The most surprising thing about Autumn, the latest book from Norwegian literary superstar Karl Ove Knausgaard, is how tender it is.
Knausgaard is best known for his radically honest autobiographical novel My Struggle, a six-volume work that is unstinting in its detail. (“No writer has ever admitted to quite so many premature ejaculations,” remarked one reviewer.) Autumn, in contrast, is relatively slim, coming in at 224 pages and containing no particularly shocking revelations. It doesn’t even have a narrative or barely any characters.
The book takes the form of a letter to Knausgaard’s unborn daughter. Every day for the last 90 days of his wife’s pregnancy, Knausgaard concentrates on an object or an idea — lice, Van Gogh, and the migration of birds all appear, in that order — and devotes himself to describing it for his unborn daughter with as much detail and thoughtfulness as he can. The result is a series of lyrical sketches that are invested in making even cruder topics like piss as worthy of aesthetic examination as the sun.
When Knausgaard can’t find the beauty in a given subject, he wants to think about why that might be. It should be possible, he writes, to find the beauty in vomit, “a fiery yellow, nearly ablaze, at other times paler, the color of straw,” but it isn’t: Vomit is by its nature repulsive, since it comes from inside the body and is hence disgusting.
Still, he concludes, when his little daughter (the one who’s already born, not the unborn one he’s writing to) threw up on him in the subway once, he found it “neither disgusting nor uncomfortable.” It was because “I loved her, and the force of that love allows nothing to stand in its way, neither the ugly, nor the unpleasant, nor the disgusting, nor the horrific.”
The spirit of that love animates this gentle, thoughtful book: love both for Knausgaard’s unborn daughter and for finding elements of the transcendent in the mundane. It’s tender, intimate, and lovely.