You’re Such a Character: The Knausgaard Behind Knausgaard

By Bob BlaisdellDecember 30, 2023

You’re Such a Character: The Knausgaard Behind Knausgaard
THE KARL OVE KNAUSGAARD who evolves over the course of My Struggle (2009–11)— a boy overwhelmed by his father’s temper, a man finely attuned to the minute details of children’s birthday parties, an author dealing with the fame and notoriety brought about by the previous volumes of the novel—is, to the surprise and pleasure of numerous interviewers, the same Karl Ove (not “Knausgaard” but “Karl Ove”) who appears in person. The journalist Alf Marius Opsahl, interviewing Knausgaard in September 2016 at the Munch Museum near Oslo regarding his curation of an exhibition of Edvard Munch’s paintings, asked his fellow Norwegian, “[W]hen you sit and talk about Karl Ove Knausgaard in these interviews everywhere, is it like talking about a character, almost?” Knausgaard answered: “No. It’s like being a character. It’s like going into a character.”

In the several dozen interviews with the author I have read or watched, and the couple I have conducted myself, Knausgaard rarely repeats himself; his answers extend our sense of the vastness of his personality and experiences. Before I interviewed him in the fall of 2020, I had listened to or read a couple of dozen interviews with him and wondered how he could seem in them so Karl Ove–like—so shy and brilliant, so peculiarly immediate, so disarmingly, wholly there in the present.

The University Press of Mississippi has been publishing “Conversations with” collections with mostly American but some international authors for almost 40 years (e.g., Faulkner, Welty, Vonnegut, Borges). Shortly after publishing my first interview with Knausgaard (here at LARB), I proposed a Knausgaard collection to the editors at UPM. I read, listened to, or watched some 60 or 70 interviews that Knausgaard had participated in (mostly in English) between the mid-2000s and the 2020s. With the contract and the minuscule budget for payment to contributors, I was cautioned that obtaining permissions would likely be tricky and laborious. But it was a piece of cake. Perhaps the interviewers vividly remembered their experiences with him and were pleased to be included (and they were so generous that I didn’t even expend the full budget). In the 20 interviews I selected for the book, Knausgaard discusses not only writing and his own projects but also painting, screenwriting, translation, humor, Borges, Flaubert, the Bible, the pandemic, and popular music.

Thousands of book lovers in venues across Europe and North America have had the pleasure of seeing a nervous Knausgaard shake a leg or sway as he reads from his work, or slowly weigh his interviewer’s words and then remark simply, “Yeah” or “No.” But then, as if duty-bound to his interviewer and audience, he spurs himself into his writing mode, relaxing into natural and usually brilliant thought, freshly reflecting in the way that readers will immediately recognize as purely Knausgaardian. He is “friendly, but also uncomfortable,” as Opsahl describes him. “From time to time he spoke in long tirades, as if his thoughts were flying in all directions. But he then would also suddenly become introverted and silent, as if what he wanted most of all was just to disappear back to where he’d come from: the balcony, chain smoking in solitude.”

Whether over Zoom, over the phone from his car, or in his writing cabin smoking with a visiting journalist, Knausgaard is unusually consistent in tone and manner but persistently free in the expression of his thoughts. “A lot of people ask if [writing] is therapy for me,” he told Italian journalist Riccardo Staglianò in 2014,

but it is not, not whatsoever, but it still is kind of a healing thing to do. You are creating something which is not yourself, it’s something outside of yourself, which is great, and it leads you to places where you haven’t been or even thought you should go to, and you don’t know why. What is this kind of dynamic between you and literature basically? I mean, I’m writing it, but it doesn’t feel like it because it feels like I’m throwing myself out to something objective, to language or to literature, and something else is coming back, which directs me another place and another place and another place. It’s a way of getting free from yourself in a way. It’s the only place I know of where I am free of myself.


I have a theory that the hyperfocused zone Knausgaard enters when writing and being interviewed is so deep that it almost doesn’t matter who is in the room with him. While he has told me that the interviewer does matter (“That’s the thing with events and interviews […] it is never just about questions and answers, but also about the dynamic between the two persons”), it is apparent in almost all of the interviews that the dynamic is negligible. We interviewers are not his chums; no matter how careful, off-base, knowledgeable, routine, or confused our questions may be, Knausgaard is strictly professional: polite, engaged, but cool. Speaking is work for him. I asked him, in the volume’s wrap-up interview, “What do you get out of being interviewed?” He replied:

Uh … I don’t get anything out of it really [laughs]. Since it’s only talk, and since it’s centered on my situation, it just disappears. So I never read my interviews, see my interviews. It’s only a matter of—it’s almost like to perform. You do it, and then it’s done. And that’s very draining compared to writing. It’s basically the same process, very much, but then there is something on the page and something that you continue, and then in interviews, it just disappears.


He is deferential but not deflective. “I want to write how I really think things are, instead of how I think you should think I think things are,” he told Jesse Barron in The Paris Review in 2013. “For me, saying how I really think things are turns everything into banality and stupid things, almost all the time, and that’s the risk of the [My Struggle] project for me. But then it’s a realistic depiction of a man, forty, from Norway.” He told me, regarding his editing and rewriting of a passage in The Morning Star (2020): “I don’t know why I’m saying this, but—anyway, sorry, it’s the flip side of just talking, to say a lot of crap.” In the interviews, Knausgaard usually creates a space for himself, as he does when writing, to overwhelm his social guardedness; this then manifests as the familiar vulnerability and guilelessness of so much of My Struggle. The interviews are a literary treasure because he doesn’t merge with us; he becomes, or remains, the Karl Ove of his best work.

No one, least of all Knausgaard himself, thought My Struggle would be anything other than an interesting literary experiment conducted solely in Norwegian. But its instantaneous fame in Norway led to translations into a dozen European languages, and with the translations, the fame and regard blossomed and boomed. The My Struggle novels, written in less than three years and totaling 3,600 pages, show us that the human personality is so vast that it can never be fully surveyed. His varied and mostly excellent other works, including his quartet of post–My Struggle “Seasonal Encyclopedia” collections of short essays and literary experiments, have achieved some international notice, but not nearly to the same degree. As of November 2023, he has published four volumes in Norway of an annual, pointedly eventful, purposefully nonautobiographical fictional series, which begins for English readers with The Morning Star and The Wolves of Eternity (2023). For me, those two novels, which he was in the midst of writing when I interviewed him, make me think of NBA All-Star Games, with the world’s greatest players relaxing and clowning around, amusing themselves, only feinting at playing defense, because there is nothing at stake and nobody wants to get hurt.

Knausgaard did not state this to me, nor have I read or heard him saying this anywhere, but I suspect he has turned to supernatural crime fiction because he never again wants to risk everything for his writing. He won’t risk his current marriage; he won’t risk his relationship to his five children or to his mother. He survived the fame and fallout of My Struggle—but just barely. Writing in detail about parts of his life that he had, in some cases, never even spoken of to anyone, he alienated close relatives and friends; among other consequences, he jeopardized his relationship with his ex-wife Linda Boström (with whom he had four children). This private man became more famous in Europe and the Americas than any other 21st-century literary artist. He even retired himself from literature with My Struggle’s concluding phrases: “I will revel in, truly revel in, the thought that I am no longer a writer.” Since then, the retiree has written 10 more books.

His first two novels, Ute av verden (1998, to be published in English in 2024 as Out of the World) and A Time for Everything (2004), were award-winners in Norway, published when Knausgaard was 29 and 35, respectively. The last novel Knausgaard will ever publish, Blindenboken (“The Blind Book”), was written in 2019 for the artist Katie Paterson’s Future Library project; Knausgaard’s novel and those by several other writers will be printed on paper made from trees that were specially planted for this project in a forest outside of Oslo. They will be published, Gaia willing, in 2114.

Despite his professed shyness and his claims of indifference to press notice and criticism, he has been a most accommodating literary star, accessible to a myriad of us, whether we are professionals or fans (many are both). I reviewed Winter (2015), Spring (2016), and Summer (2016), and read almost every page of his that had been translated into English (I admit that I lost steam in A Time for Everything, and though there is a time for everything, I never mustered the time or interest to finish that one). When I received an advance copy of a collection of his writings on art, artists, and writers, In the Land of the Cyclops (2018), it occurred to me that in My Struggle he recounts that, when he was a young, budding writer, he interviewed Norwegian authors (as well as European rock musicians) and that, in the midst of the fame and blowback of My Struggle, he was continually participating in interviews about the ongoing series. I realized that another way of writing about Knausgaard would be to talk to him. I naively imagined that we would have a jolly good time chatting. (I conveniently overlooked his reflections on being interviewed, where his primary feelings seem to be regret and embarrassment.)

His unusual candor in the midst of an interview surprised even veteran journalist Anna Luyten. As his interviews show, there are thoughts and reflections (and probably secrets) that he has never otherwise written or spoken about elsewhere. On the stage with Luyten in Brussels, Knausgaard remarked: “It’s really important to be free and independent in the writing, and that has to do with some sort of—for me at least—some sort of lack of empathy that makes it possible for me to write.”

She asks: “It makes it also possible to be honest?”

“Yes, that’s right. It’s impossible for me to be honest in personal private space with friends.”

“Are you honest now?”

“Yes, but this is like—almost like writing in a way, because I don’t know you, I don’t know you. I can talk relatively openly now, but if we meet afterwards I will not. If you maybe say something political, I would say, ‘I agree, I think you’re right.’”

Knausgaard wrote in a June 6, 2016, diary entry (in Summer) that he turned down a chance offered him by The New York Times to interview then-candidate Donald Trump:

Why did I feel cold with fright at the mere thought of meeting him?


The power, the fame, the contempt for people?


Yes, that too, but primarily the authoritarian side of him. With my fear of authority I can hardly imagine a more awful encounter. For would I try to ingratiate myself with him or wouldn’t I? Renounce everything I believe in, in the hope of making him like me?


Unfortunately, that’s what would have happened.


But I wonder—would Knausgaard really have been cowed by the evil clown? Wouldn’t it have been more like an Ali G exchange, both men sputtering in disbelief at the other’s performance of their usual character?

Archipelago Books, the Brooklyn-based publisher of many of Knausgaard’s works, helped to arrange my first interview with him, and in the midst of the pandemic and a few days after Americans had elected Joe Biden, Knausgaard and I talked on Zoom: he in lockdown with his family in London and me at home in New York. The interview was difficult because of Zoom glitches but otherwise mostly satisfying. I was excited and amazed to be talking to him, the “actual” Karl Ove, and afterward to be exchanging drafts with him by email of the hour-long interview. Though he occasionally declares that he doesn’t read his own interviews, he was willing to clarify several spots where, because of the bad internet connection, I either couldn’t understand or hear what he had said.

He added several hundred words to the transcript, and I was pleased to think that he had written more in English in the revision than he had written in English for publication before. As I compare and contrast two versions of one glitchy passage, however, I see that something was lost in the recomposed revision. I asked: “Well, how are you dealing with the pandemic? Does it feel especially difficult for you?” My transcription of his answer goes:

No, but it was very … it was a complete change from everything when it happened, of course. It was the same where you were, I guess. So everybody was home, and we are nine in here, so we had a full house. Some of the children were in online schooling, and it was a lot of change very often the way we live normally, but it was terrible one way, because of what happened outside, but it was very good for us, in our family, and it was … When you normally … about that, about those two perspectives that appear at the same time, uh … the thing is that dynamic to talk about because everybody experiences it, so everybody knows, it’s no … it’s nothing to say really. But it’s … like something closer of both, something … terrible and something good at the same time, so it’s very intense. Yeah.


He revised that into what became the conclusion of our November 11, 2020, interview (which LARB published on January 8, 2021):

When the pandemic started and we were in lockdown, I remember I wanted to call my friends and tell them what was happening—Everyone is wearing masks on the streets! There are ambulances everywhere! We can’t go out! People are dying in the hundreds, and outside everybody is avoiding other people! It is like something out of a nightmare! But then, of course, I couldn’t, because everybody was experiencing exactly the same everywhere. Then even the most outrageous event becomes obvious. In five years’ time, I guess, these experiences will make their way into fiction in a meaningful way that will give new insights. But when it is going on, it is the same for everyone, and to get access to “the same,” you need to enter it from the outside, and at the moment, we’re all in it together, there’s no such outside available. Having said that, the pandemic has been terrible in the UK, with so many deaths, and a kind of double-perspective came into work in lockdown, deaths on the outside, family life on the inside. And in some ways lockdown was good, at least for us, as we got to spend much more time with the children than we normally do, as they haven’t been going to school for months. That ambiguity, between the horror outside and the cozy everyday life on the inside, became a not insignificant part of the novel [The Morning Star], although very indirectly, I was then writing, which now is published in Norwegian.


His revision is neat, complete, and informative—and yet the vivid spontaneity of it is far less; the touchingness of this, for example, has disappeared: “So everybody was home, and we are nine in here, so we had a full house. Some of the children were in online schooling, and it was a lot of change …” It’s not the writing, it seems to me, that makes Knausgaard extraordinary; it’s the sense he gives us of one artist’s mental and emotional energy in the midst of relating his experiences. At his best (as in the interviews and in 95 percent of My Struggle), he shows us that his art happens in the present; his self-imposed barriers dissolve and the miracle of creation pours forth.

Reading Anna Karenina when I was young made me believe that life is a literary experience. In my late middle age, Knausgaard has shown me that I still believe it. No matter where you are‚ sitting on a toilet, staring into a mirror, crying with shame—that is life, and if at an artistic distance you can write about it, that just might be literature. Knausgaard observes that “the thing about literature is that it’s collective after all, it’s for everyone, relational. That’s what makes literature so special, for the moment you begin to write literature, it’s no longer about yourself or about your own problems, it’s about something else.”

I think those of us who have read thousands of pages of his work and listened to or read his interviews do know him better than most of his friends and family know him. Yes, they know what he smells like, how his eyes flit about the room looking for a place to land; they can read to a hair’s breadth his smiles and grimaces; they know how his voice changes when he speaks Norwegian, how he laughs. They know him as they know dozens of other people in their lives—and if they’ve also read his books (Knausgaard asked his mother to avoid one of the My Struggle volumes, and she heeded him), they know him that way too. But in my relationships to artists, I have found that the personal overwhelms my sense of them as artists. The artist-self is someone else, not in relation to me as their friend. Their depths are in their art, but our relationship is still in the everyday.

I would like to know Knausgaard as a friend and as an everyday person too! But I never will. Yet to most deeply know Vincent van Gogh, or Jane Austen, or Edvard Munch the way Knausgaard knows him in So Much Longing in So Little Space (2019), it’s through the art, the experience of this seemingly endless and unique personality, as it’s revealed as far as they can go in their work.

¤


This essay is adapted from the introduction to Conversations with Karl Ove Knausgaard (University of Mississippi Press, 2023).

LARB Contributor

Bob Blaisdell is the editor of Conversations with Karl Ove Knausgaard (University Press of Mississippi, 2023) and the author of the biographies Chekhov Becomes Chekhov: The Emergence of a Literary Genius (2022) and Creating Anna Karenina: Tolstoy and the Birth of Literature’s Most Enigmatic Heroine (2020).

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