical novel, “My Struggle,” Knausgaard documents their stormy marriage in pitiless detail: her rages, his resentments, their ecstasies of mutual recrimination. Their fights could have been scripted by Bergman.

The books are so lavish with family secrets, they seem not shameless so much as an attempt to annihilate the very concept of shame itself. “I married the world’s most indiscreet man,” Bostrom Knausgaard said in an interview in 2015. (The couple have since divorced.)

On the face of it, Knausgaard’s new project — a series of books inspired by the seasons (the final one, “Summer,” will be published this year) — has been a departure. Gone is the claustrophobia, the scouring self-scrutiny, the glacial creep of “My Struggle.” “Autumn” and “Winter” were full of quick sketches of the material world, prose poems on buttons and badgers, apples and faces. The books are all sunlight and unfettered sentimentality.

But “Spring,” the latest installment, translated from Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey, is a return to form, and a return to ruthlessness.

The book begins in a home where everything is leaking and creaking and on the verge of collapse. Every zipper is stuck, every button loose. The drains are clogged. The light bulbs have burned out long ago. So has the marriage.

The kids are all right, though; glorious, in fact. Knausgaard watches his four children with awe. Their strong bodies, “infinitely more complex than any machine or mechanical device on the inside, had always functioned perfectly, had never broken down, had never gone to pieces.”

Or have they? We learn that he was summoned to a meeting with child protection services. He doesn’t say why; the mystery dangles like a lure. It becomes clear that it has something to do with the depression that engulfed his wife during her last pregnancy.

The new series is addressed to Knausgaard’s youngest child. “I am 46 years old and that is my insight, that life is made up of events that have to be parried. And that the moments of happiness in life all have to do with the opposite,” he writes to her. “The opposite of parrying is creating, making, adding something that wasn’t there before. You were not there before.”

“Spring” features Knausgaard unbound, writing for the first time without a gimmick or the crutch of extravagant experimentation, the endurance test of “My Struggle” or the staccato essays of his previous books on the seasons. “Spring” refuses contrivance; it refuses to parry.

Instead, over the course of one day, we watch Knausgaard care for the children and home, his wife mysteriously absent. He changes diapers, makes meatballs, desultorily enforces some discipline and does a harrowing amount of laundry. He sneaks off for a cigarette and writing time. And the book’s blunt, unforced telling brings the larger project’s meaning into sudden, brilliant focus.

In “My Struggle,” Knausgaard offered a more complete portrait of his wife’s depression. She had attempted suicide shortly before they met. Her father also suffered mightily from mental illness. He was institutionalized for much of his life and once tried to kill his family. Knausgaard’s own father drank himself to death and kept a diary of his drinking while doing so — “it is as if he was logging his own demise,” Knausgaard wrote.

“There are as many reasons for suicide as there are people who commit suicide,” he writes in “Spring,” “but common to them all is that in one way or another they have become unattached, something other than attachment has gained the upper hand within them, making them unable to receive what the self needs to live.”

This series is the rejoinder to his father’s diary. Knausgaard has assembled this living encyclopedia for his daughter with a wild and desperate sort of love, as a way to forge her attachment to the world, to fasten her to it — to fight the family legacy of becoming unmoored and alienated. It’s almost a matchmaking endeavor, so frantically does he tout the beauties of the world — “the smell of wet snow in winter, fog in the dark of an autumn evening.” Fall in love with the world, he enjoins, stay sensitive to it, stay in it.

Production Notes:


By Karl Ove Knausgaard

Illustrated. 182 pages. Penguin Press. $27.