Winter by Karl Ove Knausgaard review – from cotton buds to sex as cannibalism

The second volume of the bestselling author’s seasonal musings meander between the laughable and the sublime

In Autumn, Karl Ove Knausgaard mused on whatever came to mind during his (now ex) wife’s pregnancy with their fourth chid, Anne. Winter, the second in a quick-fire seasonal quartet published in Norwegian two years ago, repeats the formula for the run-up to her birth early in 2014, with 60 prose pieces between two and five pages long on everything from cotton buds to the 1970s and “hollow spaces”.

It’s an enterprise that is catnip to parodists. A piece on Conversation starts by informing us that “a great deal of interpersonal communication takes place outside language”. Chairs begins: “A chair is for sitting on.” The excuse for such statements – that their addressee is in utero – doesn’t survive literal-minded scrutiny, but they’re only a springboard in any case: Sugar starts by saying it “consists of tiny white crystals that crunch between the teeth” and ends by using it to explain the populist Progress party’s rise to power in Norway.

These swerves are key to the book’s appeal. When Knausgaard exposes himself in the manner of his autobiographical novel My Struggle – admitting he’s afraid of women (“I fear… I will be found lacking”) or describing a humiliating flare-up when his daughter won’t sit down to lunch – it’s interesting enough. But he becomes more charming and persuasive when Knausgaard wanders into quizzical speculation – about, say, why coffins don’t have windows or how sex is like cannibalism.

Take his thoughts on the ontology of “mess”, which isn’t, he says, a “meaningful concept when applied to nature”, because nature “only exists on one level, the level of the real” (it is what it is). Your house, by contrast, can be messy: although it too “exists in the real”, it simultaneously “aspires towards the ideal”. “All tragedies arise out of this duality, but also all triumphs,” he loftily concludes, “and the feeling of triumph is what prevails in me now, when the kitchen in the house on the other side of the lawn, lit up like a train compartment in the darkness, where only a few hours ago I did the Christmas cleaning, is sparkling clean and bright.” However unpromising the opening proclamations, the sudden joy of that final image makes the argument harder to gainsay.

Knausgaard isn’t the silkiest writer – there’s a 200-word whopper of an awkward sentence on the very first page – but combing over his prose feels a bit like reporting on a football match by watching the grass: fundamental and yet somehow unimportant. It helps that he recognises the comic potential of his restless endeavour to restore wonder to the world, though it’s always moot. “One evening some weeks ago the bureau that stands by the wall in the room next to my office caught my attention,” begins a piece entitled – wait for it – Atoms, which sees him panic-buying books on particle physics (“I suddenly realised I knew nothing”).

Winter is at its weakest when Knausgaard devotes entries to his friends: “Björn’s face is long and nearly rectangular”, “Thomas’s eyes are set deep in their sockets”, and so on. We don’t know these people and for that reason don’t care about their eyes or faces. Knausgaard’s pieces work best when they have some preconception to unsettle: see Cold, where a complaint about faulty underfloor heating segues into an absurd yet touching eulogy to the “contrarian dignity” of “hot air”, forever flowing self-sacrificially into the chill “as if it doesn’t know its own limitations”.

Thermodynamics as tragedy – convinced? Either way, Knausgaard on the shamelessness of hot air doesn’t seem a bad metaphor for this project, whether you find its laissez-faire lack of inhibition laughable or liberating, a swindle or sublime.

Winter by Karl Ove Knausgaard is published by Harvill Secker (£16.99). To order a copy for £13.59 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Contributor

Anthony Cummins

The GuardianTramp

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