Completely Without Dignity: An Interview with Karl Ove Knausgaard
July 3, 2013 | by Jesse Barron
Of the two people who have written books called My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard is the less notorious. In Scandinavia, where the tradition of memoiristic writing is less prevalent and self-exposing than it is in America, he wrote, for three years, twenty pages a day about himself, his friends, his wife, and his kids. When the first of the six books was published, reporters called everyone he’d ever met. It sold half a million copies.
But unlike most literary controversies, this one’s less interesting than the work that provoked it. Knausgaard has written one of those books so aesthetically forceful as to be revolutionary. Before, there was no My Struggle; now there is, and things are different. The digressiveness of Sebald or Proust is transposed into direct, unmetaphorical language, pushing the novel almost to the edge of unreadability, where it turns out to be addictive and hypnotic. A man has written a book in which a man stays at home with his kids, and his home life isn’t trivialized or diminished but studied and appreciated, resisted and embraced. An almost Christian feeling of spiritual urgency makes even the slowest pages about squeezing lemon on a lobster into a hymn about trying to be good.
Book One ends with that impossible thing: an original metaphor for death. The last sentence of this interview may do the same for writing.
On the line here are both a man’s soul and his ass. The work has pissed off his fellow Norwegians, including the one he married. But the biggest risk is, in a single work, expending all the unconscious material of forty years of life. He calls My Struggle his authorial suicide, and after talking to him last weekend, I believe him, but I don’t think it means he won’t write another book. Here’s Jonathan Callahan doing for The Millions one of the best essays on Knausgaard: “My Struggle provides the reader with a portrait of an artist whose sometimes-quixotic-seeming-endeavor to narrate his struggles with life and art in their entirety consumes, possesses, captivates him, in that last verb’s literal sense, and thereby sets him free.”
Mr. Knausgaard lives in Sweden and doesn’t know how to use Skype. We tried to get the video to work, but in the end, we spoke to each other through black rectangles. Occasionally, I could hear his kids in the background, and the tap of a pen or his fingers on the desk, which made me terrified that I was boring him. His accent in English sounds Austrian—Sacha Baron Cohen doing Bruno—and he’s plainspoken and self-doubting. “So,” he would conclude after talking for a few minutes, “I’m afraid that’s another stupid answer.” It was the only time he really got something wrong.
Did you keep diaries when you were young?
Yes, I did, but I burned them when I was twenty-five or twenty-six.
I was so embarrassed, I couldn’t stand it. It’s the same with Min Kamp, I can’t stand it. If I could I would burn that, too, but there are too many prints, so it’s impossible.
Life develops, changes, is in motion. The forms of literature are not. So if you want the writing to be as close to life as possible—I do not mean this in any way as an apology for realism—but if you want to write close to life, you have to break the forms you’ve used, which means that you constantly have the feeling of writing the first novel, for the first time, which means that you do not know how to write. All good writers have that in common, they do not know how to write.
But isn’t burning a novel different from burning a diary? Burning a diary is repudiating a former version of yourself.
It’s one thing to be banal, stupid, and idiotic on the inside. It’s another to have it captured in writing. When I started to write more systematically, I just couldn’t stand that bastard diarist-self, and I had to get rid of it. So I did, alone in my student apartment, page after page.
But as anyone with the least knowledge of literature and writing—maybe art in general—will know, concealing what is shameful to you will never lead to anything of value. This is something I discovered later, when I was writing my first novel, when the parts that I was ashamed like a dog to have written were the same parts that my editor always pointed out, saying, This, this is really good! In a way, it was my shame-o-meter, the belief that the feeling of shame or guilt signified relevance, that finally made me write about myself, the most shameful act of all, trying to reach the innocence of the now burned diarist—self.
Scandinavia doesn’t have a tradition of tell-all memoirs, but it does have diarists. Olav H. Hauge, the Norwegian poet, wrote a three-thousand-page diary which was published after his death, when you were about twenty-six. Did you have a strong reaction to it?
Yes, I did. I read it very intensely over a short period of time, during a kind of crisis in my life. I was obsessed with it. And it was very strange because he wrote his diaries from 1916, or something, until 1990, so it covers his whole life. And he was basically only on his farm. Nothing happens in his life at all. And he really writes about nothing. Nothing is going on there except for him thinking, and harvesting apples.
It’s a kind of hypnotic writing, which really should be boring. I mean, there are a lot of examples of it. Lars Norén, the Swedish playwright, published a diary just recently, which I read during the writing of Min Kamp, and it was the same thing. Fifty pages about gardening, and it should be really awful, really boring. But there’s something magic in it, something hypnotic, and it’s the same with Hauge. He’s repeating himself all the time. It’s not good if you consider it as an essay, it’s not good if you consider it as storytelling, but it is still hypnotic. And I think that has to do with you feeling that you are very close to a self.
The crisis you experienced while reading Hauge—was it artistic or personal?
I had been unfaithful to my then wife and for a year succeeded in not telling her. Then, one day, someone called and said he wanted to talk to “the rapist Karl Ove Knausgaard.” My wife handed the receiver over to me and looked like a ghost. The caller said if I didn’t admit that I was a rapist, he would come over with some friends and beat me unconscious. That marked the beginning of the crisis.
A few days later, I went out to an island, where I had been before to write, and lived there for two months, again trying to write. It was a small island, miles out in the open sea, with only three other inhabitants. One of them actually died when I was there, I saw the ambulance boat coming, and the medics carrying him, covered, onto the boat in the snow. I thought of suicide every day, and read Hauge’s diaries, which was such a comfort, such a good thing, it was me and him, and the wide open sky over the sea, and the stars at night.
It reminds me of something in your book—“What is a work of art if not the gaze of another person.” But you hadn’t really written about yourself until Min Kamp. Your second book is about a fictive angelologist from the sixteenth century.
When I started out on Min Kamp, I was so extremely frustrated over my life and my writing. I wanted to write something majestic and grand, something like Hamlet or Moby-Dick, but found myself with this small life—looking after kids, changing diapers, quarreling with my wife, unable to write anything, really. So I started to write about that. During that process, I realized that this was material, I didn’t like it, but still, it was something, not nothing. If you read Hölderlin or Celan, and admire their writing, it’s very shameful, writing about diapers, it’s completely without dignity. But then, that became the point. That was the whole point. Not to try to go somewhere else than this. This is how it is.
It’s not like writing in a diary, though. A novel opens space between a writer and his or her material, the space of literature. There’s less distance between writer and diary than between writer and novel.
It’s all the difference in the world. I had tried to write from the age of eighteen, but didn’t succeed at all. Then, when I was about twenty-seven, I changed my language. This is difficult to explain. You can write a radical Norwegian or a conservative Norwegian. And when I changed to a conservative Norwegian, I gained this distance or objectivity in the language. The gap released something in me, and in the writing, which made it possible for the protagonist to think thoughts I had never myself thought.
But it isn’t only about language. There’s a kind of objectivity in the form itself. It is not you, it is not even yours. When you use the form of a novel, and you say “I,” you are also saying “I” for someone else. When you say “you,” you are simultaneously in your room writing and in the outside world—you are seeing and being seen seeing, and this creates something slightly strange and foreign in the self. When you see that, or recognize that, you are in a different place, which is the place of the novel or the poem.
In Min Kamp, I wanted to see how far it was possible to take realism before it would be impossible to read. My first book had a strong story, strong narration. Then I would see how far I could take a digression out before I needed to go back to the narration, and I discovered I could go for thirty or forty pages, and then the digressions took over. So in Min Kamp I’m doing nothing but digressions, no story lines. Language itself takes care of it. The form gives something back.
Can you talk about how you remember the past when you’re writing?
Writing is recalling. In this matter I am a classic Proustian. You’re playing football for the first time in twenty years, for example, doing all those movements again, and it makes the body remember not only the strangely familiar movements, but also everything connected to playing football, and for some seconds, a whole world is brought back to you. Where did it come from? I think that all our ages, all our experiences are kept in us, all we need is a reminder of something, and then something else is released.
When I started the novel, I imagined our house, myself walking towards it, it was snowing, it was dark, inside was my father and my mother, and I remembered the feeling of snow, and the smell of it, and the feelings I had toward my father at that time, and toward my mother, and there was the cat crossing the road, and on the other side of the river, the lights from a car. The silence in the woods. My friend, Jan Vidar, he was there somewhere, and the girl I was mad about, and the way I thought of him and her, and the light from the window kind of glowed, and I remembered an episode from the ski slope, and opened the door, and there, on the floor, the shoes from that time, the smell, the atmosphere.
My memory is basically visual, that’s what I remember, rooms and landscapes. What I do not remember are what the people in these room were telling me. I never see letters or sentences when I write or read, but only the images they produce. The interesting thing is that the process of writing fiction is exactly the same for me, the only difference is that these landscapes are imaginary. These images are related to the way you think of a place you never have been, where you imagine everything, the houses, the mountains, the marketplaces. Then, the second you are there and see how the place really is, the weight of its reality crushes your imagined version. But where did that version come from in the first place?
Your father and Jan Vidar are characters in Min Kamp. Do you feel that a memoir or realistic essay has ethical obligations to its subjects?
What about writers more generally? Do you agree with Faulkner, who told this magazine that “‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies”?
A great Norwegian poet, Georg Johannesen, one of the leading intellectuals in the sixties and seventies, got a similar question once. If the house is burning, and you can only save one thing, what will you take with you, the Rembrandt or the cat? He would have taken the cat. I would do that too. Literature is about people, not books, as paintings are about people, not canvases or colors.
The notion of humanity can be dangerous, and is easy to misunderstand, because all works of art that we praise and think of as a part of humanity, the culture, the great collective, were created by individuals who had to fight for their individuality, to go against the very same culture.
You can’t put the we, the “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” before the self, the old lady. This was what the Nazis did, thinking that the best of the we made it reasonable to kill some individuals on their way. But then again, becoming independent and free, which is a premise for all art, means to go against the social, the we, and since it is in the social that morality is located, writing often is, and has to be, immoral. That’s your different moral obligation, I guess.
Is there any point in thinking of Min Kamp as a kind of confession in the Augustinian sense, like a spiritual autobiography?
There certainly is a longing in the book for that dimension. But it’s never something I thought of stylistically.
So maybe I’m wrong about Augustine, but you’ve studied the Bible, right? You translated some of it. Your second novel concerns a pretty traditional theological question—can the nature of the divine change? I can’t help feeling that you have a deep realtionship to religious writing, something beyond the typical modern longing for a “spiritual” dimension of life.
This really is difficult to talk about, I have to say.
For two years, I worked as a kind of adviser on a team that translated the Bible to Norwegian. It was there I learned to read. The gap between the two languages was a shock, and made it possible to experience, not only to recognize, the gap between language and the world, the arbitrariness everybody talked about in the eighties was all of a sudden visible for me.
Another lesson was that in the Old Testament, everything is concrete, nothing is abstract. God is concrete, the angels are concrete, and everything else has to do with bodies in motion, what they say, what they do, but never what they think. No speculations, no reflections. Even the metaphors are connected to bodies. I became especially interested in the story of Cain and Abel, when Cain’s countenance falls and God says, “Why is your countenance fallen? Lift up!” Cain doesn’t look anyone in the eyes, and no one looks in his. This is to hide from the world and from the other. And that is dangerous.
In the sixth book of Min Kamp, I wrote four hundred pages on Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Hitler was a man who lived a year without seeing anyone, just sitting in his room reading, and when he left that room, never let anyone close, and stayed that way, intransigent, through the rest of his life, and one characteristic thing with his book, is that there is an “I,” and a “we,” but no “you.” And while I was writing about Hitler, a young Norwegian who had stayed some two years all by himself, and written a manifesto with a strong “I” and a “we,” also without a “you,” massacred sixty-nine youths on an island. In other words, his countenance fell.
The gap between the language and the world, the emphasis on the material aspects of the world, and Hitler writing Mein Kampf led me to Paul Celan, because the language he wrote in was destroyed by the Nazis. He couldn’t write blood, which circulated in his veins, or soil, which he walked on. Suddenly neither word represented something general, which implicated a we, for the we in this language was not his we.
So his final poem about the Holocaust is a poem where every word seems to be created for the first time, all singular, for the we is lost, from an abyss, a nothingness, and in this, something other than history is visible, namely, the outside of language, which really is unthinkable, because thoughts are language, but it’s still present, still there. It’s the world, out of reach for us, and it is death.
What do you see as the difference between yourself and a writer like Celan?
My book is very much about what experiences are and what they’re good for, but it isn’t one of those experiences in itself. It’s a secondary thing. It’s a secondary book. A book about experiences that doesn’t produce those experiences, if you understand the difference. That’s why I’m writing about Celan instead of trying to write like Celan. It really is second best. I know this, and not a thousand good reviews can make me forget. In the end, I want to write a book that is the thing itself. That is the ambition, of course.
Can you envision what that would be?
No. That’s impossible. I just have to start to write and hope that something will happen during the first thousand pages.
Mood is a big part of your work, the little shifts in how it feels to be yourself from one moment to the next. Feeling fine one minute, and the next thinking, What a pile of shit this was. Is that your experience of life, or is it just something the form gives back?
It’s a result of following situations very closely. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t existential consequences! In a novel, as in real life, moods and atmospheres, these small changes in the mind, are a part of thinking and reflection.
We have an idea that pure thought exists. It doesn’t. In my world, all I see are hidden agendas, more often than not hidden even from ourselves. People know nothing of themselves, why they do the things they do. They think they know, but oh no, they don’t. For example, Adorno defends reason in The Jargon of Authenticity, and attacks the phenomenologists. This is only a few years after the war, and his arguments are full of rage, but he doesn’t recognize it himself. Unreason, feelings—these belong to Heidegger and his followers. But Heidegger, for his part, did discuss mood, and found it central to the way we relate to the world, because we are always in a mood, like there is always weather.
Mood affects thinking. It makes it much more complex. And because I have over three thousand pages, I can use the essayistic digressions in a narrative sense. I have essays representing myself at twenty-five, which are really, really stupid, and say a lot of things that are purely infantile and idiotic. Then, five years later, I’ll have another essayistic part that relates to that, but is a bit more sophisticated. Something has happened. There is a kind of narration in the essayistic things which you don’t do as a straight essayist. As an essayist, you just write. You don’t use yourself in that sense. You don’t provide the stupid essay to show how age changes your thinking, for example.
I was in Germany, I was talking to my German editor, and we were talking about this because in the last book there is that long essay on Hitler, treating Hitler as a human being, and this is a very delicate and sensitive matter in Germany, of course. So what shall we do with it? Shall we have some historian read it and modify it, treat it as an essay? Or shall we just treat it as a madman from Norway writing whatever he thinks?
What did you decide?
To keep it as it is.
Do you care what people think of you?
I want to write how I really think things are, instead of how I think you should think I think things are. 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 project for me. But then it’s a realistic depiction of a man, forty, from Norway. If you read the book you can see how these opinions—about Hitler, for example—came about. What produced them.
When you say “a realistic depiction of a man, forty, from Norway,” are you comfortable with the narrative that goes, “Karl Knausgaard’s book is the greatest account of our generation?” That’s what the Culture Minister said of you.
I am really embarrassed about it. I find it hard to deal with, really, so I’ve decided not to think about it, not to go there, not to read those things. I can’t read about this project.
Are your children old enough to have read it, or read about it?
They aren’t old enough to have read the books, but they have searched their own names on the Internet, and they come running into me, “Daddy, why are we on the Internet?” I say, “Because you’re in this book,” but I’ve never explained what it is. Very soon, I’m going to read something to them, to make it sort of undramatic.
Are you worried it will hurt them?
Maybe they’ll be troubled by it when they’re teenagers. But I haven’t only taken things away from them, there’s something given to them as well. My life would certainly have looked different if I had gotten something like that from my father.
It seems very normal for your kids to be Googling themselves. Do you?
It fucks my mind completely up if I go in there. The first two years, when I wrote it and published it at the same time, I avoided everything, because it was so intensely massive in Norway I had to just avoid it. But now I see where something’s written, so I just have a picture of where I’m coming up. Okay, that’s from Australia, I’m being mentioned there, but I don’t read it.
It’s like following the stock market or something, going on Amazon and seeing where the books are. It’s a technical, mechanical thing, but I can’t go in and read even a very good review. I can’t stand the thought of being this figure and having done this thing. And every time I talk about it, or give interviews about it, it eats my soul, and it’s getting worse and worse every time I go out there, and I have to stop. I’m going to stop. But it’s such a temptation to do it, because it’s a confirmation of something, and something is happening, and all that, but it’s really poison. I have to stop. I’m going to stop.
When we were e-mailing to get ready for this interview, you said you’d never used Skype before. Can I ask what you think of it?
I really hate it, I have to say. I dislike the fact that we are letting go of our local places, in the sense of what surrounds us, not just restaurants or shops. What has happened in the last thirty or forty years, I deeply despise. The physical world is gone.It reminds me of how you write about Lucretius, loving him for his awareness of the world’s physical presence. It’s interesting, because your books address that problem theoretically, but at the same time their texture is very physical. You run your hands over every object—toast, bottles, cigarettes, tablecloths.
That was something I was thinking about all the time during the writing. It’s central to me. But as you said, it’s a paradox. It’s writing, it’s not a real thing.
The sixth book really does end in Norway, with Anders Breivik killing sixty-nine children on Utøya Island. This happened while I was writing. And it really is this situation where he has these images of the world. And then he goes in there and he kills those people. And that’s a physical act. One of the things he said in court was, “It was so strange, shooting maybe seven teenagers, they were standing at the wall, and they were not moving. Why weren’t they moving? I would expect them to be moving, trying to get away, but they were just standing there while I was shooting them.” It didn’t correspond to the images he had in his mind.
And the novel ends there, in that place, in that collision of the abstract heaven we have above us and our own physical earth. Which is what Breivik’s killings were. This is the same thing that happened in the Nazi era, when Hitler imposed an abstract image upon the physical reality of the world. That’s what interests me about daily life, when this happens.
While Breivik was shooting all of those people, he was listening on headphones to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. He played Call of Duty obsessively. He inhabited virtual worlds.
Breivik did play a lot of computer games. He played professionally for years. This is the interesting part of what happened, the boundaries between what’s imaginary and what’s real. It’s totally blurred in him. That was the thing that makes it possible for him to kill. Because normally it’s impossible to kill, or at least impossible to kill more than one or two.
If you’re in the U.S. Marines, you’re trained in this dehumanizing process. You’re trained as a professional, and you do it with your friends, you do it for them, and even then it’s difficult. But Breivik did it all by himself, so it shouldn’t be possible, but it is possible, and that’s one of the things I reflect upon in the last book.
Marines, Nazis—these things seem so much larger and more ideological than the small, everyday events in Books One and Two.
My book is completely anti-ideology, in all senses. It is about the opposite of ideology. It’s about the little and the small, where in life we are. But it ends with the collision of that world with ideology, which is why I wrote about Nazism and those kinds of things. That’s why it ends there.
Did you ever play video games?
Yes. This was in 1992, ’93. I played Doom and those kinds of games. Where you just shoot people. I could play twenty-four hours, no problem. I was completely addicted.
Do you still smoke?
Yeah, I do.
Because you’re addicted, or do you enjoy it?
I do enjoy it, unfortunately. There is a writer in Sweden called Stig Larsson, not the crime writer but another one, a modernist, a fantastic writer, and he was a drug addict for the last twenty or thirty years, and he had a heart attack so he had to stop. It was speed he took. But he said, If smoking helps me, it’s my duty as a writer to smoke. And if speed helps me, it’s my duty as a writer to take speed. In a way it’s true. But I have to stop it one day—I mean, I have kids.
What about alcohol?
I’m so restricted as a person, and not very good socially, so drinking is a kind of a freedom for me. But the consequences are big for me. I can’t stop. I get extremely drunk.
We had some friends over three weeks ago, and I was the only one who drank, and I get so extreme I can’t remember anything, really. This was a disaster, you know, a dinner party and the host is the only one who’s drunk! One half bottle of spirits. I was just—I can’t stop. I don’t fall over, I don’t go to sleep, I can just drink and drink and drink and drink, and you can’t really see it on me, but inside I am just totally messed and fucked up. And as I have kids, I have to have a certain kind of dignity in my behavior, and that’s not what I do when I’m drunk. So I try to be very careful, that’s what I’m saying.
Can I ask how the novel has affected your marriage? It’s so extreme, what you’ve done. It’s like you invented a new kind of marriage, where half the couple is transparent and has no secrets.
I didn’t think of that when I was doing it. I didn’t think of the implication at all, in that sense. I was so frustrated that I didn’t foresee the consequences. I thought, If the consequences are that she’s leaving me, then okay, she can go. That was how it was. There was a certain desperation that made it possible. I couldn’t do it now.
But still, there is much more to a relationship than what you can say. You just take one more step back into yourself. I’ve never understood psychoanalysis. Mentioning things doesn’t change anything, doesn’t help anything, it’s just words. There is something much more deep and profound to a relationship than that. Revealing stories and quarrels—that’s just words. Love, that’s something else.
Did the writing of Min Kamp give you what you were hoping for?
I can’t speak for other writers, but I write to create something that is better than myself, I think that’s the deepest motivation, and it is so because I’m full of self-loathing and shame. Writing doesn’t make me a better person, nor a wiser and happier one, but the writing, the text, the novel, is a creation of something outside of the self, an object, kind of neutralized by the objectivity of literature and form. The temper, the voice, the style. All in it is carefully constructed and controlled. This is writing for me—a cold hand on a warm forehead.