I just finished reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Autumn, a provocative series of reflections on ordinary objects. In another post, I wrote about how people seem to be drawn to his work because he focuses on the concrete, on what can be grasped and experienced by every reader. That is part of the reason, I believe, why he is so popular and effective.
As I finished the book last night, I realized something else that makes his work palatable to today’s reader: sincerity. People listen to the voice of one who sounds earnest. Now, keep in mind that “sincerity” and “truth” are very different. As much as I enjoy reading his work, there were many places where I found myself at odds with his conclusions or assumptions. But I never doubted his sincerity; I never doubted that he was writing what he truly thought was the case.
Let me give you an example from the final page. In an essay entitled “Eyes,” he says he will never understand precisely how the human eye functions, especially when it comes to the sense in which light seems to be emitted from our eyes.
What kind of light is that? Oh, it is the light within, the light that shines in all the eyes we meet, known and unknown. The eyes of strangers, for instance on board a packed bus on an autumn afternoon, emit a faint light, more like a barely perceptible glimmer in their grimy faces, and what it reveals is hardly more than that they are alive. But the moment those little lanterns of life are turned towards you, and you look into them, what you see is a particular human being. Maybe you take notice of them, maybe not, in the course of a life we gaze into thousands of eyes, most of them slipping by unperceived, but then suddenly there is something there, in those very eyes, something you want and which you would do almost anything to be close to. What is it? For it isn’t the pupils you are seeing then, not the irises nor the whites of the eyes. It is the soul, the archaic light of the soul the eyes are filled with, and to gaze into the eyes of the one you love when love is at its most powerful belongs among the highest joys (224).
It’s difficult not to get caught up in his prose, the way in which it pours forth as poetic thought let loose. And as we read, we say, “Yes, I have seen that light, too. He speaks the truth.” That’s sincerity: the ability to convey that you are, in fact, saying what you think, what you believe to be true. And it’s all the more potent when what you think aligns with what the reader thinks.
Concreteness and sincerity: there are two virtues every aspiring writer should aim for.
Knausgaard, Karl Ove. Autumn. New York: Penguin, 2017.