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Knausgaard's 'Autumn' Considers Everything From Toilet Bowls To Twilight

Aug 22, 2017
Originally published on August 24, 2017 9:44 am

Author Karl Ove Knausgaard — known for his six-volume autobiographical series, My Struggle — has embarked on a brand new multi-part project. Autumn, the first in a four-part quartet, is a collection of texts, each focused on a single subject.

In these short studies, Knausgaard considers a wide variety of tangible and intangible topics — apples, wasps, silence, jellyfish, fingers, forgiveness, dawn.

He weaves those texts in with letters to his youngest daughter, written before her birth. Observing the blood in his veins, the grass growing from the earth and the trees in the wind, he writes: "These astounding things, which you will soon encounter and see for yourself, are so easy to lose sight of, and there are almost as many ways of doing that as there are people. That is why I am writing this book for you. I want to show you the world, as it is, all around us, all the time. Only by doing so will I myself be able to glimpse it."

Knausgaard's daughter is now 3 1/2, and her capacity for wonder and curiosity are an inspiration. "She's questioning absolutely everything — I think that's one of the best ages," he says.

Autumn features artwork by Vanessa Baird and is translated by Ingvild Burkey.


Interview Highlights

On breaking out of his own habits

I feel normally kind of numb, almost, in the world. I'm not very curious about things. I live my life through habits. I do the same things every day. But through writing and through reading it's like it's a whole new way I can open the world up and that's what I'm trying to do. ...

It's very much the process that's important for me, it's not the result. It's the being in that place where you're questioning the world, or where you see the world, or where you are creating something out of elements from the world ... that's the place I want to be.

On why it's easier to write about "insignificant" tangible things

It is easier to write about the concrete world — and especially things that are not much written about — because then there is just the joy in describing it. ... The challenge when it comes to more abstract parts of the world — like forgiveness — is that it's so easy to just repeat something, or stay close to the conventional way of looking at it. ... It's much, much harder ... to write about love than it is to write about a steel thermos.

On writing about things that are normally off-limits — such as toilet bowls or lice

I wanted an equality so there would be no ... pre-judgement. And to pay as much attention to the toilet bowl as to my daughter's face. It is like: Everything exists, everything is there, and it is a way of challenging our gaze of the world — not in a very deep or philosophical way, but just a little bit. And then it is great fun to write about the toilet bowl. I think I called it "the swan of the bathroom."

On whether there's some childish fun in writing with dignity about topics most people dismiss

Definitely so. It's a very childish gaze of the world. ... Also, curiosity and what it is not to know something is very much a part of a child's reality. The problem for us is that we know so much, so we are not interested in the toilet bowl anymore. We know what it is, and we are done with it, and we use it.

On his editing process

Everything I wrote is in this book. I didn't throw out anything. I didn't edit anything out. If a painter [is creating] a watercolor, you can't redo anything; it is the first take. I tried to make the same approach in writing. It is what it is.

On his writing process

I have a very little house that I wrote all this text in — basically I am writing about things that surround me. I don't think I go more than 20 meters away from that little house. ... Rainer Maria Rilke, the German poet, described music as being lifted up and then put down somewhere else, and I think that's a very good description of what everybody [who] ... writes or makes music or whatever, is trying to do somehow. This book is very, very small scale. You are not moved many centimeters, but it still is a movement, I think.

Connor Donevan and Melissa Gray produced and edited the audio of this interview. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Fans of the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard can be practically religious in their devotion to his work. Knausgaard wrote an autobiographical series called "My Struggle." It was six volumes. He now has a new book called "Autumn." It's a slim collection of short studies, each on one subject. I asked him to read an excerpt from the first one, "Apples."

KARL OVE KNAUSGAARD: (Reading) For some reason or other, the fruits that grow in the Nordic countries are easily accessible with only a thin skin that yields readily covering their flesh. This is true for pears and apples, as well as for plums. All one needs to do is bite into them and gobble them down, while the fruits that grow further south like oranges, mandarins, bananas, pomegranates, mangoes and passion fruit are often covered with thick, inedible skins. Normally, in accordance with my other preferences in life, I prefer the latter, both because the notion that pleasure must be deserved through prior effort is so strong in me and because I have always been drawn towards the hidden and the secret.

SHAPIRO: Knausgaard writes about the texture of daily life - wasps, fingers, forgiveness. These writings are something like essays or poems or meditations. And interspersed between them are letters to his unborn daughter. She's now 3 and a half.

KNAUSGAARD: She's at the age where she's full of questions. You know, she's questioning absolutely everything. (Laughter) So that's one of the best ages.

SHAPIRO: It almost feels like that's some of what you were trying to do in this book, ask questions about why a tin can is the shape that it is, why an apple tastes the way that it tastes, things that we all take for granted every day.

KNAUSGAARD: Yeah, it's true because I feel normally kind of numb, almost, in the world and not very curious about things. I do the same things every day. And - but through writing and through reading, it's like it's the only way I can open the world up. And that's what I'm (laughter) - what I'm trying to do. You know, like opening all the things up - what they really are, what they could mean.

SHAPIRO: And once you open something up, once you see autumn leaves in this fresh, new way and you write about them, does it immediately close back up again? Or are you then able to break out of the numbness?

KNAUSGAARD: No, it's only when I'm writing. And so it is very much the process that's important for me. It's not the result. It's the being in that place where you're questioning the world, or where you see the world, or where you are creating something out of elements from the world that I'm looking for. And that's the place I want to be.

SHAPIRO: You chose to write about some things that are very concrete and specific, like badgers, and some things that are very abstract and amorphous, like forgiveness. How is it different writing about these things that are tangible and these things that are intangible?

KNAUSGAARD: It is easier to write about the concrete world, and especially things that are not much written about because then there is just a joy in describing it because, you know, not many people do describe these things because they're so insignificant.

SHAPIRO: Give me an example.

KNAUSGAARD: Q-tips, for instance. That was a wonderful world to write about. Toothbrushes was also very good, and thermos.

SHAPIRO: Let's turn to the page about thermos flasks, which comes late in the book.

KNAUSGAARD: (Reading) Thermos flasks. The steel thermos looked like it was designed to be fired like a projectile. And it's not dissimilar in shape to an artillery shell or a shell casing. It is very beautiful. I don't find artillery shells or casings beautiful, perhaps because they are generally seen in large numbers and because there is something machinelike and one-dimensional about them. Steel thermos flasks, on the other hand, almost always appear singly and in surroundings with which they form strong contrasts - at the bottom of a soft leather satchel, in the side pocket of a backpack, on a table in a builder's shack.

SHAPIRO: So wonderful (laughter).

KNAUSGAARD: But the challenge - and it's much, much harder, you know, if you have a page and you have to write about love (laughter) than it is to write about the steel thermos. It's easier somehow.

SHAPIRO: You write about a lot of unpleasant things in non-judgmental ways - toilet bowls, lice, things...

KNAUSGAARD: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...That many polite people would shy away from.

KNAUSGAARD: So it's a way - it is a way of challenging our gaze of the world. Not in a, you know, very deep or philosophical way, but just a little bit, you know? And then it is great fun to write about the toilet bowl, you know?

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

KNAUSGAARD: It is - I think I end it by calling it the swan of the bathroom, which is - yeah, that's what it is, you know (laughter)?

SHAPIRO: Well, I wonder if there's also something of the 12-year-old's fascination in the forbidden, you know, writing with dignity about something that most people dismiss.

KNAUSGAARD: Yeah, yeah, definitely so. It's a very childish gaze at the world because also curiosity and what it is not to know something is very much a part of a child's reality. And the problem for us is that we know so much, you know, so we are not interested in the toilet bowl anymore. We know what it is and we're done with it.

SHAPIRO: Was there anything that you chose to write about that you tried again and again and again and it just wasn't coming out right, it wasn't working, you weren't able to see it in the way that you wanted to?

KNAUSGAARD: Yeah, many things. And they are all in the book because I didn't - everything I wrote is in these books. I didn't throw out anything. I didn't edit anything out. So...

SHAPIRO: Really?

KNAUSGAARD: You know, if a painter doing a watercolor, you can't redo anything. It is the first take.

SHAPIRO: There is one text about birds of prey that begins with an almost inability to write. And then this creature comes swooping down like some kind of deus ex machina. It doesn't sound like you set out to write about the bird of prey. It sounds like you set out to write and the bird of prey intruded upon the writing process.

KNAUSGAARD: Yeah, that was really amazing these I - basically I'm writing about things that surrounds me. I don't - I don't think I go more than 20 meters away. So then all of a sudden a huge bird is just, you know, coming down in the garden just two meters away from me and then leaves. And it's like everything has changed. It's like, what was that? What is going on? And that transformation of the world, something is showing itself and then disappearing again, you know, that's what art is about. That is what religion is about. There is something revealing itself and the world is changed.

SHAPIRO: And you end that piece by saying the birds outside, those that are always here - magpies, thrushes, sparrows - now appear with a new sharpness, which I guess is the purpose of this whole project, it seems.

KNAUSGAARD: Yeah, I think so. For me it is. Rainer Maria Rilke, the poet, the German poet, described music as being lifted up and then put down somewhere else. And I think that's a very good description of what everybody who do these things, who writes or make music or whatever, is trying to do. This - and this book is a very, very small scale. You are not moved many centimeters. But it still is a movement, I think.

SHAPIRO: Well, Karl Ove Knausgaard, thank you so much for talking with us about your book.

KNAUSGAARD: Oh, thank you. It was a pleasure.

SHAPIRO: The book is called "Autumn."

(SOUNDBITE OF NICK DRAKE SONG, "ROAD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.