Sitting down to interview Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian author of the six-volume autobiographical novel My Struggle, I was confronted with the problem of repetition. Knausgaard wrote the books, he says,in an effort to empty himself of the details of his everyday life, of his obsession with his own childhood, of the boredom that confronted him while he tried to create important works of literature. Now these details exist as more than 3,500 pages of prose. Considering the extreme thoroughness of this purging, it seems redundant to make Knausgaard say anything.
Nonetheless, Knausgaard has already been asked to say a lot; he’s been interviewed extensively. And there are certain answers he likes to give in every interview. He says he is reluctant to participate in the discussion of his books. Despite the acclaim the first three volumes My Struggle has won internationally, he doesn’t view it as a major work of literature. He explains feeling tormented by the exposure the books have brought to his life. He avoids the Internet.
My Struggle originated in Knausgaard’s failed attempts at writing a novel about his father, which grew instead into this a painstaking act of self-documentation. His father’s death remains the pivotal event around which he structures the six books, but just as vital are mundane accounts of his quotidian existence that become something else entirely when they're written down. For instance, there’s an episode in which a young Karl Ove is afraid to tell his father that the milk has soured, and so eats his cornflakes with bad milk. When his father uncharacteristically decides to eat some cornflakes too, he spits out the bad milk and stares at his son in disbelief. There is a nearly unfathomable gulf between father and son that contains something Knausgaard can’t exactly explain, but he can make what is unspoken both visceral and palpably familiar..
Knausgaard doesn’t worry about contradictions. The contradictions are simply there. Contradictions are facts, like the expiration of milk. It was as if eating his cereal with the milk that was bad was supposed to change something, but it didn’t. His father still loomed as a terrifying presence in his life. And then his father died. And then he tried to write about it.
Our conversation took place in Hazlitt’s windowless sound studio with cream-coloured walls. Two large microphones faced each other across a black, oval-shaped table. The decor was sparse, but warmed somewhat by the illumination of a floor lamp. The carpeting was grey. There was a grid of eight black padded squares on one of the walls, to soften the studio’s ambient sound.
Do you think of the six volumes of My Struggle as one book? I’ve seen you refer to it as “the novel.”
Karl Ove Knausgaard: For me it is definitely one book, and is written like one long movement from the first to the last sentence.
When I wrote the first 100 pages I thought it was just one novel, and then we made a plan that we should publish it as six. Novels three, four, five, six are structured like independent novels in a way.
There’s been a lot made of the overall effect the books have had on your life. Does it occur to you when everyone talks about how much they know about you, or about how much of you has been exposed, that of course it’s never everything? That there’s still so much more you could have divulged?
Yeah. It’s like my friend—he knows me really well and he knows everything in my life very well, and he says everything that’s happened is much, much worse and much, much better. And it’s like, the book is really about what’s in the middle, that’s the only thing you can really write about.
We only have the first three books translated into English so far, but the third one departs from the two previous in that it resets everything—it tells your story from early childhood. It stands alone as a more discrete novel.
That’s right. The whole series starts with the death of the father and then in book five it catches up with that story and continues it, so you are in the funeral and in the days after. And then book six is contemporary—it is set two or three days before book one is published. The first five books form a circle, and then six is outside of that circle and it’s kind of commenting on what’s going on.
When you sat down to write this book, did it surprise you how much you wrote about childhood?
I have been, in a very unhealthy way, occupied with my childhood from my teenage years. I’ve been having a nostalgia for it. And my first writing was always about childhood—I mean, I started writing when I was 18, 19. I even tried to write a novel once from the perspective of nine-year-old, you know, and wanting it to be very true to that perspective, which meant it was impossible to read because it was so childish.
But it has always been there, and my first book, too, is full of childhood memories. This time I just wanted to empty it completely out and try to do this for real, for the first and last time. Of course, if you think of My Struggle in terms of being a book about identity it’s very important to write about childhood and childhood relations. And it is also a lot to do with me being a father, having children growing up, seeing them from the other side. And if you have this kind of canvass which is so big, it is 3,500 pages, you can afford to have those perspectives in full. You can have one novel just from the perspective of a child, and then you can have one novel in the opposite perspective, and you don’t have to make the comparison yourself, it’s in there, it’s a statement that they are in the book. But I don’t like that nostalgia for childhood, I try to get rid of it, and that is also part of the project. I’m doing this for the last time and never again.
In the opening scenes of the third book you’re barely an infant, and then only few pages later you confess, I could never have remembered this. What are you trying to say with that? Because you write about these really definite, precise, and dense memories.
I remember it was very important for me to acknowledge in the beginning of the book the instability of memory, and its changing nature. And then to realize that the book would be contradicting that. For me it’s obvious that this isn’t about remembering things, this is about staging or re-staging something that I have inside of me.
It wasn’t like I picked some memories and thought these are important. The process of writing it is basically in the book, because I didn’t change anything. So you can see, okay, here is the first memory, and you see what that leads to. That’s the book, one memory leading to the other. But then I have some restrictions, I try to make it as correct as possible. What I’m telling about, the events, they had happened. So what was fascinating for me was that I started it, I don’t know what is going to happen, I know I have maybe ten memories and that’s it—but I’m going to write about it, and it is what you read, that’s the process.
Does that make you work differently to recreate memories?
Because I have a bad memory?
No, I think it’s—I’m a Proustian in that sense, I believe in memories outside of consciousness, and this is just a way to find them. Writing is a way to get access to them. The thing you feel if you smell something, or hear something, if you hear music from the ’80s, and then you are back there with your whole body for maybe ten seconds, and it is very good. It is more like that, those kinds of areas I am trying to get to.
I do have a very good visual memory, I remember rooms and landscapes very, very well. And when I was in that nostalgic period in my life, in my twenties for instance, I used to, before I fell asleep, just in my head walk through the landscape where I lived when I was a kid, and go down that path or to the water, and that is a way to keep it alive, I think. Every night I go to sleep I go through the novel in my head, you know, going there, there, there, there, just to keep it alive in a way.
I feel the novel is very much like a room, or rooms: that you’re in this room or that room, and that the whole aim of writing is to create a room where you can say something. And that’s what writing is about. You have to build up a place where it’s possible to say something. If you understand what I mean.
But you’ve also said you sometimes hate this book. Which I don’t think is necessarily that uncommon for a writer, once he or she has finished something, to have mixed feelings at best. Does that have an effect on other parts of your life, since the content of the book is your life? Does it affect the pleasure that you get out of normal things, once you’ve put it all in this book?
The books are books. They’re novels, I don’t feel there’s any interference, there’s no connection between me and the books. Not anything more than with other novels. I don’t read them, I don’t go back to them, and I think my memories have changed a bit since then. I am happy that they exist, I am, but it’s very separated from my own life. Even talking about them, it’s separate from any other novel I am talking about. I talk about them very much from the outside, it’s very different to be in the books or writing the books than it is sitting here talking about them.
You’ve made comments about how tired you were of stories, of storylines, before you wrote the book. Is that something that happened to you over time, or is that something you feel like you always felt, that you were always looking for?
No, that is definitely something that happened around the time when I started to write the book. It was always the opposite—I’ve always loved stories, plots, and those kind of fictions. I don’t know why I got so tired of it, I have no idea. But then you have to do something extreme to break free, you have to describe a cock, maybe, for 40 pages, and then you will reach something else, where something else is possible. You see that in Joyce, how tired he must have been of everything. I mean, he wrote probably the best short story ever, I mean, it’s perfect, “The Dead”. And then what’s next? Ulysses is not stories, it’s something completely different. I think that’s very common. Everything else in writing is present in Ulysses, but not stories.
In a strange way the book reminds me of what Heisenberg said—that we never observe nature, but rather that nature exposes our method of questioning. Even if there’s no deliberate subject matter before you start writing…
Yeah, that’s right, very much so. I wrote a book about the World Cup this summer, with a friend. We wrote 500 pages and I wrote a lot about my love for football. I kind discovered that whole world of football in my youth, and he said, Why didn’t you write about that in My Struggle? You know, it was just outside the stream of thoughts and thinking so it’s just excluded.
There’s a lot of things like that, that are just not in it, because there’s one thing that I am interested in in the whole book, or a couple of things, and everything else is excluded. Everything is seen in light of the father, for instance. But it could be completely different, if you had another approach it would look very different. So it’s very narrow, even if it’s 3,500 pages, it’s very narrow. And I could, if I wanted to, create or write a double to this, a kind of a shadow to it, which will be as true as this one, but just different. And I could decide, what, if I really want to tell the truth about everyone around me, I could do that as well.
My Struggle has now earned a certain stature in contemporary world literature, as it did in Norwegian culture upon its original publication. It’s spoken of as a necessary text for people to read, to contend with, in our contemporary moment. Do you think about the fact that you are now an influence? That you are a cultural influence, you’re not just documenting things.
Hmm, no. I don’t think about that. I remember, I didn’t read David Shields until I was done with these books because I knew there were some relations there. He was writing about much of the same things, but I read it afterwards and I liked it very much. I related to his views in many ways. But no, I can’t really think in those terms whatsoever, and it is, you know, it’s just some books. You have to be lucky for them to be translated in the first place, and then someone well-placed has to say, I like them, they are very good, and if you don’t have that then it’s too risky for people to go for the book. But James Woods said, I like it, this is an important book. Then you have some other people, well-placed, saying this is very good. Zadie Smith did. Then it just opens up and it’s established as a good book or an important book. But you could imagine, in a parallel universe, this wouldn’t happen and then it would just be a book, and it wouldn’t have any influence.
So it’s been very interesting to see that process, because it first happened in Norway and then in Scandinavia, and then in England and the U.S. I think maybe it just has something to do with the zeitgeist and being a contemporary, I don’t know. There was a Norwegian writer who said he really hated these books, and he hated the hysteria surrounding them, so he wrote a piece and said, Just wait until they’re translated and you’ll see how provincial they are. And in a way he could have been right, I don’t know. But I think everything this book has exists in other places. I think my books have a few catch lines in their 3,600 pages, and a title, and controversy, and that’s it. That’s the way I explain it, at least.
Thinking of your earlier novel, A Time for Everything, a book about angels, I found its structure fascinating. You took dense and archaic subject matter based on Ecclesiastes in the Bible, and didn’t shy away from any part of its nature. It even contains what appear to be essays on theology in the middle of the book. This seems like something you return to in My Struggle.
My first novel has a lot of digressions, but in the second the digressions are essayistic, and part of the plotting of the book. And then the third book, My Struggle, is a combination of those two ways of thinking. And that’s a very important part of My Struggle, of course, that I’m allowed to write essays. The Célan essay is, I think, 60 pages, and that’s just a reading of a poem.
What I learned from A Time For Everything was—I don’t know what it is, but there’s something existential I’m looking for. And the essays, they don’t really say anything, they say just what they’re saying, and they don’t go further at all. And then you have the storytelling side-by-side, and the storytelling is something completely different, reaches some completely different places.
A Time For Everything was so important because for the first time I am sort of free, in construction, writing, in what a novel should be. In the original Norwegian it starts with an essay, it’s a 40-page essay on angels, and I remember I did that because I wanted to say, you know, just fuck you to the reader. [laughs] My first book was popular and I had a kind of identity crisis, because I came from literary magazines nobody read—hardcore literature—and then I was popular. I had problems with that. I couldn’t really understand why.
And yet you still have those problems.
Yeah, now I’ve just given up. The beginning of A Time was changed in the English version—my editor said it is impossible, I have to start with a little story. And so we changed that. But this is what I want to do. That’s where I want to be in my novels. Very strange things happen when you set a book in the Bible, I don’t know why, but I just... I like Calvino, I like Borges, I like that kind of literature.
It’s interesting that you’re inspired by Borges, who also wrote stories based on the Bible, such as his little essay on Judas as Jesus Christ. That makes a lot of sense, but of course Borges never wrote longer than maybe nine pages on a subject...
I know, I know. [laughs]
When you say that you wrote 500 pages on football, it seems like nothing to you.
But it is nothing, I mean, that’s what it is. I also grew up in a minimalistic tradition. But what I really love is writing like that. I think poetry is the best writing—the best poetry is way beyond a novel, I think, and probably that’s why.
Is that similar to what you’ve said before about primary and secondary writing? You’ve said that you feel that the book My Struggle is secondary, as a description of experience, not as an experience.
Yeah, that’s right, that’s exactly what it is. If I should have any ambition in my writing it would be to write primary. One novelist that does that, and that I think is kind of underrated, or that’s stupid to say, but is Thomas Mann. It’s not in that canon, it’s not Proust, it’s not Joyce, but it still is. I think he is absolutely fantastic. Dr Faustus, and the one set in the mountains, what is it called?
The Magic Mountain?
The Magic Mountain. That’s the best book about the First World War I have read. And Dr Faustus is the best book about the Second World War I can think of. And so that’s maybe more the ideal novel for me, that kind of novel, I think.
And you were part of a team working on a new translation of the Bible in Norwegian?
Yeah, that’s right. It was after this book about angels, that was absolutely amazing. I got to work with the first four books of the Bible. We got computer programs that knew Hebrew—we were four or five on a team—so I could get very close to the text, to see what that means or what that letter means, and I had a lot of Bibles in other languages, too.
It was absolutely amazing because the gap between contemporary Norwegian and those archaic texts was so enormous. I never had that experience with texts. We always discussed how close shall we go to the original text? How strange can it be, in a Norwegian Bible? And the strange thing is, the Bible has a kind of biblical tone, which is really a 16th-century tone, it has nothing to do with the Hebraic texts, so you can go much, much simpler, and it becomes much, much more modern in a way, and we tried to do that, just a little bit, because it’s so conservative. If I had one idea for a new word, a new sentence, I think it went through five committees and back, and you had to argue very, very, very well and then maybe you could be allowed to have it. But that’s the kind of the process you should have in a novel, you should have committees to say if you should do this or that, it was brilliant. Very exciting.
Is that at all related to what you’ve said about Norwegian language, that there’s a sort of radical Norwegian and a conservative Norwegian.
Written Norwegian is basically Danish. Henrik Ibsen and Knut Hamsun wrote in Danish. There are these small modifications, but it is still very Danish. That’s the conservative. And then you have another language that is invented, that a man travelling the countryside wrote down everything and invented a language, which is based on the way people speak, which is very different but still, both are Norwegian.
And then you have the thing in between, a kind of radical language, Bokmål, which is also a sociological thing. If you were on the left side in the ’70s you would talk in way to side yourself with the workers, and so on, and it is a language thing. When I was growing up the writers I liked wrote like that, but when I started writing my first book I needed a kind of a distance, and I took that distance in that conservative language. At the same time Marcel Proust was translated for the first time into Norwegian, and his language is very conservative and has a very French feeling to it. It was something completely new in Norwegian language and I was obsessed with it. There’s a lot of it in my first book. Kind of French-conservative-Norwegian language, long, long sentences. I don’t think it’s possible to relate this to English, because you have a kind of standard English, don’t you?
Do you read a lot of contemporary Norwegian literature now?
A little bit. Yeah, a little bit.
What do you think of it?
Some of it is absolutely fantastic, some is not. It’s like everybody else, every other country. But there are a lot of things going on, and the good thing is that there is no such thing as a school or a trend—it’s very idiosyncratic projects going on, which I think is very good.
You’ve spoken in the past about how in Norway you’re never supposed to be exceptional, you’re never supposed to draw attention to oneself. It’s very egalitarian. But here you are writing about your childhood, and there’s something childlike about the need for attention, and in the pleasure of being seen or noticed. So there is this original impulse for attention that occurs in childhood, and maybe that contends at times against societal pressures.
You’ve also said that you make yourself invisible, while still making yourself exposed as any writer could. Is that at all cyclical to you? Do you still think about it, or at this point have you come to terms with the idea that you have drawn attention to yourself?
I once met a German journalist who compared me to a rock band. He said, the books don’t really have any focus, it’s just loose, it’s like just having some songs about drinking and they don’t have anything else. But it’s in that band photo, that image, where everything comes together. He wondered if I had a certain point in my writing, because it’s all, you know, bits and pieces and nothing. And then he saw pictures of me, he said, “You pose like a rock star, you kind of summarize everything there.” And I said, “It’s very unfair of you to say that, because…” [laughs] You know, he meant it really, really badly. It has a lot to do with other things. But what I can say is, my face is… I can’t look at myself in the mirror. If I do I see the English cover, you know, and it’s just, I’m dead. [laughs]
And now that face is cropping up all over.
I know, and now it’s spread all over. But it is very, very, very ironic, if you see what kind of book I’ve been writing. This is a book about… in a life of man, there shouldn’t be any pictures of anything, really. Now it is this external thing. And yeah, it’s very bloody ironic. It is. But I am part of it, I am taking part in it. I am accepting it. I am doing it.