Opening a World, an interview with Karl Ove Knausgaard

You might think international celebrity would help conquer his demons, but Karl Ove Knausgaard says he’s still “full of self-loathing.” Recently, Steve Paulson spoke with Knausgaard, the Norwegian author whose six-volume autobiographical novel, My Struggle, must be counted amongst the biggest and most provocative literary sensations in recent memory. Their conversation — which will air in the coming weeks on Public Radio International’s To The Best Of Our Knowledge (subscribe to the TTBOOK podcast here) — tackled the humiliations of youth, finding suspense in the everyday, imperfect memories, and Knausgaard’s plans for his new project.

Steve Paulson: This book begins when you are 18, just out of high school and headed for your first job. You drink too much and you’re obsessed with losing your virginity. In some ways, the life you’re describing isn’t that unusual, but you seem to be full of angst. Did you feel tormented back then?

Karl Ove Knausgaard: Yeah, I think so, but I wasn’t aware of many aspects of this because you are not that aware of yourself when you are 18. You’re full of yourself but you’re not aware of yourself. So this book is basically about the conflict between the 18-year-old young man being full of himself, full of ambition, full of desire, full of longings and wanting, and the outer world and all the people he meets. He has no idea at all of who he is.

SP: Your project is so interesting because you are now extremely self-conscious, and yet you’re trying to get inside the head of what you were like when you were 18.

KOK: Yeah, that’s really the interesting part of it. When I was writing, it felt like I was very close to that age. That age was the part of my life that I’m closest to, so it was really easy to write about. You know, in a way, I haven’t improved much since I was 18. Of course, I have in other ways, but the core is the same as when I was 18.

SP: What are those core areas where you haven’t changed?

And it’s so raw when you are 18. We get much better at hiding it when we’re in our forties or fifties.

KOK: That has to do with emotions, feelings, desires, everything that you don’t verbalize, everything that drives you. I’ve spent my life trying to understand those forces, not because I’m that interested in myself, but because I’m a writer and I’m interested in identity and those forces are so powerful. And it’s so raw when you are 18. We get much better at hiding it when we’re in our forties or fifties.

SP: Was it still raw for you to go back and relive those adolescent years?

KOK: Yeah, especially the relations that I had at that time, that I didn’t see as clearly as I do now — for instance, my relationship to my father, which is a big part of this book.

SP: Which was very troubled. He was a difficult father. He drank too much and sometimes beat you.

KOK: When I was growing up, he didn’t drink and he had kind of a normal life, but he was unpredictable, and that’s always a problem for a child. But then when I was 16, he started to drink and he left the family. He became an alcoholic and disappeared from my life. He got a new family and a new child but something is still very wrong in his life. I saw some of that then but I didn’t see it all. You know, when you’re that age, there is a very one-sided relationship with your parents, and you try to get away from them. You try to make your own life and that also makes this period interesting to write about.

SP: Was it painful to remember the difficulty with your father, not to mention all the embarrassing episodes from your adolescence?

KOK: The embarrassing episodes were a pleasure to write. It was just fun.

SP: Were you nostalgic for that period of your life?

KOK: No, not at all. There is one bit in there, though, that’s about my sexual shortcomings, and I have never said that to anyone in my life. I still don’t talk about it to anyone, but I wrote it down. It’s in the book, and when I think about how much I’m giving away, that’s kind of hard. When I wrote it, I read it to a friend, and that was a terrible moment. He was the first person I was telling this to, but he just laughed. You know, he laughed and laughed, and that made it easier because it is funny. I think the recognition about sexuality when you are that age and the insecurity you have…. you don’t know, really. There’s no manual.

SP: You also talk about how not much happens in life. You write, “How did we manage to be so patient? Because nothing ever happened! It’s always the same, day in and day out.” You go on to say, “The waiting — that was life.” I remember feeling that way.

KOK: Yeah. There is a strange element of hope. You think something will happen and it could happen at any moment. I saw that when I wrote the first book in the series. When I am 16 and going to a party, I have to hide beer in the snow. It takes 100 pages just to get to the party. And we are rejected, so there is no party and we just go back home. That should be a crucial blow to your self-confidence, but then you get up again and try something new. And that’s just youth to go on and on, you know? There’s so much energy in life.

SP: Well, what’s astonishing is that you’ve written thousands of pages about a life where, frankly, not much happens. There are long stretches where there’s not much drama, and yet it’s often riveting. I don’t know how you do that.

KOK: This book came out of a great frustration in my life. When I started to write, I didn’t have any reader in mind, and I thought to myself, this is boring. This is of no interest to anyone. I was surprised when my editor wanted to publish it. And when the book became kind of a success, it was completely unexpected to me. But I think there is a certain feeling of real life in it, and as a result, lots of possibilities for identification.

You know, suspense could be when you go to the refrigerator and open it and wonder what’s in it, and you go there and there’s nothing.

And there is a certain narrative structure in ordinary life. You know, suspense could be when you go to the refrigerator and open it and wonder what’s in it, and you go there and there’s nothing. What shall I do? Should I go down and buy something, or should I be hungry? Something like that has suspense in it, and it’s the same structure as in any Hitchcock film, but just on a miniature scale. When I was a child and a teenager, I read a million books which had one thing in common — a very strong narrative. I mean, Wilbur Smith or Alistair MacLean or Ken Follett — all those thriller writers. The narrative is out of this world. It’s so strong. I think some of this got into my blood, so I use it on very, very small things.

SP: It does feel like real life. Was it a conscious decision not to be too “literary” as you wrote these books?

KOK: Yeah, very much so. That was the major idea in these books.

SP: How do you avoid being too literary?

My ambition is to get away from being clever.

KOK: I try to write as fast as possible. You know, when I try to write something really good, I spend a lot of time writing and rewriting drafts. I polish the sentences and make them look good. But I didn’t do that at all in this book. I did in the opening — maybe the first 15 pages. I really worked through it again and again, and I think that’s the best thing I’ve written. It is clever and beautiful. My editor suggested we take out the beginning because it’s so different from the rest, and then you just dive into something much simpler and more direct. But I disagreed with him because I needed to have something in these books that was well written. So I had the opening only so you can see that I’m doing this on purpose. I know how to write, but it’s not my ambition here to show you that I can write. My ambition is to get away from being clever. I try to connect to something else inside of me, which is much more unsophisticated, much more banal…. sometimes idiotic, you know? Because that’s a good representation of life — at least my life.

SP: So good writing can get in the way of representing real life?

KOK: Yeah, maybe that’s good writing. But I’m confused when it comes to a concept like quality. I don’t really know what it is. What I’m trying to do is get away from all the concepts we have — the concept of identity, the concept of quality, of what a novel is, of what a day looks like, you know? Just try to write through all those conceptions. I don’t succeed but that’s my aim.

SP: This sounds like stream of consciousness writing — following wherever your mind takes you.

KOK: Yeah, but in a kind of narrative frame, so it’s not completely loose. There’s always a context. It’s always in a room. It’s always with other people or doing something by yourself. It’s not like it’s all stream of consciousness. Of course, all the things in these books are related to other books I’ve been reading. People talk about the amount of details in the book, but have you read “Ulysses” by Joyce? It’s nothing but details. I’m not comparing it to Joyce, but everything comes from a place.

SP: The amount of detail you recount is astonishing. As you’ve said, you spent 100 pages describing just getting to a party, and you have long stretches of dialogue with friends and relatives. Supposedly, this is all stuff that really happened to you. How accurate are these memories?

KOK: They’re accurate in the way that I capture the way I remember them. It’s not accurate in the way they really happened because that’s impossible. I mean, if you write about something that happened four minutes ago, someone will say, “No, it didn’t happen like that.” So it’s a book about my memories and what’s in my head. It’s the memory I’m writing about, not the real events, and the dialogues are made up. I can’t remember who said what 20 years ago. That’s impossible.

SP: Did you ever check with friends or family members to see if you were getting the details right?

KOK: I never did that. That was another thing with this project. I wouldn’t do any research. It should be all about what’s in my head when I started writing. I sent the manuscript to many people before it was published, and some of them said, “No, it didn’t happen this way,” but I still kept it that way because I wanted to be true to my memory more than to the real events.

SP: Do you have a really good memory?

KOK: I thought I didn’t before I started this project, but I think I do. But it’s hidden. It’s like a place you have to get access to — for instance, through reading or writing. Everything is there; it’s just a matter of getting at it.

SP: So these memories come flooding back through the act of writing?

KOK: Yeah, it’s exactly like that. It is amazing, especially with Book Three, which deals with childhood, because it seemed like my childhood was inaccessible to me when I started. I had some memories but not enough to fill a book. But it was like something opened up when I started to focus on the physicality of being seven or eight — you know, running and climbing trees and all that stuff. There wasn’t much thinking. It was a lot of doing. When I started to write about that, everything started to come back to me, like how things smelled and images of landscapes. Some of them are exact and true, and from there you go onto something completely different. A world opened up and that was only because I was writing about it.

SP: This six-volume autobiographical series that you’ve written is called fiction, not memoir. Is that distinction important to you?

KOK: I didn’t really give it a thought when I was doing it. But it is a novel because I’m not interested in just retelling stories from my life. This is a search for identity. I use my life as raw material, and I use all the tools of a novel. There is a narrative structure. You could call it a nonfiction novel.

SP: Were these books fun to write?

KOK: No, it was like a daily torture to write because I felt all the time that this is below my aesthetic standard. I have an idea of what it is to write well, and these books are not fulfilling that ambition. That’s hard. I am also a person full of self-loathing. It’s kind of a negative narcissism. I’ve very occupied with myself but in a negative way. Everything I do is to try to get away from myself, but in this book I’m writing about myself and trying to stay in that, and that was hard. Of course, knowing that this is going to hurt a lot of people is very hard, too.

SP: Because you’re revealing so many personal details that make other people look bad.

KOK: Yes, and what gave me the right to do that? Who do I think I am using other people, taking things from other people for my own purposes? So that’s why I was reading it on the phone every day to my friend because I needed someone to support me, to say, “This is good. Keep going.” And also my editor, who said the same thing. Without those people helping me, I wouldn’t be able to do it.

SP: Do you still have that self-loathing?

If I say what I really think about these books in public, then people come to me afterwards and say, “You can’t say that! These books are so important for me.”

KOK: Yeah. But I also have these grand ideas of myself, you know? I mean, self-loving and self-hating. It’s like I’m faking something, but it’s hard to talk about. If I say what I really think about these books in public, then people come to me afterwards and say, “You can’t say that! These books are so important for me.” So I try not to talk about it. And this feeling of self-loathing, self-hatred — they are the core of the book, and I also want to find out why. I mean, I wake up in the morning and I’m not happy, you know? It takes me three, four hours every day to get into a functional mood and then it’s okay. I don’t know why it’s like that, but something must have been broken. I think to be safe in yourself is the most important thing in childhood. And as a father, that’s the one thing I try to give my children — that they can believe in themselves and be safe. I never felt like that, so there’s a basic insecurity in me.

SP: Yet these books have been extraordinarily successful. You are a celebrated writer around the world. That hasn’t made you happier?

KOK: There’s ambivalence. Yes, I’m extremely happy. I think this is a miracle. I never thought this would happen. I never thought I would do an interview in the U.S. about my books. I was happy being a Norwegian writer and being able to publish books, so this is like a dream for a writer. And all the reaction from readers who really connect to it — that’s why you write. So that’s immensely pleasing, but it doesn’t help, you know? It’s a good thing but it doesn’t do anything, if you know what I mean.

SP: So where do you go from here? Do you have a new writing project?

KOK: At the moment, I want to get out of everything about “My Struggle.” I want to get out of the psychology of it, the style of it, the tone of it. Now I’m just writing one text every day about one subject, so it’s going to be 365 texts. There’s a lot written about toilet seats, vomit, trees, the sun, cups, cars — all the things that I’m surrounded by, the materiality of the world. I’m going to publish them in Norway, like in four books. The first is out in September. It’s a world view without people, without psychology. So every morning, I pick a word. And the challenge is, is it possible to say anything meaningful about this object? And it is. Everything is meaningful if you start to do this. So it’s just something I do almost before the day starts. It’s a way of getting away from what I’ve been doing these last years.

SP: It sounds wonderful!

KOK: Then I’m going to write a nov​el.

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