One Who Stands Alone
Review of Spring by Karl Ove Knausgaard
“You don’t know what air is, yet you breathe,” so starts Spring, the new book by Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard, and with these first lines he sets the tone for the rest of the book. This third addition to Knausgaard’s seasonal quartet is a dismantling of mundane events to find momentous meanings. Knausgaard is famous for capturing the ordinariness of daily routines in infinitesimal detail and layering it with Proustian deliberations. In that regard, Spring is no different.
Spring is addressed to his newly born daughter, his fourth child with the Swedish author, Linda Bostom (the couple is divorced now). This slim volume knits a story of a day in Knausgaard’s life, and meanders several times to link back to events that unfolded few years back, including an incident, the leftovers of which we find Knausgaard contending with till the day in which the book is set. The incident remains unspoken about till the last quarter of the book, furnishing a mysterious undertone to the story. He recently had to visit Child Protection Services, where in front of two young women — themselves without any children yet, “So they don’t know anything, I thought, and felt annoyed that two people so young should question me about my family” — he attempts to come across as a responsible father.
Early on though, we know the incident has to do with his wife’s mood swings. She is absent from the first scenes, convalescing in a hospital in a town few hours from where the Knausgaard family lives. Throughout the book, we encounter a dad, Knausgaard, fixing broken things around the house, preparing breakfast, doing laundry and dishes, dropping his three older kids to the school, while taking care of his new-born, all by himself. His life has clearly become messy, so much so that he doesn’t nearly get enough space to worry about an episode of his own internal bleeding, “It was probably just haemorrhoids, I thought — I sat still all day and done so for years — it was nothing to worry about,” he writes.
We find Knausgaard preparing for a day trip to meet his wife. On the backseat of his car, he has his infant daughter with who he cheerfully holds a one-sided conversation. In between, he reminiscences about the time when she was conceived, and the whole family had taken a road trip to the Farö Islands, where Knausgaard is called for a lecture on Ingmar Bergman. They stayed in Bergman’s summer house for five days and everything seemed good, but for the first signs of depression that his wife had started to show. Knausgaard lets her be. Later, when the depression intensifies, and his wife remains holed up in the bedroom, Knausgaard appears almost inhumane. “The illness has to do with you not taking responsibility for yourself,” he tells her. He finds triumph in carrying out daily chores all by himself. Later, we find him sobbing uncontrollably, tears streaming down his cheeks. Knausgaard paints these alternating portraits of himself— from a caring father to a self-centred celebrity author to a distraught husband — within a space of few pages, making Spring a tight echo of his six-volume My Struggles series.
Knausgaard’s philosophical contemplation ranges from deflection to addition, from suicide to birth. ‘Parry’ is a word that he uses a lot in the first half of Spring. “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 his new-born, “the opposite of parrying is creating, making, adding something that wasn’t there before. You were not there before.” On suicide, a theme that’s the tacit undercurrent in Spring, he writes about his own experience of climbing a mountain to jump to death when he was still a teenager, “I remember my despair and I remember my exultation, but I don’t remember what stopped me, why half an hour later I climbed down again and continued my way home.” He theorises that the world means nothing to someone who has lost connections, one who stands alone. And yet, he deliberately cuts off the connection that his wife seeks from him.
In the last few years, Karl Ove Knausgaard has gained a global standing. That he lives in Skåne region in Sweden, where I also live, impels me to search my surroundings in his words. But I fail, for how Knausgaard microscopically synthesises the context and the events around him is beyond my grasp. Yet I enjoy his work as it allows me a peek into my own world with details that I tend to otherwise skip. Spring, translated from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey, is a short read, the shortest yet by Knausgaard. It can be read in a few hours and for those yet uninitiated on Knausgaard and daunted by 3500 pages My Struggles series, it makes a good starting point.
A version of this story appeared in The Hindu