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After My Struggle: An Interview with Karl Ove Knausgaard

December 15, 2015 | by

From the paperback edition of My Struggle, Book 2.

Readers in the U.S. await the fifth volume of My Struggle—but in Norway, Karl Ove Knausgaard has moved on. With the money from Struggle’s sales, he’s established his own publishing house, devoted to promoting new talent and translating books by writers like Ben Marcus and Donald Antrim into Norwegian. Since his announcement, in 2011, that he would stop writing, he’s gone to publish four books of essays, and this fall he launched a new series: his “four seasons” quartet, On Autumn, On Winter, On Spring, and (as you might have guessed) On Summer. Presented as a “lexicon for an unborn child” and dedicated to the youngest of his four children, the quartet comprises several hundred short texts about objects (boots, chewing gum, plastic bags) and concepts (love, sex, war).

I recently caught up with Knausgaard in Oslo, where we discussed his new books and how he’s moving past the success of My Struggle. 

You’ve described your new series as “personal encyclopedia of our close surroundings.”

It started as a completely private project. When we were expecting our daughter, I wanted to write something for her, a diary or letter, for her to read when she was older—about how things looked like around our home before she was born, what her family was like, our thoughts and habits. Around the same time I got an assignment from an American magazine to write a short text for each issue for a year. I ended up writing about ten things that made life worth living and ten things that made me want to shoot myself. The editor quit and the project was canceled before I turned it in, but in that brief form I’d found something that appealed to me. So I continued writing, about a new subject every day, and at some point the two projects merged. 

While the narrator of My Struggle stares uneasily into the mirror, seeing nothing but a stiff mask, there’s a voice speaking calmly about lessons gleaned from gardening. “There’s no reason to be careful or afraid of anything, life is so robust.” What happened?

It’s not really about where I am right now—but of course, a lot has happened over the past few years. Things I’d always thought of as “dangerous” turned out not to be, when I experienced them firsthand. The whole process of publishing My Struggle has probably played a role. But I’ve also always had these thoughts about the vitality and sheer force of life. Anyone who has kids knows how robust they are. Then there are literary aspects that have to do with sensibility and being finely tuned to situations—all that was just more important in My Struggle. These new books aren’t about psychological states. They’re about things, material realities. Of course, when the birth of a child takes center stage, it automatically lends the whole project a tinge of optimism. That doesn’t mean I’m all positive and life affirming, because I’m really not. But these texts are. 

The distance between the observer and the observed is less of an issue?

Yes. I wanted to escape myself, so I just turned my gaze outward. I can’t say I’ve moved very far, though. My radius is approximately fifteen meters around the house and garden. I just write about the things I see in front of me. The more personal aspects, how and what I think, come through in descriptions, but it’s the physical, material presence of the objects that matters in these books. In a more fundamental way, there’s something objective going on here.

You write about everyday objects like chewing gum and soda cans, and you describe the toilet bowl—rather poetically, I think—as “the swan of the house.”

When I wrote my last novel, I discovered how much goes on outside the narrative, or just on the outskirts of the story—objects and actions that aren’t really stories but are still a part of everyday life. When I write, I’m just as concerned with creating some kind of presence as I am with narrating a story. It’s not a stylistic trait, but a longing of some kind, and it’s that presence I seek when I write and when I read. I’m not really present in the real world, obviously. I’m closed off inside myself. Ironically, the only way I can feel present, feel that I belong, is through writing, which is really about turning away from the world. In these texts I’m not directing attention to my own presence but to the presence of objects. I’ve wanted to look at everything in the same manner, whether it’s high or low, ugly, bad, good, beautiful. A beer bottle receives the same attention as the concept of love—as much space and as much care. I’m interested in the idea of looking at things without hierarchy, in the world as it is before we start categorizing it.

When we speak about the person narrating your books, I always want to say “you.” Do you think that’s okay?

Yes. That’s how it is. It’s a part of the project, isn’t it? I don’t feel like I’m conforming to one particular genre. I don’t write essays, but I also don’t write fiction. I like my writing falling a little between genres. And I’m not conscious about how I appear in the texts. That could easily have killed them, I think. 

You ended My Struggle by saying you would stop being a writer. You’ve since published three books of essays and now these four books. Did you just mean you were going to stop being a novelist?

I really don’t know. That was the ending I’d planned right from the start. It was the perfect ending to an autobiographical project, wasn’t it? Quite simply, the death of the author. To me it’s about the relation between life and literature. When I was younger I used literature to escape the world. Then I became a writer, and to me that meant turning away from the world. I gave up a lot of things, behaved badly because of the writing, the ambitions and so on. So I had a real longing for that book to leave literature—I hoped the book would end with me, on the final page, turning my back on literature and taking that final step into life. Another idea was to use all the material I had, to empty every reservoir I have as writer, so there would be nothing left. If I wanted to write anything after that, it would have to be something completely new, written by someone different than the “I” who wrote My Struggle. That’s the idea. But I really do want to write novels, so if I am able to, I will certainly try.

You’re going to write more novels?

Yes, I believe it’s possible to achieve more in that direction. But I’m not sure. 

When you published My Struggle, you spoke as if you found fiction dull.

That was about the classical form of the novel, the traditional ways of telling a story. To me, those ways become untrue when you repeat them. You have to find new ways. That’s the novelist’s mission, I think. It’s about things turning stiff again, becoming masks. When the novel becomes a mask it can be very entertaining, possibly even providing some insight, but it doesn’t come close to life. It doesn’t live.

Your father was a dominant figure in your last novel. Here we meet him in a few anecdotes, among them a memorable passage in which you wear the Wellingtons you’ve inherited from him—walking in your father’s boots.

It’s the most obvious metaphor, me walking in his boots—but I really do! I do wear his boots. And that’s what I wrote about. I never thought of it having any symbolic or metaphorical meaning. The father is the main trail I follow in the beginning of My Struggle, of course, he exits and reenters, remaining always a dominant power. That’s the way things have been in my life as well. But my father no longer has that power over me.

In My Struggle, you write mainly as your father’s son. In these new books you write as someone who primarily identifies as a father himself. 

My Struggle is kind of a midlife-crisis novel, isn’t it?

That’s what I thought!

I was sort of considering my options—should I buy a kayak or write My Struggle? I wrote My Struggle. When I started out, being a son was the most important part of my identity, even though I had long been a father myself. There’s something not very dignified about that, isn’t there? Being a son at forty? That’s all changed for me now, but I don’t know whether it’s because of the writing, or just finally growing up. In these books there is no father except myself. It’s not about conquering anything or fighting anyone. It has to do with a feeling of having found one’s place. All literature is written from the feeling of not quite being in the right place, isn’t it? It’s in that dynamic, that tension, that things happen. In these new books, there’s no such imbalance. There’s hardly any conflict at all. I don’t know if that makes it … well, I know it makes it worse, but I don’t know how much worse, or whether there’s any potential value elsewhere. Is it possible to write about something that’s harmonic and affirming without it becoming dull or insignificant? Where do you find the tension in such a project?

Do you worry the tension may be gone?

Constantly. But all that leads to is, you start cutting yourself off, shutting yourself down, and in the end you can’t really write, if all you ever think is, Is this any good? Or, Could I possibly squeeze even more of my own lifeblood into this? You just have to write and do what it is you want to do, for better or for worse.

Did you write My Struggle with that same attitude?

Yes, but in My Struggle the starting point was aggressive, like, I don’t give a fuck. There was a lot of aggression in that. It felt a lot more radical to me. It was really letting go of what little sense of security I had, because my only sense of safety is the fact that I can write. So that was a different project. This time I’m back to writing good sentences. And there are many good sentences in these books. When I say that, it’s not really something I pride myself on. Good sentences are not what I want.

So why did you fill these books with good sentences?

They just came to me.

In On Autumn, you call Madame Bovary the world’s best novel, and you describe the effect of Flaubert’s sentences—“as if a window muddled by dirt and smog, that you had become accustomed to seeing the world through, had been wiped clear with a wet towel.” Does that describe your goal?

I’ve read the novel many times, and its details are so vivid—the world is clear and crisp as a landscape after a heavy rainfall. And it has that incredible torrent of emotions and dreams and desires that gain even more force by being so fundamentally misplaced. I think it’s better than In Search of Lost Time. Proust doesn’t have that kind of concentration. Flaubert is interesting. I just read his letters, and they really go backstage. He writes about everything! The most obscene things, sex, prostitutes, what have you. They’re as chaotic as life itself. And then you see that perfectly constructed facade of the novel, which in a way contains it all, but indirectly—it’s highly controlled and composed. That made me realize the value of Bovary is much higher, a thousand times higher than the letters, even though the letters are livelier and closer to life. It’s about creating a universe that’s entirely self-contained and not just true, but actually valid. It’s that validity—which, in the best books, is endlessthat is perhaps the true nature of literature.

Karl Ove Knausgaard and Ane Farsethås appeared in conversation at Litteraturhuset in Oslo, on October 28. This is a condensed and edited version of their discussion.

Ane Farsethås is a critic and editor at Morgenbladet, a Norwegian newspaper, and the author of a book on contemporary Norwegian literature, From Here to Reality.