Karl Ove Knausgaard, Himself

By Medaya OcherJune 15, 2014

MEETING KARL OVE KNAUSGAARD is not like meeting other people. It isn’t even like meeting other writers. For one thing, he is taller and handsomer than most, with a sincerity that he wears lightly. More importantly, however, if you’ve read any installment of My Struggle, you may feel intensely as if you’ve met him before. For many readers, the book has taken them way beyond prosaic identification — Zadie Smith has compared the feeling of reading Knausgaard to living “his life with him.” My Struggle is, of course, the six-part autobiographical novel that was published to controversy and acclaim in Norway (2008–2011), and which is now slowly making its way into the English-speaking world. The English translation of Book Three: Boyhood Island was released last month, and most readers seem at least intrigued, if not outright smitten. (Read our review here.) Media coverage of Knausgaard and his current status as a literary phenomenon has been extensive, to say the least. A week before the publication of the new installment, The New York Times called My Struggle a “movement.”

What makes the book so hypnotic is both its size and its apparent elasticity. In approximately 3,600 pages, Knausgaard chronicles his own transition from boyhood to adulthood, including meditations on death, marriage, art, and children. The book is so expansive that it manages to include a 400-page essay on Hitler as well as lengthy, detailed descriptions of daily routine. His readers have stood by in silence, like the best of friends, as Karl Ove made a standard midweek meal, flicked the lamp on, smoked a cigarette. Whose preferences for cleaning products do you know other than your mother’s, your lover’s, your own? If you’ve read Book One, you also know Karl Ove’s. 

I met Karl Ove at his hotel in Los Angeles, sadly perched above the smog of the 405. He was waiting outside, smoking a cigarette, and looking out onto the highway — an unfortunate, though appropriate view for a man who was in Los Angeles for the first time. I had expected the cigarettes (“I’m not going to get old, that’s … something”), and I had expected the stylish linen suit that he had picked out for the warm weather. I also expected a man who would be withdrawn and wary, preemptively exhausted by the obligation to speak about himself and his work with a stranger. There are passages in Book One that recount Karl Ove’s own embarrassing experiences with conducting interviews as a young man; in parts of Book Two, once he’s become a published author and subject himself, he further laments the shortcomings of the form (which, granted, certainly isn’t perfect). He has even used interviews as fresh opportunities to mention how much he hates interviews.

I was surprised. Knausgaard was a gracious and open conversationalist. He was happy to be in Los Angeles, which didn’t resemble most of the places that he had been, though it reminded him a little of Spain. We both agreed that the lush Brentwood Country Club should be “forbidden,” as Karl Ove put it. It would serve much better as a public park. Any fear that he hated what I was forcing him to do was dispelled by his own apparent inquisitiveness and readiness to laugh at a truly generous number of jokes. He is obviously and immediately passionate about certain subjects — literature, childhood, and his family, to name a few — while reticent on others. Getting him to talk about the novel as a form, for example, was much more difficult than asking about the health of his mother. He is reserved but in a thoughtful way rather than a churlish one; he is forthcoming about which subjects he finds boring. We both had fish for lunch, and he ate his salmon very, very quickly. It just disappeared off his plate. He seemed, in short, both like the Karl Ove I had read about and not — like a man I had met but who was still, incongruously, a stranger.


For readers who are unfamiliar with the series, do you want to talk a little about how it started or how it came about?

Yeah, this is a recollection and reconstruction. When I started it, all I knew was that it was going to be about my father and my relationship to him and his death, which happened some seven years before. It wasn’t exactly traumatic for me but it … it felt like it was the story of my life, and I had to tell it. I had tried to write it for a very long time as fiction, for four years. But it just didn’t work. That’s interesting in itself, because why? I just didn’t relate to it as fiction, I didn’t believe in it. 

Then I thought I should write as if it’s fiction [in form] but more like how it actually was [in content], kind of a naive thought but that was what I thought, exactly how I remember it. And then I wrote maybe 10 pages and sent them to my editor and he called it a manic confession in a very negative way, because it was just too much. I was just trying to write things that I hadn’t told anyone — embarrassing, intimidating things that no one knows about. But I kept going, expanding on what I had begun and trying to treat the material as a novel. But when I got to the part about my father’s death, it was difficult. It’s difficult to write about death, so I wrote 100 pages about basically nothing before I could start to write about death. It was then I found the language, a way of dealing with the things that you normally don’t deal with in novels, all the things in between and so on. And I just continued writing. 

When I had 1,200 pages I gave them to my editor and asked, “What do we do? One book, two books?” And he said, “Twelve books.” One for each month. The idea was that the reader would subscribe and receive installments. The English indie band The Wedding Present did something similar, putting out one song each month and an album at the end of the year. Then that got down to — “Okay, it has to be six books.” A lot of these decisions had to do with the energy and the language.

Can you talk about the relationship between art and accident? 

Yeah, I thought about that with my first novel. I know that if I had started any of my novels two days later it would be a different kind of novel. I just love that thought, that concept. Same thing in the writing process — it’s almost completely accidental, what happens when you are writing. I think it’s mostly going on a subconscious level. It has to be like that for me; it’s the only way it’s possible … not knowing what to expect. It’s also a way to include whatever is going on in the world.

What was your experience attending writing workshops, and how do you feel about that culture?

I was very young when I went … But I think there were a lot of unwritten rules that everybody accepted and was into. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but these rules didn’t fit me. Like the principle, if something is bad you just take it out. But I never rebelled against that, I just gradually and very slowly had other experiences with my writing. But if I hadn’t had that experience of imitation and restriction I wouldn’t write the way I write now. In one way it was a good thing, but for a while it was a peril for me as a writer, because six years later I couldn’t write. I couldn’t write. Wanting to be a writer when you are 25 and telling people you’re a writer and not writing is a social catastrophe; you get no respect out of that.

But a friend of mine and I taught, just for a few weeks, in the same kind of school. We tried to do the opposite — saying you should write more and more and more and more, don’t take anything away. That was fun, but I don’t think it helped them in any way … I think criticism is useless; someone saying, “This is bad” doesn’t mean anything. You’ll soon find out what’s good and bad in your own writing. There’s a certain kind of criticism in newspapers, and I’ve never learned anything from it. I mean how could you? It’s not about that.

Are there any critics in particular that you find are good at writing criticism that contributes something? Or anyone you’ve read who you particularly admire?

I don’t really read criticism. Some of James Wood’s pieces, because they are so concrete and so detailed, and I just like his way of reading, his method. And I read a wonderful piece by V. S. Naipaul about Madame Bovary … lovely little piece about the same thing: What is it that we do? What’s method? And I always love writers writing about other writers.

What other writers are you reading right now? Anyone you’re particularly interested in? Or always loved?

At the moment, I’m only reading the people I’m meeting on this American tour. And I have a publishing house, a small one. I read the submissions.

What inspired you to start the publishing house? 

A friend with a big manuscript that no one wanted to publish. I had the money from my book, and I thought I could use some of that money. I was editing his book, and when we published it we realized, this was fun. And we could maybe expand a little bit.

One writer I most recently read who was shockingly good is Ben Marcus, The Flame Alphabet.It’s different from everything else. You don’t really know if this is good or not, it’s hard to decide, but it’s very intense and very evocative. We are going to publish him in Norway; we bought the rights to that book. I read his first book in the early ’90s, and that also was really an amazing book. I think I stole something from him in my second novel and then I forgot about it.

One of the very sweet parts of Book Three is that moment when you discover reading and literature, when your mother asks you to stop reading the comics. What relationship do you have to reading now? What kind of reader are you now?

I don’t think while I read. I’m not an observant reader at all. I have to write about literature for the thoughts to start coming. But if I just read it, I forget about it.

I also like to read difficult things that don’t say much to me, just to be in something difficult. Now, for instance, I’m reading about chemistry. I don’t know anything about chemistry, and that’s a comfort. The same with reading Heidegger, it’s also completely incomprehensible but it’s still something … I like being in that. 

I’ve been reading the Norse sagas because I’ve been writing about fate … I had a horrible dream once, an ox in the sand is coming up, and I know I have to kill it before it comes up out of the sand; I have to chop its head off and it keeps coming. I woke up and I knew something was going to happen that day, and it did. Something very, very terrible happened that day and I thought, “That’s the starting point, that’s fate.” I think fate is a concept that is completely outdated and no one believes in fate anymore. Same as the concept of God, it’s completely gone. Religion, the divine, it doesn’t exist, but we are still the same kind of human beings that we were two, three, 10 generations ago. What happened to these things? Do they still exist and in what ways? I’m interested in the difference between the modern and the archaic. 

What is your understanding of the modern version of fate? 

Just that it doesn’t exist. And then you have the Greek concept that fate is character, which I deeply, deeply relate to, and I think that’s true.

So currently you’re working on essays? Are they mostly literary minded?

A lot about art and literature. I also started reading [in preparation] for a novel, something with surrealistic aspects, and that’s why I’m reading about quantum physics. I want to understand the basics. But that could take five years or 20 years, I don’t know. Everything is interesting if you just go for it. I’m absolutely fascinated by atoms but I don’t understand them.

Let’s talk a little bit more about My Struggle. In the first book, we have death, and then, in the second, we have its inverse, as you’ve put it, love. Why did you move to childhood in the third book? Why is it structured differently from the first two?

There are some things established in the first book — some values, relations, and so on. At the same time I wanted the story, at its end, to lead back to Book One. So Book One ends before the funeral and Book Five ends at the funeral of my father, so it’s kind of a circle. And Book Six would be outside of that circle, with all the consequences of the work that is within that circle. That was the thought. And you’re right, there’s a form in Book One and a form in Book Two that are the same, I had done that, so I thought I should do something different, much more simple. 

But for me this is just one novel; these are chapters from the same book. 

You’ve said that childhood is the meaning of life and that we are its servants. How and why do we serve childhood?

Right, if children are the meaning of life, then what about sex, what about lust, what about ambition, what about the big things in life? Children don’t produce anything; they are not very productive. But the intensity of life is so extreme when you are a kid, and the way you experience the world can’t even compare to how it is now, at least in my life. When I sometimes am able to feel as strongly or intensely as I did then, I feel enormous sorrow for not being there all the time. Everything is so much less alive now. But on the other hand, it’s much easier to be 45 than to be 10. 

It’s torture being 10.

It is, it’s torture being a child. I was looking forward to being an adult all the time when I was a kid.

In what way have you found that you can recapture that meaning or that feeling as an adult? 

I think that’s basically what Marcel Proust describes, those kinds of things. Sometimes when I listen to music — it’s like all your defenses go away. Do you have children?

It’s so hard to understand that they feel the same way as you did when you were a child because they seem so little and insignificant. I remember when I was seven … were you ever in love in childhood? One of the strongest falling-in-love experiences that I’ve ever had was when I was seven. Now my daughter, she’s eight, and she told me that she was in love. I thought [laughs] you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re not in love, but then … I remembered. 

Has having children and thinking about childhood changed at all how you think about language and expression and articulation — a time when language is bound with physical fact?

I hadn’t thought of that. I have a new daughter; she’s four months old. The first week she was very shy, she didn’t want to look anyone in the eyes; she was born too early so maybe that was part of the reason. Then we decided, “Okay we have to train her a little.” We have to talk to her and socialize. By doing that, she was drawn into the world. She started to respond by talking herself, because she didn’t say anything in the beginning. She was either crying or very quiet, then she started to talk, and then … it became clear to me how extremely social this thing is.

The thing that really struck me in the second book is the birthing scene. It was a point in the book in which you did not seem to have access to what was happening. It was all within your wife’s body. You’ve talked about writing as a form of access: are there other experiences or other events like that where you don’t have access?

Seeing someone else dying, it’s the same thing basically.

There’s a big difference between parents — one having given birth and the other not. In Sweden, they say, it is the same to be a man and a woman; it’s just a matter of roles and culture. But it is not, there’s a big, big difference. Giving birth, she is completely lost to something completely different.

So much of your work is about you; what does it feel like to write about something that has nothing to do with you? Does that feel different?

Yeah, of course. It’s much easier to do. It’s a relief. The only time I really enjoyed writing this book was when I wrote about Adolf Hitler, or his time. Because that is really nothing to do with me; it’s just something out there. That doesn’t threaten you in any way; it doesn’t come back. You don’t have to deal with it in any other way. It’s very objective. You want there to be risk and you want danger and you want it to be threatening, if you write, at least I do.

Why did you decide to write about Hitler in Book Six?

That was because of the title, I thought I should write a little bit about it, and then I got very interested. I wrote a lot about it.

You’ve talked about the difference between writing about everyday experiences and writing about ideology. Why did you decide to finish on ideology rather than on the everyday?

I finish on the everyday. The essays are in the middle of the book. I think it was necessary to make it as complete as I could in a way. For one thing, Hitler is lying about his personal life and that’s interesting. It’s a representation of self, and he has an idea of who he wants to be and so on. And I just found it interesting to try to figure out who he was as a person, outside of the book. 

Why did you decide to include it in the book?

I included all I was thinking at the moment when writing the book. But there is a certain logic to it as well. My grandparents had Mein Kampf in the living room, we found out after they died. In Norway, this is part of everybody’s family history. It’s never discussed, nobody talks about it, but, you know, the Germans were there for five years, and things worked well, things ran smoothly. And so almost everybody must have been a collaborator. The story we learn in school is that of resistance and a heroic fight against Nazism, but it wasn’t like that. Hitler’s Mein Kampf was read much in Norway and in all of Europe basically. It was ideas that people liked. They thought this was good. There’s the same thing going on now, in European elections. There are a lot of right-wing extremists at the moment so these are important issues. If you think Nazism is coming back with helmets and boots and leather uniforms, you are very wrong. It’s not like that … but it’s still going to come back.

You also address the 2011 mass murder at theyouth camp on the island of Utøya. What was your thinking about that? Why did that also draw you in?

I’d been writing about Adolf Hitler and Nazism for months and then this thing happened. It affected me and everybody in Norway deeply.

Did you read the gunman’s manifesto?

I didn’t read all of it, just parts, and I saw his propaganda film, the one he made. It was like something Goebbels could have made.

It was a very ambivalent experience. On the one hand, he’s very much like me, same generation more or less, the cultural place he comes from. He mentions TV series he’s been watching and so on, he’s kind of a normal figure. And on the other hand, he’s … I think it was a totally unpolitical act. I think he wanted to be someone, wanted to be seen, classic, simple psychology.

Did you hear about what happened in Santa Barbara last month? It’s very similar.

Yes, it is. Hitler too was very scared of women and intimacy. The strange thing about Hitler’s book is, you can relate to a lot of things, but the hatred for the Jews — where does it come from? Like he all of a sudden starts to scream in there. That’s the part that’s difficult to understand.

One of the things I was wondering was, what is ideology to you? When you talk about it and when you talk about ideology versus the everyday, what is it that you think of?

I mean, it is of course, necessary. It is about masses of people, general principles that don’t actually exist. It’s an abstract concept that you use to get things done or to have societies at all. 

How do you think the political, economic, social conditions in Sweden influenced your book?

In Denmark an interviewer said she thought that the role of the man is changing, and when she said it I thought, yes she’s right. Something is changing very rapidly. What it is to be a man, what it is to be a father, and so on, but also the way we organize our society is changing rapidly.

When I speak about my youth to my kids, it’s like I was born in the 17th century or something. But I thought, if I just write about what’s inside of me I have to capture something that is relevant in understanding what’s going on in the moment, just blindly. The way I react to things, the way I see things.

When I started there was an autobiographical wave in Scandinavia, and I remember thinking, I can’t do this, it’s too obvious, it’s too mainstream, why should I do it? But then I thought that shouldn’t restrict me, so I did it anyway.

Do you think the novel is more resilient than people give it credit for being?

I think the novel adapts; everything changes all the time. I think as long as someone is interested, they will pick it up. I’m not afraid at all about the novel dying. The last time I remember reading a novel, thinking this is new, this is fresh, was Bolaño’s 2666, and as long as these things happen, there’s hope.

That’s a very hopeless book in many ways.

It’s the most adequate book I’ve read about our contemporary society — something that I haven’t seen captured before, that he does. I’m not sure what it is.

That novel doesn’t care about the reader. Do you think not caring about the reader is an important ingredient to making a work of art?

I think it’s essential.

In Book One and Two when you describe writing your previous novels, writing seems like a hypnotic state that does not involve other people. You’ve said that when you were writing My Struggle,you didn’t think about what the consequences might be for your family and friends. Have you ever thought of writing as a kind of disorder?

All the people I know who write or make films, there’s something wrong with them. Disorder is a good word. If you don’t have that, you don’t do it. It’s as simple as that. 

But I think you have to be free when you write. If you think of a reader, you are not free. To do something good you have to step out of society, almost out of humanity, if that’s possible. That doesn’t mean that you don’t respect the reader, but that comes later. I don’t think Joyce considered what anyone would think when he wrote Finnegans Wake, because that’s an unreadable book. 

I read that you had said that Ulysses was important for you as a writer, but that “The Dead” was more important as a reader.

That was a good way to put it! [laughs] That’s brilliant, I agree completely.

Can you explain it? Why do you make the distinction? 

Ulysses is imperfect, contradictory, and chaotic; it really isn’t one thing. Well that’s how I experienced it. “The Dead” is a perfect short story. The best short story ever written 

And what you value as a writer is reading that kind of chaos?

Yeah, I guess my answer didn’t really answer your question. This is the disappointing thing: if you say something clever and they ask “why?,” everything collapses.

Ulysses is exceptionally rich; it’s one of those books that you can always refer to, you can always find something in it that relates to whatever you need to say. It’s too cerebral in a way, too form oriented. I hate wordplay and that kind of thing; I’m always looking for emotion. But that’s in the book as well of course.

What roles do shame and embarrassment play in your art?

When my first novel came out, a journalist said, “This is a monument of male shame.” It was quoted on the back of the book. I couldn’t relate to it because I didn’t know that I had written a book about shame because I was kind of bathing in it so I couldn’t see it. I was just writing about what was natural to me. I am shame-ridden, and I’ve always been occupied by it and tried to figure out what it is and how it works.

I try to get away from shame when I write because it’s so restricting, it makes everything impossible to do, and yet I’m completely governed by it, so it’s a big problem. Obviously shame is a kind of self-regulation mechanism that pulls you into where you should be and makes it possible for you to live. If it’s too strong, it handicaps you. If it’s well-balanced, it’s good. It’s good to be shameful. The problem with our time is that there are so many shameless people out there; there should be much more shame everywhere but there isn’t. For me this is related to the self, the “we,” to literature, writing, freedom, place. And it’s very hard to explain in English, but the basic mechanism I’m interested in is the dynamic between the self and the “we,” the collective thing. 

With me, it’s so personal. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, was a very shame-oriented person. And my mother is and I am. I can understand why my father started to drink and tried to live freely … She’s a moral person, and you felt shameful when you lived with her, but I mean she’s a good person. But maybe such a thing is given, passed through the generations.

Do you see that in any of your children?

Yeah, unfortunately, I see a lot of things I don’t want to see but it’s still there. It could be genetic, which would be nice, or it could be imposed on them by me. My oldest daughter, she can be so ashamed and it’s very hard. My other daughter is not and my son is not. He could be, he could be. 

When did you first read Proust?

One summer when I was 24 or 25. I remember I didn’t have any money, I sat in a café and drank water and read Marcel Proust. It was fantastic. I didn’t think it meant anything except for that it was very entertaining and a good place to disappear into, and it still is. The reason for me finding my first literary language was that book. It’s very easy to see now, even if you read my first sentence in my first novel, you can see it, it’s there. 

You felt that right away?

No, I didn’t know it. It was a subconscious thing; I just loved it and didn’t think it had anything to do with my writing. When the first translation in Norwegian came out, in the 1980s, I think it changed the possibility of what the Norwegian language could do. There’s something very un-Norwegian in its rhythm. It enriched the language. At least for me, I felt like I could write differently, having read it. 

What was so un-Norwegian about that translation?

It has almost a noble sense to it, very aristocratic. And in Norway there’s never been an aristocracy, doesn’t exist. Never been an upper class, doesn’t exist. And yet the language is so vital and so alive. The construction was different, very long sentences, which we learn in school we shouldn’t do. We should write short sentences. The whole flavor of it was different. I can’t explain it. 

How do you think about memory? 

I don’t think about it any more than I’ve written.

That’s funny because so many people think of you as someone interested in memory, but you’re not? 

No, I’ve never been interested in it. It’s more of a practical thing about writing — remembering and creating is basically the same thing for me. But, no, I haven’t thought about it.


Medaya Ocher is Fiction and Humanities Section Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

LARB Contributor

Medaya Ocher is the former managing editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books


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