Karl Ove Knausgård, the 47-year-old writer from Norway, has become a lightning rod in the literary world since his six-volume first-person opus My Struggle was first released in 2009. Within three years of publishing the entire series in his home country, so many people were talking about it in Europe that legend reached the United States, and water-cooler Knausgård conversation had to be banned on certain days.
Brutally honest and unabashedly concerned with the minutia of one man's life, My Struggle has been both beloved and bashed by critics. Knausgård himself has termed it "literary suicide," for devoting thousands of words to the topics of breakfast cereal, rolling suitcases, French philosophical poets, and losing his virginity. But for all the swagger of an author willing to name his book after Hitler's Mein Kampf, Knausgård doesn't seem to think very often about the place of his own work in the world. He comes across as a low-key man who readers may think they know everything about from his books. Except when he stands up, and you realize that he’s very, very tall. That’s one of the many things you might not realize about him, even if you are caught up on all five of the books that have been released in the U.S.
You don't like being interviewed.
That's a good way to start because this novel is about inadequacy and failure as much as it’s about being a success. How successful were the first My Struggle novels when you were writing number five?
It was such a huge success that it was kind of impossible to imagine.
Tell me about this time in your life when you were worried that you were going to be nothing, and writing about it from when you clearly are something.
I kind of shut out everything else while I was writing and completely disappeared into the novels. It was hard in the beginning but then it was very easy. It's not just a matter of remembering, it's almost a matter of reliving it. And I think the failure thing, the feeling of being an idiot is still present in me, constantly. I mean when I came here yesterday, New York is overwhelming to me. I tend to stay in my room because I don’t know what to do. I did that when I was 16, 17. I really felt like a complete idiot, not being able to do what I was supposed to do, feeling awkward all the time. That's really close to me. And the success is very, very far out, almost going on behind the horizon somewhere. I can't relate to it. I can with my thoughts but not with my feelings, it doesn't do anything.
This one was written in eight weeks. Why the speed for this novel? Was it the subject matter?
I was in a flow. This was the third, fourth novel that year. The structure is very simple and makes it easy; it's just coming to the city, leaving the city. The form is like a crime novel. It's not sophisticated at all; it's very easy to write. And I was able to write 20 pages a day for a while, which is insane. It's very good to know it's easy to write a novel if you do it in eight weeks, but it takes years to get to a place where that’s possible.
The idea of publishing things from when we were younger seems terrifying. There's a lot of empathy created there because it's so vulnerable. But at the same time we see in this installment your rebellious side come into the writing, and you’re trying to figure out how to translate that. The best example from this book is the "cunt" poem, which is just the word "cunt" printed 354 times.
That's in the book?
Yes. It's in the book.
OK, that's a bit embarrassing.
It's not so far off from calling your novel-memoir Min Kamp as a provocative move. How much is My Struggle a stunt?
I think the title — there's a certain aggression to it. And it is basically saying, "Fuck you," this is what I'm doing no matter what. And I thought at the time that I was writing before that, that writing was about trying to make it good. It's such a big part of me, wanting to do that, and I'd done that with the first two novels. And I was so praised for it. I've felt almost aggressive being praised when there is no relationship with my own self — that kind of makes an aggression. And the title was related to that.
You say toward the end of this book, when it becomes really sad, "No one says you couldn't become a better person through endurance." So at the same time that it’s, like you say, a "Fuck you," there is a higher purpose. How do you reconcile casting off this desire to be good while at the same time wanting to be better?
What's genuine in the book is that I try to understand who I am. And in that place, I thought that I could be better somehow. But that's not a conscious thing. I recently had a friend of mine who wrote 50 pages about me and it's all in a book, it’s not published yet, it will be published. And that was a shock because it was so terrible.
Your portrayal or the writing?
Not the writing, the portrait of me. Which again reflects so much of who we are for others. I had just been writing a book about how it is to be on the inside, and he’s looking at me completely differently.
It's a taste of your own medicine.
Yeah, but much more than I did to other people, because it's only me for 50 pages. And I think that was his thought, that this is correct for me, but from outside my life, it's completely different. And at the time, I was writing the novel myself where that was the question. Now, you know, I'm in a different place, I'm 47, but still that is — who am I?
There's a desire there to be unfiltered. And in this book it's impossible not to connect that with drinking. It's so freeing for you but it’s also so dark. What was it like to write those episodes?
I was on the other side when I was writing it — it was not as threatening as it would have been a few years before. But I wrote the horror of it, of being in those situations. At the same time it is kind of a world that opens up, it is very novelistic. I remember liking that when I wrote it.
This book is very explicitly about wanting to be a literary man, we’re not talking about you being a father yet. The marriage here as opposed to A Man in Love [My Struggle book 2] is an obstacle to the work. Now that you are married and a father and a writer, though not without conflict, what was it like writing about when they were at odds? What has changed?
That's a hard question. You know I don’t think about these things very much, I just write. There was nothing wrong with Tonje, there was nothing wrong with the relationship, it was all me. I had a very strong urge that there was something else, something more. My lack of ability had nothing to do with her, but it had to do with what she represented. Why did I want to get married at 25? Because I had as strong an urge for being safe and having a proper life, that everything was the way it should be. I've always had that. Just because I feel like it's so chaotic, this is what I need.
The notion of the literary man, someone like Hemingway, is that he's notoriously alone. Bukowski is another example, and one pertinent because you're constantly trying to emulate him in this book. For women writers, this is such a huge question. A long time ago, when you were asked about women writers in the book, that there aren't a lot, Siri Hustvedt asked why there weren’t, and you said "no competition." What did you mean by that?
I have no idea. Why they're not in the book? That's kind of a cultural thing I guess, it's what I'd been reading. But it doesn't mean anything else than that.
It could be interpreted that you don't read women.
No. I was reading Maggie Nelson when you came, and I just bought four books by her before we met. She's so much better than anything I've read for a long, long time. And I have a publishing house and we publish a lot of women. I am not even near that place, at all. When you're a young man and you read Hemingway and you read Bukowski, you do this. Maybe I haven't challenged myself enough in this, of course, but no.
In an interview with you, Hustvedt suggested that in a masculinity contest, women don't matter. Of course, in these books that masculinity contest is challenged, it's so complicated, especially by the figure of your father.
Doing what I do is like method writing. I write how it was. But you have to know there is a level above that, so you don’t think, "Oh, he's not aware of it."
Why do you think you're part of that conversation?
I think they want me to be that kind of man, especially in Sweden.
Who are "they"?
The people who attack me for these things, for being what they call a "cultural man," it's a big thing in Sweden. On top of the pyramid in that sense. In Sweden, the feminist movement is attacking me for all kinds of reasons, which I feel is like they are constructing something they need. I'm a public figure, my books are public, and people can say whatever they like. But for me personally and what I'm doing, I can’t relate to it. And if I said it, I would be met by suspicion.
If I could say, you know, “I don’t like women writers,” then it would be okay. But it’s such a strange thing. And I feel like, why should I defend myself? Because I've never been that.
It speaks to how the book is separate form you, and the books have become cultural objects. In some ways it doesn't even matter if you read women or not. I’m sure part of it is the way you look, people love to write about how you show up smoking or wearing a leather jacket.
Yeah, I know, and I don't really relate to it. In Sweden it feels like I've committed a crime with these books. Even if I was the most misogynistic person in the world, I still would have added something by publishing these books. That's the best way to look at it.
There definitely can be controversy for controversy's sake here, but at other times people use the argument that, "Oh, it's just feminists going crazy" to avoid actually talking about whether work is inclusive.
It's very different from here, feminism, and very different in Norway. One example, I was invited to a writing class, the place I met Linda [his wife, the Swedish writer Linda Boström Knausgaard]. It was very good for me, but now everything has changed. I was invited as a teacher, I was just giving a talk with them for two hours, and they were constantly attacking me. Like I was on trial. And it was all about the moral of it. It felt like I was in with a sect, that was only one perspective you could read. I was so angry because for me literature is the opposite; it is to open things up. Nothing should be there from the beginning, that’s what you should challenge. As a writer it feels like this is in opposition to literature, this is not what literature is about. It’s dogmatic, and dogmatic is, for me, the worst. If you read Maggie Nelson, that is the opposite of dogmatic, it comes from searching and opening things up and looking for something.
You said to [critic] John Freeman that this was the last of the "not-fake books."
During writing these books I developed a kind of pose, I knew what people expected from me. When I started writing book 6, I kind of wrote a Knausgård-ish book, and it was completely useless. I felt that it was almost evil. And I threw that away and I tried in the last book to get rid of all that. And that’s why book 6 is very different and very boring, because it deals with just being in this room, for a very long time. It’s very different, it’s like everything is broken up, and it’s got no stories in it.
Do your friends and family worry that one day you're going to say, "Okay, I wrote My Struggle 7 through 15?"
No, I actually did just write an autobiographical novel, just now. I thought I shouldn't do it, but it's very, very different, just 100 pages.
My friends were telling me that I could end up in My Struggle 9, so I chose my outfit very carefully, just in case it was going to be immortalized.
One of my friends, who is a writer, told me that's what I should do: write one My Struggle every year of your life, and it will be unique, then you will be remembered. But it’s too hard to do it.