Ja, ja, Karl, we get your drift: Winter’s like a cold grave

Washington Post
Friday, February 23, 2018

Winter, the second volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s seasonal quartet, is a continuing crash course in living for the author’s soon-to-be-born daughter and a stopgap for readers awaiting the arrival of the last volume of My Struggle.

The moody memoirist is in a dour frame of mind. Blame the season, clearly the lamest of the four. “Winter had almost no self-confidence after the triumph of summer and autumn’s resolute clean-up that followed, for what was winter, with its snowfalls and its icing of the waters, other than a cheap conjuror?”

Welcome to the discontent of Winter. The season is messy, the way houses get, with snow “in some places piling up against tree trunks, in others lying in deep drifts, and in others again spreading out in rather thin layers.” Also, it causes the writer’s rheumatoid existentialism to act up. He thinks of the “lifeless and barren” moon, the cruelty of winter owls, the unfortunate deer he hit in a rush to get to a Christmas play and why Dante rendered the inner circle of hell as a frozen wasteland.

It is natural, perhaps, for the season to have this effect on Knausgaard, always something of a Debbie Downer where mortality is concerned. He has a Wallace Stevens mind of winter, beholding the “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” – ultimately leading to the nothing interesting. The short essays that make up this book are, on balance, dull and repetitive. They all emphasize the same worn point: Winter is about death, and death is coming for all of us.

At its best and most personal, the book underscores the sense of fragility that parents feel in preparing for a newborn. Comforting ultrasound images are occasionally interrupted by alarms. Knausgaard ponders the world his daughter will inherit, where he can only protect her for so long. The gestating child also leads him to reflect on how parts form and fuse; at regular junctures, he writes descriptive sketches of friends, carefully noting the toll life is taking on their bodies.

Despite this sporadic beauty, the pages, like snow, begin to pile up without leaving much behind. His thoughts become predictable and reductive. He keeps hammering the point that humankind is constantly trying to avoid death; it’s less clear why this is a bad idea. Pondering the history of home heating leads him to announce, “Death and nothingness await us.” Staring into a bonfire gives him the chills: “In front of the fire we stand before the abyss.” The human need for enclosure brings to mind – what else? – the coffin.

One need not be addicted to happy pills to wish for something deeper. This is a winter trip where all roads lead to nowhere.