Bookforum talks with Karl Ove Knausgaard

My Struggle: Book 1 BY Karl Ove Knausgaard. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Paperback, 448 pages. $16.

In Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s mammoth, six-volume autobiographical novel My Struggle, the trivial and the momentous mix, change places, and push the work beyond the limits of categorization. At once a Proustian chronicle of the everyday and a latter-day account of a man’s need for, if not a room, then a few hours of his own in which to write, Knausgaard’s work—a controversial sensation in Norway—has been called “the most significant literary enterprise of our time." In a series of generous, thoughtful e-mails—some sent from “a balcony in a hotel in Beirut,” where the writer was attending the Hay Literary Festival, others from his home in Sweden—Knausgaard shared with me his thoughts on telling everything, writing the mundane, and committing “literary suicide.”

Bookforum: My Struggle is an enormous work—nearly four thousand pages—and yet much of it foregrounds the quotidian. The net effect, however, is not the banal stretched out, but a wholly immersive world that the reader inhabits. Wallace Stevens writes about the hypnotic effect of reading a very long work over a sustained period. What are your thoughts on the aesthetics of very long books?

Knausgaard: As a writer, I admire the short novel, say Rilke’s Malte Laurid Brigge or Mann’s Death in Venice, and the level of perfection and concentration in them. But as a reader, admiration is of no use, and what I want instead is to disappear completely into the work, to lose my sense of the self, like the book is a kind of place you can go to, a world of its own. Proust’s novel is like that, and when you reread it, it’s like visiting a wood you have been in before, a long time ago: it’s familiar, you remember it vaguely, and when you start walking, the memories start coming back—oh, wasn’t it behind there that happened? This is a childish way to read, I guess—at least, it was like that that I read as a kid, disappearing completely into other worlds, again and again, and having the feeling of entering something, being a visitor somewhere. When reading a short, perfect novel, it’s more like the novel visits you. Tolstoy’s War and Peace has that effect on me, and Mann’s Magic Mountain. Not Infinite Jest, though, so this isn’t only a matter of length, I guess.

Bookforum: It’s interesting, and a bit paradoxical, that reading a long book also allows for greater immersion on the level of the single sentence. After all, who rushes through Proust?

Knausgaard: Well, I did rush through Proust the first time I read him. I have always read extremely fast, which means that good sentences have been wasted on me. When reading fast, the rhythm becomes paramount. But then, a few years ago, I was involved in a re-translation of the Bible into Norwegian. We worked in teams, and my team was doing, among other books, Genesis and Exodus. Then I was forced to read extremely slowly—we could spend a day discussing one sentence—and through that process, I learned to read properly. One of the interesting things about the stories in the Old Testament is that the major ones are so short—Cain and Abel, for instance, is told in eight lines or so. That’s amazing, considering the impact that story has had, and continues to have, in the culture. For me, in my own writing, that kind of concentration is impossible—when I have written a hundred pages, if feels like I’ve said nothing.

Bookforum: Is it an aesthetic decision to write, or to continue to write, a book that is beyond five or six hundred pages? I'm wondering what that formal choice involves and what that feels like from the writing side.

Knausgaard: When I was nineteen, I went to a yearlong course in creative writing. There, some simple rules dominated, and the most important one dealt with quality: if a sentence was bad, you removed it. If a scene was bad, you removed it. The critical reading of the texts always resulted in parts being deleted. So that was what I did. My writing became more and more minimalist. In the end, I couldn’t write at all. For seven or eight years, I hardly wrote. But then I had a revelation. What if I did the opposite? What if, when a sentence or a scene was bad, I expanded it, and poured in more and more? After I started to do that, I became free in my writing. Fuck quality, fuck perfection, fuck minimalism. My world isn’t minimalist; my world isn’t perfect, so why on earth should my writing be? I then did the same thing with every other rule. Show, don’t tell? What happens if you do tell, really try to tell EVERYTHING, and don’t give a damn about subtext? Something else happens, something you can’t control. No matter how explicitly you describe a person or a scene, there is always a shadow in the text, a kind of tone or sound, and that tone or sound is the important thing. When I freed myself from these restrictions and started to insist on quantity instead of quality, my texts started to get long. Not necessarily good, but long! With a big canvas, there are possibilities that don’t exist with a smaller one. I’m interested in the relationships between people, and how these relationships change radically through life, which is difficult to capture in a few hundred pages. What I tried to do in My Struggle was to describe the world of a ten-year-old, the world of a fifteen-year-old, and the world of a forty-year-old as completely as I could with a level of reflection that aligns as closely as possible to the protagonist’s age. The father, for instance, changes radically through the book, just by being seen from different vantages. These changes required space, and that’s the main reason the book is so long.

Bookforum: How does one go about editing when the guiding principle is tell everything? Did you conceive of this as a multi-volume work very early on? Were you writing new volumes as others came out?

Knausgaard: Yes, I was, even though all six novels were published in one year. The original idea of the publishing house (Oktober) was to serialize twelve novels, publish one for each month for a year, and give people the opportunity to subscribe to them. But since Oktober thought that this would be too difficult and too risky (no one expected these books to sell), they decided to release six books instead. When we started publishing, only the first two were written, so I had to write four novels that year. As I was promoting the first, we were editing the second and I was writing the third, and then we did the same with the fourth and the fifth. When the third was being promoted, the fourth was being edited and proofread and so forth.... I think everybody at the publishing house was involved at some point, because everything had to happen so quickly. The first volume was edited in a "normal" way, but the rest are more or less as I wrote them. I never changed anything during the writing, and I didn’t rewrite sentences. This means that there is a lot of bad writing in there, and also that in some places the book borrows forms from genre literature. When writing quickly, you’re sometimes in such a hurry that you need to take what you’ve got. And after reading crime-novels and thrillers by Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Ken Follett, Wilbur Smith for fifteen years or so, forms from those genres remained after the books themselves were forgotten, I guess.

Bookforum: You mention not being immersed in Infinite Jest. What are your thoughts on fiction that’s “experimental,” a word that carries a lot of currency here but remains largely amorphous.

Knausgaard: I do admire Infinite Jest and welcome everything that expands the form of the novel, because without someone opening it up for new possibilities, it will certainly die. Concerning Infinite Jest, it is obviously related to Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, the first (and best!) example of what you call "experimental fiction.” Some strange and unorthodox things are also going on in Cervante’s Don Quijote (the two protagonists reading a book about their previous adventures in the beginning of part two, for instance). But let me put it this way: for me, as a writer, Joyce’s Ulysses is extremely important. But as a reader, "The Dead” is superior—the best thing he ever wrote.

Another favorite of mine is Adam Thorpe’s novel Ulverton. It is experimental in a way—the language changes throughout the book—but this is totally integrated in the story, and you never get the feeling of a writer showing off. The novel is organic, it goes deep into the nature of language and time, but it does so to capture the people who live there, their language and their time.

Bookforum: I had the thought that your book, Volume 2 in particular, was like an "A Room of One's Own" for men. It’s about “modern” men who handle children, difficult neighbors, and so on, all while trying to write. Your protagonist seeks not so much a room but time, energy, and enough “credits” on the domestic front to allow for a retreat into writing.

Knausgaard: Karen Blixen, the Danish writer, said something like "you can’t go hunting the Grail with a pram.” And she’s right. When I started to write this book, I was deeply frustrated and alienated. We had three kids in four years, and the dominant feeling for both my wife and me was that of living on the edge of chaos. There was a lot of quarreling going on, and at the same time, I was not able to write anything. So at one point I decided to let go of all ambition whatsoever and just write about that: The domestic world, the banality and tristesse of everyday life. I really hated the idea, because I didn’t want trivialities, I wanted the Grail, and when I started to do this, I was ashamed of my writing. The struggle was really to overcome the shame. But taking care of kids and writing do not exclude each other—I would start to write at 4am, then either my wife or I would take them to Kindergarten at 8, and then I would write until 3 pm and spend the rest of the day with them. It’s not Hemingway’s way—as I understand, he wrote from 6 till 12, then started to drink—but it is a way, if not to reach the Grail, then at least to finish some pages every day.

For a long time, I went to bed early ... While I was doing this, I went to bed at the same time as the kids, at eight o’clock. I had no life outside of my family and my writing. There were no restaurants, no friends, no sports, no TV, no drinking, no fun, no nothing.

I guess this is how women (since you mentioned Woolf) have done it, writing in the early morning and in those hours of the day when the children are at school. This comparison is provocative, by the way, because everything that has to do with gender is extremely sensitive in Scandinavia. It would also be provocative, for example, if I were to say that I can see similarities between my own writing and feminist writing in the ’70s (when, at least in Scandinavia, some women wrote extremely privately about the most intimate matters). I do happen to think that this comparison is relevant: It is a question of identity, and at the moment male identity is changing radically. The thing about change is that it’s hard to define but easy to feel, so for a novelist whose tools are not first and foremost analytical, the obvious way to turn is inwards, to gamble that a description of everything going on inside will in some way touch on more general shifts in the culture. I don’t really understand why this is a provocation, but it is. I find the argument that no woman would be allowed to publish six books about herself, and that if she did, there would be no public acclaim, strange and unconvincing.

Bookforum: My Struggle is one of the biggest books to come out of Scandinavia in some time, but what other Scandinavian books would you like to see people pay attention to?

Knausgaard: It certainly isn’t the quality of writing that decides whether a book gets translated or not. It usually depends on whether there’s a kind of hook or selling-argument, which means that there are well-kept secrets in every country. Among my personal Nordic favorites, some are translated, some not. There’s Monika Fagerholm (an amazing novelist) from Finland and Eva-Stina Byggmäster (ditto poet) from Sweden. Other writers I like include Carl-Henning Wijkmark, Lars Gustafsson, Göran Sonnevie, Sigrid Combüchen, Jon Fosse, Steinar Opstad, Thure Erik Lund. And the filmmaker Joachim Trier!

Bookforum: Have you any inclination to write poetry?

Knausgaard: I wish I could write poetry but I do not have the skill or the gift—it’s totally out of reach. I like Durs Grünbein a lot, both his poetry and his essays.

Bookforum: Are there other projects you’re working on now you’d care to mention, ones growing out of, or away from, My Struggle? I guess I’m thinking of the claim made in Volume 2 that writing My Struggle felt like committing literary suicide.

Knausgaard: It was a literary suicide. There is nothing left; I can never again write something from the heart without repeating myself, but I wanted it that way: In Volume 6 I even wrote a couple of lines about future novels, stories I’d thought of, just to kill them off. The last sentence in that book is: "And I’m so happy that I’m no longer an author.” So what I work on now are things associated with literature. I have written a collection of essays, which are going to be published this fall, I have translated a book from Swedish, which will be out in late May, and I have written a screenplay for a film based on my first novel. I have also started a small publishing venture with some friends. This spring, we published three novels—by Judith Herman, Christian Kracht, and Maria Zennström—and in the fall we have six books on the list, among them Peter Handke and Katie Kitamura. Doing all this makes me long for some real writing, but I don’t have what it takes: a capability to fail for years. That is what writing is for me: failing with total dedication.

Bookforum: Archipelago Press chose not to print “novel” or “memoir” on the front of your book, and I’d like to end by asking you why staying with fact was so vital to you in the writing of My Struggle.

Knausgaard: When I started to write the novel, I wanted to tell the story of my father, of his fall from being a respected member of society to a drunk dying in a chair in his mother’s house without anything left. For four years, I tried to tell it as fiction, but I couldn’t, it was impossible because I didn’t believe in it. It was my father I wanted to write about, not an imaginary father. But when I finally started to use his name and the names of everybody around him, and at the same time I began to follow the rule that everything that I wrote must be true in the most banal sense of the word, something happened. It felt dangerous, and that danger was energizing. It felt deeply relevant in ways my other fictitious writing hadn’t.

At that time, I was also tired of fiction in a broader sense. It seemed to me that fiction was everywhere—TV-news, newspapers, films, and books all provide a flood of stories, a continuous dramatization of the world. So what I did, naively, was to try to take the world back. That’s why I describe all these details in My Struggle. I want to evoke all the things that are a part of our lives, but not of our stories—the washing up, the changing of diapers, the in-between-things—and make them glow. Though a five-page description of what’s in a closet is not exactly page-turner stuff, I thought of this project as a kind of experiment in realistic prose. How far is it possible to go into detail before the novel cracks and becomes unreadable? Oh, it’s a shameful venture, no one wants to be boring or banal, but that was what I set out to do. The first book is centered on death, and it’s like bathing in triviality, and then death. When death is near, everything is meaningful, everything glows, everything is intense. The second book has the same pattern, except that the center of the book is the negation of death, i.e. falling in love. So: bathing in a sea of triviality, then love. Around love, everything is meaningful, glowing, intense. This is the structure of life: large chunks of meaninglessness. Time just passes away, nothing really happens, and then death, or love, or birth.