Karl Ove Knausgaard's Winter is published in the UK on the same day in November as Ali Smith's Winter. Both writers are now two books into their seasonal quartets, each of them having begun with Autumn.
Knausgaard got there first, kickstarting his cycle in his native Norway one year earlier in 2015; Smith had the last laugh by writing the better book and making the shortlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize.
Not that Knausgaard’s book would have qualified. His seasonal volumes are not novels but, according to the back cover, “memoir/essays”. However, the many pieces within are often too general to count as memoir and too short to be termed essays.
This isn't the only instance of difficulty in pinning Knausgaard down. The jury is still out on whether his other series, the acclaimed My Struggle project, can tidily be categorised as "fiction". Doesn't an author's relived and reimagined account of adolescence and adulthood merit the cross-breed classification of "fictionalised autobiography"?
How we pigeonhole Knausgaard's Winter and how it measures up against Smith's book of the same name is, in the end, immaterial.
What matters of course is its quality as a standalone book. But it’s worth noting that, unlike Smith with her seasonal sequence, Knausgaard has changed tack, branched out and attempted something artistically different.
His enterprise is bolder and as such, riskier. A bad season from Smith is a weak novel, nothing more. A bad season from Knausgaard is a weak link which jeopardises the entire project. So does Winter work? Answering that requires an evaluation not only of content but intent. Both Autumn and Winter are odes to Knausgaard's unborn daughter. The books are divided into three months.
Each month contains 20 “essays” – or rather two – or three-page discussions of, or meditations on, a range of topics. Some unfold in a single, unbroken paragraph, others are more reader-friendly.
Knausgaard prefaces each monthly section with a letter to his child in which he comments on her development and his state of mind. Then the months begin and he proceeds to explore what the book jacket calls “the wonders of life”.
A quick scroll through the book’s contents renders the publisher’s blurb laughable, for while Knausgaard muses on bona fide wonders such as the moon, the brain, water and atoms, he also devotes his attention to some less miraculous subjects: manholes, Q-tips, toothbrushes and windows.
Also included are profiles and character sketches, concepts and perspectives (Hollow Spaces, Vanishing Point, The Social Realm) and extended thoughts on animals, body parts, feelings and habits.
Whatever the topic, whether concrete or abstract, ordinary or extraordinary, Knausgaard proves to be an expert examiner. With satisfying regularity he comes in at oblique angles and finds unexpected facets and original insight. Ingvild Burkey has skilfully translated. Lars Lerin’s illustrations capture the beauty and the bleakness of the season.
The strongest pieces here are those in which a subject becomes a springboard for wider study or reflection, and we are left with an illuminated thought. One piece on owls begins descriptively and then expands to take in personal experience, mythology and philosophy.
Knausgaard ends with a lyrical passage delineating this bird of prey on the hunt: its soundless glide through falling dusk, its swoop down to the ground towards an oblivious mouse, and its quick and efficient kill.
The piece on water opens with a supply of facts, which in turn lead to a flashback involving a young Knausgaard hopping around on ice floes with a friend, and a car veering off the road and into a marina. Chairs jumps from musical chairs to symbolism ("the king has his throne … the minister has his seat in the government") to the films of Ingmar Bergman.
Some pieces are seasonal. The First Snow mocks the season: "after the triumph of summer and autumn's resolute clean-up … what was winter, with its snowfalls and its icing on the waters, other than a cheap conjurer?" The brief title sketch Winter gathers together traditional imagery but closes with a haunting depiction of Knausgaard's tyrannical father in his last years: "there was winter in his soul, winter in his mind, winter in his heart".
Not every reader will be able to acclimatise to Winter. Knausgaard is addressing his daughter and so he keeps things simple at the outset of each piece: "A chair is for sitting on", "Coins are small round metal discs", "Pipes transport flowing liquids". But he is also addressing his adult reader, many of whom will want to skip these rudimentary lessons. When Knausgaard changes register and starts searching for meaning, the results can be either whimsical or pretentious. Big questions are asked but seldom answered. Jumbled thoughts are passed off as gospel truths. And then there are the metaphors: we get both the banal (toothbrushes in a cup "like flowers in a vase") and the bizarre (an elderly person's nose "can resemble a caved-in barn"). However, there are more than enough captivating pieces here which force us to see things in a new and interesting light.
We also see different sides to Knausgaard by way of his quirks, traits, routines and recollections. There is the grounded family man who does the Christmas cleaning, bores his kids with tales of the 1970s and is at his happiest on their birthdays.
But there is also Knausgaard the dreamer who looks skyward, both as a man pondering the universe from his garden, and as a boy watching fireworks above his housing development, contemplating “a world beyond the world”.
With Winter upon us, it is now clear that Knausgaard's Seasons is a significant project. That said, it is nowhere near as substantial as his My Struggle series, and the English translation of its final volume, Book Six, is undoubtedly more eagerly anticipated than Spring and Summer. But ignore comparisons and see Winter for what it is: a treat to devour in one sitting or in bite-sized portions; not as nourishing as Knausgaard's main course but still able to provide ample food for thought.