Karl Ove Knausgaard discusses the My Struggle series with Scott Esposito for Tin House.
(See also: Esposito’s article on My Struggle for SFGATE here)
From Mein Kampf to Min Kamp: A Conversation with Scott Esposito
The author and poet Paul Zweig once wrote that “it is possible to think of language as the most versatile, and maybe the original, form of deception, a sort of fortunate fail; I lie and am lied to, but the result of my lie is mental leaps, memory, knowledge. . . . I become human, and increasingly more human, because the acrobatic gift of my lie tears into a truth of another sort.” It is precisely this manner of truth that the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard aspires to in his autobiographical meganovel,My Struggle. Originally published in Norway in six volumes between 2009 and 2011, the book’s 3,600 pages created a sensation like little else in recent European literature. This was partly a result of the sextet’s undeniably provocative title—Min kamp, the same as the Norwegian editions of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, which is still banned in many parts of Europe and taboo everywhere—and partly because of Knausgaard’s staggering ambitions: to discover the contents of his own mind, to explain his world, and, ultimately, to cease to be an author.
Perhaps most of all, the books have been noted for their uncanny pursuit of the most banal parts of life. In Knausgaard’s hands this becomes an entry point into some of the most difficult questions: the place of death in our world, the complex legacy left by one’s parents, alcohol and addiction, the struggle to be moral, and what men are to make of masculinity in the modern world. Unflinchingly honest—even perhaps at times masochistic—the books are Knausgaard’s utterly compelling, authentic portrait of himself, not as seen by his mirror, but as seen in his mind’s eye.
The project’s third book was just published in English in May, following the considerable acclaim that the first two received with their English-language publication in 2012 and 2013. Now that he is well on his way to becoming as much a sensation in America as in Europe, I interviewed Knausgaard about the genesis of the project, his experiences with Hitler’s book, his radical method of composition, the media frenzy that greeted him as the books began to appear in print, the aesthetics of shitting, and why he aspired to complete his magnum opus in order to quit writing.
Scott Esposito: Let’s start with the origins of My Struggle. In Book Two you talk about how the idea for the series came to you during a very difficult period as a writer. You’d written two previous books, with a long dry spell between them, and the same thing seemed to be happening again. You were making a lot of false starts, but nothing stuck. One thing that really comes across in Book Two is the desperation you were beginning to feel. And then there was My Struggle. At what point did you start to think that this wasn’t just another false start?
Karl Ove Knausgaard: Not being able to write is indeed an important part of my writing. After my first novel, I spent five years unable to write, and when the second, A Time for Everything, finally arrived, written in a kind of whirlwind-state-of-mind, another desert-like period appeared, this time lasting four years. That’s nine years of writing every day with no result. So, what happens when you go from nonwriting to writing, what’s the difference? For me, the act of writing is all about getting rid of self-criticism, and at the same time I have an almost religious belief in literature. These two kingdoms are impossible to unite. So what I do, apparently, is try to write great literature for four or five years, until the level of frustration becomes so high that it starts to tear down the wall between me and my text, or, differently put: I start not to care. All this pain, all these problems, just to write plain, simple prose!
SE: So when My Struggle started to develop, it all came very rapidly?
KOK: When I started on My Struggle, I decided that I had to write five pages a day, no matter what. This was a kind of relief. Quantity instead of quality. (This worked as a formal constraint, like the rhymes in a sonnet, form being what sets the writer free.) But what happens in the text when you’re able to write, compared to when you fail to write? For me the answer is simple to understand but difficult to put into practice: I write for that moment when the focus shifts from the important things in the text toward the unimportant things. I have to write down all those details that stand in the way of the story before I can write about the important things. So really, all the in-between things, all the digressions, these turn out to be the novel itself. A friend of mine used to quote Lawrence Durrell: somewhere in his Alexandria Quartet he says that to make a piece of art, you need to set yourself a goal and then go there in your sleep. That sleepwalking, that’s what writing a novel is for me.
SE: So this sleepwalking was a sort of way of allowing yourself to get at what you really want to be writing about?
KOK: In the first book of My Struggle, my intention was to write about my father’s fall and his death. For four years I tried to do that, and failed. I failed because I knew the subject, knew the character, knew the story, and so I approached everything directly. Everything had to be so loaded with meaning and importance, because that was what I had felt when I experienced it. And loaded it was, but with pretension. I needed a pretext, a situation that my father could fall from, so I started to write about him and me living together in our house. I tried to capture that atmosphere of being seventeen—and then that setting and that atmosphere started to expand. I remembered a party I once went to with a friend, and I started to write about that, but before I could do that, I needed to explain a few things, and then some more, and then, all of a sudden, I realized that I had written a hundred pages about basically nothing. That “nothing” is the novel, but I didn’t know it, I didn’t plan it that way. It’s probably rather boring for a novelist to explain how his novels are, and there’s a certain glorification of the writer’s self involved in that, and a notion of his book being really important—and it’s not—so maybe I can discuss the process in another way, maybe in the light of a novel not written? Say you’re a novelist, and you are very interested in the notion of identity—national identity, sexual identity, male identity—based upon a feeling that these notions are changing, but in ways that are hard to detect, because you are yourself a part of these changes. It’s hard to write a novel about a concept (or maybe that’s what you really should do, just ignore narration and go for the thrill of pure abstraction), so you read a lot of philosophy, psychology, and history about nationalism, gender, biology, et cetera. From all of this reading, nothing sticks except one thing: you read somewhere about a plan at the beginning of the last century to dig out a crypt under the castle in Oslo, Norway, where they planned to exhibit Viking ships. Why did that image, a crypt with ships, stick? Impossible to say. But it’s an image, and an image is a starting point for a novel. It’s a goal to which you can go in your sleep. But to go from where? Then you maybe remember something you read in a newspaper a few years ago, about some scientists who in the late 1960s wired an ox so that they could send electrical impulses through his brain, and so be able to control him in a very rough way. These images are completely unconnected—Viking ships and electrified oxen—the only thing they have in common is being in the author’s mind. Could this be a novel? Maybe, but it probably needs something else. A family, maybe. A family of five moving out to the countryside, preferably in Sweden, since this novelist lives there (by coincidence also in the countryside)—maybe there’s some hostility, or suspicion, a kind of darkness in the air, it doesn’t really matter, for now this is all it takes to start to write, to move from the family toward the ox and the crypt. If you think this sounds like a really, really bad plot, I can assure you that you are right, but that doesn’t matter either, all that matters is whether these images move something inside of you and generate something else when you write about them, because it’s the offspring, the in-between thing, the arrow that misses its target, that is the real thing. To write, you have to fool yourself, believe that you are doing something else than you really are, that this is just a parenthesis. At least, that’s what I have to do.
SE: These remarks will ring true to anyone who reads My Struggle—the books are stuffed with very detailed descriptions of the quotidian, for instance, cooking dinner or walking around the streets of a city, the sorts of things any writing instructor would tell a student to leave out (at one point you even have one character ask another to “pass the salt”). I can’t help but notice that this is a great contrast to the title, which sounds epic and promises the exact opposite of the quotidian. And of course the title is also incredibly provocative, even more so in Europe than in America. So I wanted to discuss the title a bit and how it fits in with the rest of the work. To start, what were the circumstances of you first encountering Hitler’s Mein Kampf?
KOK: The first time I saw an actual copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf was in my grandparents’ house after their death, where I found it hidden in the living room. It was kind of shocking, but also puzzling. That book was more or less common in Norway during the war, but it certainly wasn’t afterward.
SE: Did you know from the start you wanted to title your book My Struggle?
KOK: The working title of my novel was at first “Argentina” (don’t ask me why). But one day I was talking about Mein Kampf with a friend, and he told me, “There’s your title.” I instantly knew he was right. My novel deals with the struggle of everyday life, so the title is correct; it really is my struggle. And it is of course related to Hitler’s struggle in an ironic way, counterpointing his grand, ideological worldview with the reality of the individual, which is full of stuttering, stumbling, blushing, misunderstandings, and wrongdoings, in other words, as incomplete as it gets. The title was of course a provocation as well, a way of saying “fuck you” to the reader. All my life I’ve tried to please other people, saying what I believed they wanted to hear, always afraid of conflict. The writer’s equivalent of this is to be clever, so what I wanted to do was to write myself free from both other people’s opinions and the literary demand of quality. The title was a constant reminder of this for me.
SE: And so then you read the book as part of the project?
KOK: Right. Having called my book My Struggle, I understood that I had to read the original. At that time, the first two novels of My Struggle had been published, and my name appeared almost every day in the Norwegian tabloids, so I didn’t dare order the book myself. Having become paranoid, I envisioned headlines like “Knausgaard Turned Nazi” or something like that, so a friend bought it for me. Being busy writing the third book, I decided to read Hitler’s Mein Kampf on a two-day trip to Iceland. I put it in my bag, but when I reached for it on the plane I realized that it was impossible to read Mein Kampf on an airplane. People would have been very uncomfortable, seeing someone on their plane reading that book. It’s the only book I can think of that is impossible to read in public. It really is forbidden, taboo. But it’s still literature, a book, letters on a page. And for someone interested in the zone between literature and reality, this book is, in the end, impossible to avoid. What I did—after reading it safely in my office—was to write about it. My intention was to write just a few pages, but I ended up with a small, three-hundred-page novel, in which the subject eventually is Hitler as a man. I think I tried to rehumanize him in a way, tried to be true to what I imagined he was. The novel is an intimate genre, the opposite of ideology, and I was tempted to include even Hitler in that fumbling intimacy.
SE: That’s interesting, that simply buying and reading Mein Kampf made you feel so paranoid. I felt a weird sense of paranoia just e-mailing you about it, since of course now it’s well known that the US government monitors our e-mail, and who knows what sorts of red flags it might trigger. After reading the book, did you feel that the level of anxiety it can arouse even today, so long after the Second World War, is justified?
KOK: No, not at all. Quite the opposite, in fact; I think everybody should read Mein Kampf. It’s hard to imagine anyone becoming a Nazi or an anti-Semite after reading that book. It got really bad reviews in Germany when it was published—Frankfurter Allgemeine had the headline “The End of Hitler,” and another newspaper said “Sein Krampf.” Hitler’s writing is self-indulgent, self-pitying, pompous, and unpleasant; he’s lousy at it and a bad thinker. The book is too full of self-righteous rage, and there is no sensibility present anywhere, maybe with the exception of the sole sentence he writes about his mother. He knows that he is a bad writer, though, and in an interesting section he writes about the differences between speaking and writing, how speech is directed toward feelings. He also discusses how the setting and time of day can make a difference, in terms of overcoming an audience’s resistance, how the speaker can most effectively drill down into their feelings and win them over. In a book you can’t do that. There’s no mass audience, just one writer and one reader. Hitler was charismatic, and he had an ear for the ways people talk. He used that in his speeches, said what people deep down wanted to hear, and when they heard it through him they heard and felt reason and truth. “They” became “we,” and that’s something that’s very hard to resist, because it’s such a good feeling, belonging to a “we.” Nothing in Hitler’s writing evokes that feeling: the arguments are naked, unprotected, and their stupidity and horror are revealed.
SE: How did your publisher feel about the title?
KOK: My editor, Geir Gulliksen, whom I have worked closely with on all my books, a man I trust blindly, said no to the title when I first suggested it. (Or rather, in his nonauthoritarian way, “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”) Then he changed his mind a few weeks later. I think he said no initially because he wanted to protect the novel from accusations of sensationalism; he didn’t think it deserved that kind of reaction. But this of course could also be a cover for a more basic moral reaction: don’t do it, it’s not good, it’s evil. I surely felt that way myself. The title is of course sensationalistic, and it’s part of the reason for all the money the books have earned me. So I used Hitler and everything he is associated with for my own purposes.
SE: Why did you choose to deal directly with Hitler’s Mein Kampf in Book Six?
KOK: One of the main reasons for writing about Hitler and the rise of Nazism in Book Six was to make up for this, I think, to justify the title, not only aesthetically but also morally. This wasn’t something I was thinking about at all at that time—I almost never let thinking interfere with writing, or at least, I try to avoid it—so if these moral issues motivated me, it all happened on a subconscious level. But then again, where else does the moral exist?
SE: Did you have particular reasons for holding it until the very end?
KOK: I didn’t plan these books; I just started to write, and then, when I had written twelve hundred pages [the first two books of My Struggle], I gave them to my editor and asked what we should do with it. Was it possible to publish it as one book (if at all), or did we have to make it into two parts? If so, could we publish them simultaneously? The main publisher, Geir Berdahl, came up with the rather radical idea to publish it in twelve parts, one each month for a year, and have people subscribe to it. I absolutely loved the idea. This is what the band The Wedding Present did, for instance, releasing one single each month for a year, and then the whole album. And the idea of a subscription, that brought Dickens’s and Dostoyevsky’s novels to mind. In the end, they decided that twelve books were too risky, economically, but that six would be possible: three published in the autumn, three in the spring. Then I had to decide how to split it; should I just divide the existing manuscript into six parts of two hundred pages each? Or should I try to make each book a novel in its own right? That’s what I did. The existing manuscript became the first two novels, so then I had to write four more that year, and at the same time edit, publish, and promote the first two. I did an extremely rough sketch—Book Three childhood, Book Four youth, Book Five the twenties, until the funeral of the father—so that those five books became a kind of circle. And then Book Six should be about the consequences of it all.
SE: What was the feeling as you began to let these books loose in the world?
KOK: I wrote about real people and real events, so, for me, this was an experiment about the relationship between literature and life—life becoming literature, which is then sent back out into life, which it influences, and then this life that has been influenced by literature is turned back into literature again. That was the plan. I had no idea of what was awaiting me, that these books would become a mass-media phenomenon in Norway, so that the story would also turn into one about a writer, sitting alone by himself, writing about his inner life, who is then all of a sudden turned into a kind of celebrity, that is, reduced to an image. Journalists contacted every person I had ever known, even friends I had when I was a kid, even my mother-in-law’s ex-husband, who is in his late seventies and lives by himself deep in the woods. It was absurd, but certainly good material for the sixth book: one of the subjects of these books is the feeling of losing the world, that the world has changed into images of the world, which is what we relate to, so for me, as a novelist, to see myself turned into an image was deeply ironic, but at the same time too good to be true.
SE: And all this media frenzy comes out in Book Six?
KOK: My plan was that Book Six would be all about consequences. I wanted the effect that you see in the second part of Don Quixote, when they read about their own adventures in the first part. For me, the main consequence of My Struggle had to do with moral questions—there was so much indignation and anger going around when the first two books were published (which resulted in me taking a much kinder, or at least more careful, attitude toward other people in Books Three, Four, and Five, which were written amid a kind of tabloid storm)—and that was the starting point of Book Six. My family, who felt both deeply hurt and incriminated, refused to let me use my father’s real name. I didn’t want to invent a substitute, so I simply called him “Father” or “Dad.” All that made me reflect upon names; I wrote about fictitious names, for instance, names in Faulkner, Joyce, and Kafka, and then, through an essay by Ingeborg Bachmann, I stumbled upon Paul Celan’s poetry, in which naming in general is deeply problematic. Then I wrote fifty pages about one of his poems, realizing that this ruined world he describes, where the language lies scattered like stones on a field, was the direct consequence of another book, also in German, namely, Mein Kampf. I started to write about that, reading each sentence carefully, as I did with Celan’s poem, and then I wrote about the writer himself, Adolf Hitler, and his world—Vienna, Flanders, Munich, the Weimar Republic. I read Victor Klemperer’s diary, in which he describes the Third Reich from the inside, how the language itself changed. All of this writing became a novel inside Book Six, which ended up in the Holocaust—the thing that Celan wrote about without naming, because it is impossible even to name it without lying about it or making it into something it wasn’t.
SE: The idea of things that can’t be named, or things that can’t be said, is a fascinating theme throughout the series. As you said before, writing these books was in part a way to overcome that internal censor, that tendency to please others. I feel like this links up with the amazing productivity that came as you wrote this book—thousands of pages written in a very short span. Do you feel that the two of them related on some level?
KOK: Yes, I do. I managed to escape almost all self-imposed restrictions during the writing, and this kind of freedom was what I was really looking for. The problem, of course, is that you maybe gain a certain energy, and a certain closeness to yourself, but it’s also easy to lose quality—for instance, Book Three rips off the form of the childhood memoir, and Book Five is a very straight student-novel. The first three pages of Book One took me eight weeks to complete. That’s the same amount of time I spent on all of Book Five, which is five hundred pages or so. So of course the quality of the language is poorer. I can’t read Book Five myself, that’s impossible, but those first three pages, I can still read and enjoy.
SE: When you talk about literature influencing life, which influences the literature, and so on, it reminds me of that great quote from Tristram Shandy, where Sterne’s saying it’s already taken him a year to write up to Book Four, and everything he’s written so far narrates only the first day of his life, and so now he has 364 more days to narrate on top of everything else. As the enormity of his task dawns on him, he despairs, “I shall never overtake myself.” I love that section for how it’s kind of ironic, philosophical, absurd, and deadly serious all at once. So, I guess, with all that in mind, I’m curious to know about your reaction to all of this material piling up as the project really began to take off.
KOK: I never had the feeling that this was out of control. Maybe that was because the six parts of the novel all are different; they are novels in their own right, with their own style, subject, and form. It was like writing six different novels in a row. The thing a novelist should fear is that nothing is coming, that the page remains blank. That a scene or a description is so hard to create that it’s like pulling something out from the brain through the nose. I’m there myself almost all of the time. In this project, unpleasant in many ways as it was, I always felt good about the fact that the words just kept coming. I wrote about everything, no matter what, in a constant flow that lasted for three years. I hated it, but it still was a kind of blessing, or relief, just being able to write and write and write . . . That was how I wrote when I started out as an eighteen-year-old wannabe novelist; I just did it, without any concerns. What I wrote then was extremely juvenile—and I think this project is too—maybe that’s the prize for the uncritical flow, being juvenile? But anyhow: it’s better to write a lot immaturely than write a little cleverly. Don’t you agree?
SE: To me, it’s a little ironic that this flow was such a blessing for you, since Book Six ends with you writing, “And I’m so happy I’m no longer an author.” In other words, the point of all this writing was to end yourself as a writer. Was this always a goal of the project? With all the momentum you’d accumulated, were you tempted to continue? Sterne and Proust (to name a couple of authors spoken of as role models for My Struggle), after all, quit only because they died . . .
KOK: But I died as well! That end is a kind of literary suicide (inspired by David Bowie’s little monologue at the end of his last Ziggy Stardust concert, I have to say). The only thing I knew before I started this project was that that sentence would end it. That the novel should end there, with me no longer an author. That was an exit, for me, a way out. It was also a motivation: I wanted (or needed) that sentence to be true. So I tried to write myself to the point where it was true. The book is about ambition, and about escape from the world. All my life I have turned away from life and faced literature instead. The escapism through literature in my youth was massive. I loved being away from everything; I loved entering all those different worlds.
SE: This escapism comes through a lot in Book Three, in which there are lists and lists of all the books you read to escape your childhood. It felt to me as though in the series you’re tracing a lot of your struggles as an adult to the terror you felt for your father, who, admittedly, did plenty of traumatizing things to you as a child. Do you feel that your desire to cease to be a writer is rooted in some way in these young experiences, which, you often note, you escaped from through literature?
KOK: To write is to escape. But it’s also to create. So it’s not like you’re running away when you’re writing; it’s kind of the opposite, a definitive confrontation with who you are and what limits you have, in the open and limitless world of fiction. Reading was good for me when I was a child because I could go to other places without leaving my room. For a long time I thought that childhood was a kind of prison, and that the adults or parents were like guards. Nowadays I think it’s the other way around. The intensity of your experiences is so strong when you’re a child, the world is so insanely alive to you, that the fact that you’re quite helplessly in your parents’ hands is of lesser importance. As an adult, you can do what you want, but mostly you do it without that intensity; you look at the world with a distance, you can’t enter it, it’s out of reach, except when you are in love, of course. Or when you are disappearing into some kind of entertainment, which is, we have to admit, childish.
SE: And so literature was a way to escape from the intensity of that childhood world?
KOK: I borrowed tons of books every week from the local library. And I read everything. Books for boys, books for girls, books for grown-ups. I remember that I read a two-volume biography of Tolstoy at the age of twelve, not because I was advanced or sophisticated—I read it like I read The Count of Monte Cristo or The Three Musketeers or Tarzan, or the book of books back then, Ursula K. Le Guin’sEarthsea series. It really didn’t matter what these books were about, or what I could learn from them; it was all a matter of being in a world other than my own. It was the same when I started to write novels myself: I first became a novelist at that exact moment when writing was like reading—disappearing completely into something else, where no thoughts exist. Not dealing with the world is okay when you are young, and when you are a single writer. But it’s not okay when you have children. And that’s one of the starting points for this book. Who is this person who gets tears in his eyes when he looks at a painting, but not when looking at his children? Or who prefers reading Dostoyevsky to feeding his daughter? Why do I need to escape in the first place? It’s a kind of dysfunction, and I knew that I had to deal with it, to face the world. The solution? To write about it. To turn away from the world. But in the end, I realized I should turn away from literature and face the world. I wanted to use up everything I had. I remember being told as a young writer that you should never go to the source itself, you should use only what that source could create—but I wanted to empty it totally, to leave the table empty. I even gave away some of my ideas for future novels, just to kill them off. And there really is nothing left; I’m really no longer an author.
SE: I’m curious, as someone who’s interviewing you, how do you feel about the whole idea of an interview? I’m asking in part because there are two really interesting interviews that occur in Books One and Two. In the first, you are the interviewer: you’re a young man and you and your brother, Yngve, are interviewing Kjartan Fløgstad, a hugely respected, successful Norwegian author. To make a long story short, you and Yngve don’t have an audio recorder, nor do you take notes. When the interview is over, the two of you try to reconstruct it after the fact, but you make all sorts of fabrications, and Fløgstad flatly prohibits you from ever publishing it. It’s a devastating, shameful moment. Then in Book Two, it’s you who is being interviewed, as an author. And you say that this is something you hate because you always come out all wrong. So why do you still give interviews?
KOK: Another part of the no-longer-author-thing was that I never again should give any interviews. That I should be free also in that sense. I have said a lot of times in interviews, “This is my last interview.” But it isn’t. They keep coming. Why? I never give interviews in Scandinavia anymore, mostly because I’m embarrassed over how much has been written about me in the media these last years, and I do not want to force myself on anyone. So all requests I turn down. But then, when I’m doing a reading or a speech on this or that occasion, there will be journalists present, and face-to-face it’s impossible for me to say no. I can write no, and I can have other people say no for me, but I can’t say no to anyone myself, not without feeling terrible afterward. In this case, with you, it’s different. The publishing houses in the UK and the US have invested time and money and a lot of other things in my books, and I’m grateful for that, and want to give all I can back to them. Interviews are really the only thing I can do to help.
SE: It’s a little unbelievable to me that in this day and age a literary author can reach that realm of celebrity, to the extent that he’s afraid of forcing himself on people. It doesn’t happen very often.
KOK: The first thing I understood when this book took off in Norway was that suddenly there were two Karl Oves, one that was me, and one that was a kind of cartoon that was only slightly related to me (the beard and the long hair). But the good thing with a lot of publicity is that everything bad or stupid kind of drowns. Today, for instance, there was a strange story in some of the Swedish and Norwegian newspapers. Just last Friday, a man, apparently drunk, tried to burn Book Four of Min kamp, a pocket edition, in a bookstore in Malmö. The police came and took him away, and his motive was that I was the worst writer of all time. I mean, in the history of mankind. What do you make out of that, when you sit at your home, eating breakfast, receiving this link? It’s a sad and beautiful world!
SE: What about your hair. It’s a bit of a trademark, is it not?
KOK: I started to wear it long and with a beard more or less at the same time I started to write My Struggle. For me, it felt like it became a part of the cartoon-thing in the media, easily identifiable, a kind of trademark, all things I dislike strongly, so when I finished the novel and published the last part, I cut it off. But it didn’t help. All of a sudden I looked just like an ordinary idiot, and not like an idiot with the credibility of an author. I felt naked, and I realized that there was a certain safety in looking that way, it kind of protected me, like a mask. And my kids screamed with laughter when they saw me without the hair and the beard; they said that I looked like a hairless dog and demanded that I grow them back. Which I did. So I’m going to look like a heavy-metal musician in decline for the rest of my life.
SE: Whenever I read reviews of these books, nobody really knows how to categorize them. It’s clearly autobiography of sorts, but then you do things like re-create a lot of very long conversations from memory, so obviously there’s some invention. There’s a quote from Book Three that speaks to this: “Memory is not a reliable quantity in life. And it isn’t for the simple reason that memory doesn’t prioritize the truth. It is never the demand for truth that determines whether memory recalls an action accurately or not. It is self-interest that does. Memory is pragmatic, it is sly and artful, but not in any hostile or malicious way; on the contrary, it does everything it can to keep its host satisfied. Something pushes a memory into the great void of oblivion, something distorts it beyond recognition, something misunderstands it totally, something, and this something is as good as nothing, recalls it with sharpness, clarity, and accuracy. That which is remembered accurately is never given to you to determine.” Did you feel as though you were at the mercy of your memory as you wrote?
KOK: The only thing I wanted to be truthful to when I wrote this was my memory. I’m not interested in the past, but rather the past of the mind, not interested in relations, but relations in the head, in other words, the world distorted by the self—which in the end is the world. So I never did any research, never interviewed anyone, and never corrected obvious mistakes when made aware of them. The interesting thing is how related memory and fiction are in the process of writing, and how difficult it is to tell the difference between them in the end. It’s like we’re all writing our lives, creating an identity, even if for the most part this is an unconscious process. It’s not that different from creating a literary self. This is both the enigma in the novel and its main subject: the self. I’m not interested in representing my life as in a memoir—what I wanted to do was to explore the self.
SE: There’s an awful lot about shitting in Book Three. You describe in great detail many occasions when you and a close friend of yours shit out in the middle of nature and the immense pleasure it gave you. Or rather, it was kind of this pleasure/pain thing—probably one of my favorite quotes from Book Three is “I could spend the whole day dreading one of those big shits.” Why so much about shitting?
KOK: I could say something along the lines of shitting is of major importance in childhood, it has to do with self-control and identity, abjection, and socialization. And it probably does. But that was not the reason for writing about it. I once saw a stand-up comedy show on TV, I think it was Eddie Murphy, and he was going on about his very first stand-up routine, when he was young and so inexperienced, not knowing anything, basically, that he had no idea what to talk about. Then he realized that he in fact knew a lot about one thing: shitting. He was very experienced when it came to that, he could go into all the details. I laughed my head off. Why did I laugh? I remembered how it was, being a kid, thinking and feeling all these things, all by myself, with no perspective whatsoever. The fear when you have used too much toilet paper and the pipes momentarily seem to be clogged, or the detailed observations of the different colors, sizes, and smells, some of them filled you with another kind of fear, I mean over serious illness or death. The point is that you experience this alone, and you do not have a language for it. When I started to write about childhood, I was looking for exactly these areas, places where the strange logic of a child appears, and the intensity of the thoughts, where something of absolutely no consequence or value might occupy your mind for days or weeks. Shitting has all that, and it is also centered on the body, which also was important to me; childhood is so different because of the way we use the body in the world as children. Running all the time, falling, bumping into things, getting small wounds, screaming, singing, swimming, jumping from small mountains and down into snow or water, skiing, skating, biking, climbing . . . The way into childhood goes through your body.
SE: Did you have trouble developing the language to talk about your own shit?
KOK: I actually wrote a long essay on this recently called “The Brown Tail.” It appeared in a collection of essays published this autumn in Norwegian. I think the attraction of writing about it has to do with it being a phenomenon so common, but still extremely private, the most private of all (it’s unthinkable to sit and shit in public, or in pairs, but why?), and because of that it’s something that’s almost without a language. If you compare this, for instance, with rotten grapes, you will see that we have the most sophisticated and detailed language for those tastes and smells, but no such thing when it comes to shit. Imagine a guest returning to the table at a dinner party: Oh, you should have seen it! It was so dark brown! Darker than dark chocolate! Almost black like the night. But at the end—and it was perfectly tube-formed, by the way—at the end, it was light brown. And the other guests say, Yeah, I had a similar one once. But nowadays, it’s so soft, almost like cream. And brown in a yellow way, if you know what I mean? And so on. That’s rather unthinkable. Remember the controversial passage in Joyce’s Ulysses, at the beginning of the Bloom part? It was unheard of, and still is, in a way. You could say it’s hidden or not talked or written about for a reason. It’s trivial, it’s banal, it’s shitting, for god’s sake! Keep us out of it! The interesting part now is of course not the thing itself, but what it can tell about us. We are animals, and we are not.
SE: That is an utterly delightful meditation on shit, and it reminds me in a way of one of David Foster Wallace’s last stories, “The Suffering Channel,” which involves, among other things, a man who makes art by shitting. I feel like that story is evoking some of the same things: Why does shit bother us? What if it could be art? Why does it bother us to observe it and be observed? But to sort of change gears, one of the things about Book Three is that it combines these whimsical things like extended descriptions of you shitting with these incredibly bleak sections in which you detail how your father terrorized you. At one point you even say that it was so bad that you believe you might have killed yourself as a child. You go on to say, “I am alive, I have my own children and with them I have tried to achieve only one aim: that they shouldn’t be afraid of their father.” Do you feel that you’ve achieved this goal?
KOK: Oh. This makes me embarrassed. Did I really write that? About suicide, I mean? I know that I have said it from time to time, regarding different periods of my life, and if you put them together, the conclusion is simple: I’m a self-pitying bastard. Why do I keep saying that I could have killed myself on this or that occasion? Is my life really so miserable?
SE: I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s such an uncommon sentiment. There’s that section in Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse where he talks about how lovers tend to threaten to kill themselves, almost like a tactic that gets used in arguments . . . I think it’s a thing people tend to say, for better or worse.
KOK: There are two ways to consider this. From the outside, someone who keeps saying he could have killed himself, but never does, seeks attention at any cost, not unlike a child who keeps behaving badly, addicted to the negative attention it gives him or her. But from the inside that perspective simply isn’t relevant, it can’t be, no one wants to admit that they’re willing to nurture their misery and brag about it because it makes them feel good. I tried to write about different periods of my life with as little distance as possible, to make it present, to create the feeling of being there. (A lot of those novels that I admire the most have that quality, for instance, Hunger by Knut Hamsun.) What I’m interested in are the feelings. Not the thoughts or the reflections; they are wildly overrated. But the complexity of feelings. Everything we see, everything we think, everything we hear, all our experiences, are filtered through our feelings. Things like “I was really miserable as a teenager” are just too general—they’re untrue—so what I tried to do was to get into the situations, into their concreteness and idiosyncrasy, and try to evoke the feelings from them, that slow storm that blows through our lives.
SE: And all this comes out in those really tense scenes with your father . . .
KOK: The relationship to my father was essential in my childhood, and when I tried to dive into it, I understood something that I didn’t know at the time, namely, that there was a certain dynamic between us: he wasn’t that static, statue-like figure I imagined him to be. To the contrary, all the time he was responding to me, and I to him. It’s a kind of dance, the movements between father and son, adult and child. I know that now, having my own children. I do treat them each differently (but equally!), I do think differently about them, because they are so different, and they evoke different things in me. Knowing that, I see my father’s behavior with new eyes. He was a tyrant, but so were a lot of other fathers at that time. Maybe I would have experienced the same terror in any household? A friend of mine, Geir Angell, used to quote Sven Stolpe (a Swedish translator) when we discussed these things; Stolpe was talking about Ingmar Bergman, whose family was perfectly normal. Bergman’s father was a good man, his mother a good woman, but if you read what Bergman wrote about them, they are child-demolishing monsters. Maybe Bergman would have been Bergman no matter how good of parents he had?
SE: Did you begin to discover another side to your father because of the project?
KOK: After the publication of My Struggle I got a letter from one of my father’s colleagues, they worked as teachers in the same school. He said that my father was a good man, and a good friend. Trustworthy. Caring. A brilliant teacher. “I wanted you to know this,” he wrote, rather laconically. Later I met another colleague of his, and he said the same thing. He couldn’t praise him enough. In my books, he’s like the devil—and he was for me, I was so afraid of him, his unpredictability and fits of rage. But a more robust child probably wouldn’t have been damaged by it. I was, and when I wrote Book Three, I remembered in what ways. One of the things that got me writing about him in the first place was an experience I had as a father: all of a sudden I found myself screaming at my daughter, full of rage, and she was only one and a half, two years old. How was that possible? What was going on? Who on earth was I? So, to answer your question, yes, that has been part of the struggle, and no, my children are not afraid of me, not a bit.
SE: Maybe just one more question: One of the things that came home to me in Book Three is precisely how devastating you are on yourself in your honesty. There’s a lot in there that’s frankly embarrassing, borderline criminal, or that just puts you in a very bad light. If I do say, you’re very hard on yourself. Is there an aspect of masochism to this project?
KOK: I have been accused of that—there was actually a book published by an academic, called “The Knausgaard Code” (yes, it’s ridiculous, I know). I haven’t read it, but as far as I know, the masochist thing is part of the (deadly) criticism against my books. (I wrote two novels before My Struggle, and the one thing they have in common is overreflective, self-punishing main characters.) But for me, it has nothing to do with masochism. It has to do with the thrill of the forbidden, crossing that line between what you are and are not supposed to do. But I would say that it also has a comic element to it. Writing involves irony, no matter what kind of writing—and by irony I mean basically the differences between the author, the writer, and the protagonist. In this case, the difference is huge in Book Three, when the protagonist is seven or eight, lesser in Book Two, but still present and providing a certain dynamic. Something’s comic when it’s seen differently from the outside and inside at the same time. And I do find this “I” in these books comic—it wasn’t funny when it happened in real life, but the text gives everything a certain perspective, and that irony, that gap, that double self, it isn’t masochistic but deeply and fundamentally literary.
3 thoughts on “Karl Ove Knausgaard interview with Scott Esposito”
In Book Two when sitting in a restaurant Geir is psychoanalyzing Karl Ove. It didn’t ring true to me. It seemed to be Karl Ove himself or his alter ego speaking. If Geir is a friend of his, I wonder what he thinks about this. I wish I could ask Knausgaard himself about it. I’m sure he couldn’t say all this about himself, he would have to invent the conversation.
I am unsure as to whether this letter will reach the author, but I have to express how deeply a paragraph in Book2 resonated with me. This is toward the end of the book where Mr. K tells readers about a conversation he had with his mother, who had a heart attack and tells him how “absolutely remarkable” her childhood had been. This made the author think about her words for days, with the realization that if he had seconds or minutes to live, he would think the opposite of his mother under the same circumstances, i.e., about to crash on a plane or in a car. He would think dying wasn’t “so bad.” That it didn’t matter one way or another, that he might as well “die as live.” Then, the final sentence that indifference is one of the 7 deadly sins because it the only one that sins against life.
This is the first time I’ve read or heard of someone writing the very thing I have thought for all my life. When I express such a feeling to a therapist or friend, they become alarmed, think I’m making suicidal threats, or at least am a very depressed woman. My question is: does Mr. K think he is depressed and therefore holds this viewpoint? I think about this paragraph a lot, but rarely share it with others because of what I stated above. Bring on the antidepressants, is what they all say. Thanks for allowing me to tell you my thoughts.