Over a year ago, I read these two works nearly one after the other. I obsessively follow Karl Ove Knausgaard’s translated work into English, due to my head-over-heels love for his 3,600 page autobiographical novel controversially entitled, My Struggle. I knew he had a book of short reflections coming out and I practically camped out at my local library in wait of it. The material book was not big enough to sufficiently quench my desire for it, so, consequently, my passion overflowed onto new objects with similar names.
In other words, I saw a different book with the same title. I decided to check it out as well.
Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard is the first of four seasonal quartets written toward his soon-to-be fourth born child. Knausgaard, with his masterful eye, examines everyday, commonplace things in order to teach his daughter how life works and feels. The other quartets are published and widely read now, perhaps most notably due to his essay on why dogs are troublesome for writers. (You can also read his essay on ice cream here).
Autumn by Ali Smith is the first of four seasonal quartets written to address (artistically) the state of her nation, Scotland, in light of the Brexit vote. This story cannot be reduced to politics, however, Smith crafts a marvelous story of a younger woman who sees something lovable in an older man. Critic Sophie Gilbert aptly defines Smith’s accomplishment:
Scenes range from absurdly realist (Elisabeth renewing her passport in the post office) to surreal (a man in a coma-like state imagines himself trapped inside the body of a tree). Throughout, Smith’s seasonal melancholy wrestles with her natural writerly exuberance—“Is there never any escaping the junkshop of the self?” a character wonders. As the novel proceeds, she layers together fragments of books and paintings and song lyrics in an act of literary decoupage, as if to mimic the fragile patchwork of national identity. (Sophie Gilbert, The Atlantic)
A Litmus Test For Critics
In her review of Autumn, NPR critic Heller McAlpin comes right after Mr. Knausgaard, using her first sentence to express how she was “put off” by the “massive self -absorption of” My Struggle. She then immediately calls the work in question “far less engaging” than the “unexpectedly addicting” 3,600 page autobiographical novel. McAlpin goes on to call Knausgaard’s book of reflections “soporific” and “filled with freeloaders.”
As much as I would like to say something like, If you say anything bad about Karl Ove Knausgaard then you are a poor critic and you doesn’t understand literature, or, Shut up, I hate you. I’m not listening. I’m not listening. I won’t. Is it true? I think so. But that’s beside the point.
The Litmus Test for Critics is a breaking point at which we criticize literature for its narcissism, solipsism, or “self-absorption.” When a critic uses this line as a critique for someone’s work, I think they have gone beyond the world of rational thinking, if only for a few moments.
Is there such a thing as non-narcissistic writing? The literary enterprise is an experiment in marketable solipsism. Even for the most humble of writers: what’s more self-centered than believing others’ heads need to be filled with your words? I think it matters very little whether a person talks about themselves explicitly for 3,600 pages or implicitly for 300. It’s always and only about the self. And that’s what we want to read.
As for her other critiques, she may be right and she may be on to something by calling Knausgaard’s reflective work “less engaging” and “soporific.” I agree, though I would use words like “contemplative” and “soothing.” My Struggle is a hot mess of emotions from a sexually-driven, highly-aspirational young writer. It riles you up. The book forces you to feel that tension, that desire. Autumn, on the other hand, is a collected rendering of an already accomplished writer’s perspective on the world. A perspective that he wants his children to grasp. The book forces you slow down, to pause your anxieties and worries, and be calm.
Soporific is a good word to describe this book. I myself fell asleep a few times reading the book–not due to boredom but fulfillment.
Time Is No Sequence
As a fiction writer, I read published novels selfishly. As if they are written to me. I like to be diverse in my writing. I want a conglomerate of styles, philosophies, and perspectives. I often wonder if I ask too much of a reader. I’m always looking for affirmation in the works of others.
As I read Autumn, I felt as if Ali Smith wrote this book with me in her mind. Saying, Davis it’s okay to write different. She accomplishes a vocal unity that I cannot due to lack of skill or patience or maturity. Her heterogeneity–a mosaic of references, forms, settings, and genres–dazzles in radiant multi-color as her voice shines through the words on every page. Her voice fuses the different parts of the novel together. There is no question whether readers can follow the jumps in time, or keep up with the change from real to surreal. She is always there with us.
In my current state as an underdeveloped writer, I would easily trade away one hundred of books I own to have readers appreciate one I wrote. (As long as I don’t have to give away my copies of Knausgaard or Smith, that is). But Elisabeth’s story showed me that time passes and time stagnates. Some times bring growth and others bring decay.
And life is short compared to eternity.
Almost as if, as I sit on my couch with my laptop open in my otherwise dark living room, my younger self sits to my left engrossed in Smith’s novel and my older self sits to my right holding my own. But in reality, my cat sleeps here and I’d do well to focus on her and not get lost in a future which may never come to be.