Summer by Karl Ove Knausgaard – review

The last volume of the Norwegian author’s Seasons quartet will keep his fans occupied, if not entirely satisfied

It’s a slightly confusing situation for Karl Ove Knausgaard fans that while the sixth and final part of the My Struggle series has still to be published in English (due later this year), a whole different cycle – the Seasons quartet – has filled the intervening lull.

The fourth book of that quartet is Summer, which again mixes diary entries and a selection of personal encyclopaedia entries ostensibly addressed to his youngest daughter, along with a piece of fiction set during the second world war and based on a story his grandfather told him, which he drops tantalisingly into his writing almost like an actor suddenly changing character.

It’s been an uneven series, by turns showing Knausgaard at his finest, as a writer grappling to see the world with utterly fresh eyes, and his most banal, trotting out his familiar tropes of domestic duties and bucolic descriptions.

For those of us who entered a kind of deep narcotic state before the mesmerising sensory overload of My Struggle, the Seasons quartet has been a bit like a methadone programme: keeping withdrawal at bay without ever quite hitting the spot.

The last book, Spring, was the most revealingly autobiographical, and thus most Knausgaardian as we’ve come to think of it. It touched on the strains within his marriage, in particular with regard to his wife Linda’s bipolar depression, and Knausgaard once more subjected his own behaviour to candid and often unflattering analysis.

Despite the uplifting note on which Spring concluded, the marriage that filled hundreds of pages of My Struggle and produced four children has since ended. Though there is no sense of its impending demise in Summer, Linda has scarcely more than a walk-on part, a silent presence in the margins, referred to mostly only by her absence.

Summer begins with Knausgaard continuing his encyclopaedic summaries of things and concepts. Having in the previous books written mini-essays on such diverse subjects as thermos flasks, pain, jelly fish, sexual desire and manholes, he turns his singular attention to slugs, bats, fainting and electric hand mixers, which, he notes, unlike almost everything else human-made, resemble nothing else in nature.

Cars are like beetles and vacuum cleaners like elephants’ trunks, but the electric mixer is made in its own image, a labour-saving device that is usually more effort than it’s worth. Knausgaard examines this idea and ends his essay with the image of jogging humans – the only creatures that run aimlessly.

It’s a charming but head-scratching piece poised elusively between the absurd and the profound – a description that applies to most, if not all, the entries. They can be enjoyed for the ideas and images Knausgaard conjures seemingly out of nowhere, or at least out of such everyday material to which most of us give so little thought that nowhere might as well be their provenance.

Why are slugs “repulsive, deeply undesirable and loathsome”? Because, Knausgaard suggests, they are naked and smooth like internal organs, “little lungs creeping around by themselves”. That essay ends with the writer cutting a big brown slug in half with a pair of sharp scissors, causing the slug to scream, “low and shrill”.

The conceit of the series is that its prime audience is his youngest daughter. It’s a notion that is severely tested by so much of what Knausgaard wants to discuss and the manner in which he discusses it, but in one respect it works very well, because it enables him to unearth the mysteries of the commonplace with a kind of childlike awe.

The essay on fainting concerns a scene I witnessed, which was Knausgaard collapsing at a literary party – not as a result of the usual cause at such gatherings, an excess of alcohol, but rather an excess of self-consciousness. It’s a recurring theme in his writing, which manages at once to be supremely self-conscious and gloriously liberated from authorial policing.

If his daughter does ever read these books, she will learn – if she doesn’t already know – that her father is worried about how his teeth appear, that he is hopeless at small talk, that he fears his penis is too small (though it is actually “a little bigger than average”) – and that he’s also greatly troubled by why he would want to reveal such a private detail.

He is also, she will realise, endlessly curious about the world. It’s just that his perceptions of it are so particular, and so much the product of his internalised debate, that the world ends up being one vast, if often fascinating, projection of Knausgaard’s restless mind.

Summer by Karl Ove Knausgaard is published by Harvill Secker (£16.99). To order a copy for £12.99 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

Andrew Anthony

The GuardianTramp

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