For all the praise that has been to Karl Ove Knausgaard in recent years – and James Wood, in conversation with him at the First Parish in Cambridge, cites him as one of the most lauded foreign novelists of the past decade, alongside Elena Ferrante – he hasn’t gotten enough praise for being a child prodigy. Wood correctly notes that what Knausgaard’s new book, Autumn, immediately reflects is innocence.
Autumn comprises a series of missives to an unborn daughter. It includes dozens of brief and obliquely vivid comments on objects – “Apples,” “Daguerrotype,” “Earth,” “Silence,” and so on. The seeming purpose of this is to give the daughter a solid understanding of what she will have been gotten into. Does the author’s innocence qualify him as an authority? James Wood says that most writers would have been afraid to write the way Knausgaard does of blood’s involvement in blushing. Knausgaard knows his innocence-guilt: “I am very innocent, there are so many things I don’t understand.”
“Is it possible to have a book with no human activity in it?” Knausgaard asked himself, he says, on the way to writing the book. But in "Apples," which he reads, he writes, "I know that it is never really about the world in itself, merely about our way of relating to it" (Autumn, page 10).
James Wood compares Knausgaard to Tolstoy, referring to their shared simplicity about the natural world, their “natural appetites.” Knausgaard recognizes the influence and cites also Proust, whom he credits with establishing a language for nostalgia. Also the work of Thomas Bernhardt for certain formal elements. Repetition, namely. “Repetition,” repeats Knausgaard.
The audience can eventually ask questions. Knausgaard is asked how he does it. Knausgaard says he wakes up early in the morning. This puts everyone in a good-natured bad humor.
Knausgaard, although diligent, says that the quality he most seeks in a book is escapism. Asked what he has been reading lately, he says that it has been a lot of books about the Russian Revolution. “It’s all facts but I can get away.” Does he listen to music? “Dad-rock,” he says. Iron & Wine and the War on Drugs. He says that he likes to listen to the same song over and over. The word “revolution” is goofy inasmuch as a complete revolution features a return to the origin. You can see where this is going, backwards. I'm starting to suspect Knaugaard of being a network of nostalgic pulleys.
Although Knausgaard apparently likes to escape, he makes sure to keep some distance between himself and paradise. A woman asks him whether he plans to ever come to Argentina, where she's from and evidently lives. She notes that Knausgaard wanted to call "My Struggle" "Argentina," but was talked down from it. He confirms this, says he has loved the country since one of its World Cup appearances when he was young. I think he cites the uniform as motive. He says he won’t ever go there.
I feel out of place, because I haven’t read any of Knausgaard’s books, whereas, I take it, lots of the people here have read several thousand pages of his work, mostly more or less about him. One guy starts his question by telling Knausgaard that over the years he has come to care very much about him. I sort of scoff, expecting company, but most people don’t. Many more people laugh when a questioner assures Knausgaard that whereas Knausgaard has insisted that his memory is poor, it actually can’t be. Knausgaard clarifies: as he writes about the past he comes to remember more of it. He also says that the access-points to memory tend to come through highly physical recollections – what it was like to run as a child, etc. – and then he can work from there. There is an interesting way in which this mnemonic physicality corresponds to the “natural appetites” whose expression in Tolstoy accounts for much relatability in his work, as well as to the conceptual naturalism of Autumn’s descriptions of the world.
Something about Knausgaard’s work is highly relatable. The audience treats him like an old friend. It sometimes has a bluntness. One man spends a long time talking about how he thinks that all decisions are moral decisions – Knausgaard says that he feels always guilt – then asks Knausgaard, From reading you it’s obvious that you’re an alcoholic, do you still drink?
I wonder whether it is exhausting for someone who must think so much about himself to be surrounded by people who spend a lot of time thinking about him. Maybe he thinks that when we’re thinking of him, we are trying to make autobiographical fan fiction about him. Maybe he isn’t sure his own work isn’t fan-fictive. “It is impossible to trust memory,” says our memoirist, “because memory makes you into something you can live with.” I start to wonder what a genre of “Knausgaard fan fiction” would comprise. The questions finish. After this disheveling onslaught, before coming back to sign books, Knausgaard cuts out for a cigarette. No one asked him if he smokes.