Front line of fatherhood: Karl Ove Knausgaard's confessional novels have become a global sensation

Knausgaard's novels are frank, intense, and comic. Max Liu meets a new man from Norway.

Karl Ove Knausgaard's life has changed dramatically since his autobiographical novels appeared in his native Norway. Between 2009 and 2011, his six-volume My Struggle series was critically acclaimed, sold nearly half-a-million copies and provoked controversy with its detailed depictions of the lives of his family and friends.

"The books are an experiment about the relationship between reality and writing," says the 44-year-old when we meet at his publisher's offices. "To reach readers is everything I wanted but I have problems coping with the knowledge that hundreds of thousands of people have read about me."

Knausgaard spends much of A Man in Love, the second instalment (translated by Don Bartlett; Harvill Secker, £18.99), looking after his young children. For a writer who burns with the desire to create great literature, this is a source of frustration and, for readers at least, comedy. "I'm glad you think so," he says. "There's a scene in this book, where my wife and I are quarrelling, which I intended to be very serious, but when I read it to her she laughed."

Surely Knausgaard now sees the funny side of Rhythm Time, a class where parents and infants chant the names of body-parts to nauseating musical accompaniment? "Not all," he says in a tone which suggests that he still feels traumatised by the experience.

His editor initially prohibited him from using My Struggle as the title, due to inevitable associations with Adolf Hitler, but Knausgaard was convinced that it captured the intensity of his personal and artistic endeavour. When I saw him discuss his work in America last year, he revealed that he delved into Mein Kampf out of curiosity, on a plane, and drew appalled glances.

Don Bartlett's excellent English translation of book one, A Death In The Family, received glowing reviews, with the influential critic James Wood praising the combination of "the lyric and prosaic, the shocking and the banal." Those qualities are present in A Man in Love but, where book one charted Knausgaard's formative years, up to the death of his alcoholic father, book two shows him moving to Sweden, meeting his second wife and starting a family.

He was in his mid-thirties, newly single, and had recently arrived in Stockholm when he started dating Linda Bostrom, the poet who had captivated him three years before. Their early encounters, where Knausgaard's tentativeness exasperates readers at the same time as making us root for him, included a trip to watch Ingmar Bergman's production of Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts.

The performance compounded Knausgaard's desire to create art which penetrates "the core of human existence", but nowadays he's wary of lofty aims. "Ambition is death to me. If I have ambition I can't write. I had modest hopes for My Struggle and that made it possible to focus on the details and texture of my life."

Knausgaard had published two novels, Out of the World (1998) and A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven (2004), when he began My Struggle. He completed all six volumes in three years, writing five pages every day and reading them over the phone the following morning to Geir, a discerning friend who is a lively presence in A Man in Love.

"I worked so quickly, it was pure intuition," Knausgaard says, but is writing an emotional process for him? "At times I wrote in tears but, after I finished one of the most harrowing scenes, I showed it to my editor and he said: 'You haven't written anything.' I have a friend who divides artworks in to those which make you cry and those which don't. I'm drawn to art which makes me cry but, when I write, I need to cultivate detachment so that my emotions can reach the page."

Knuasgaard believes that his life is defined by two elements: "My father and the fact that I had never belonged anywhere." As he raises his three children, he's determined not to repeat the mistakes made by the man who stalks the pages of A Death in The Family. Knausgaard still dreams about his father, but the birth of his first daughter, and romantic moments with Linda, are rare occasions when he stops longing for life elsewhere. "I used to regard literature as a way to escape, but in writing this book I resolved to face the world around me."

His father's family were outraged by A Death in The Family; they threatened legal action and Knausgaard no longer sees them. His desire to write honestly about his life in Sweden also involved confronting sensitive subjects, including his wife's battle with depression. "I asked Linda's permission," he says, "and when I completed the book she asked to alter only one detail." He also transformed domesticity into meaningful subject-matter. "I'd read books about intimate family life that were written by women but not by men," he says. "My generation approach parenthood differently to the way our fathers did and exploring that was an attractive idea."

It's certainly hard to imagine Knausgaard's father singing along at Rhythm Time but, as the disillusioned novelist wheeled the pram around Stockholm, he perceived a crisis of masculinity, in himself and other young dads. This fuels some entertaining invective about Sweden's liberal consensus, and Knausgaard says: "There's a lot of pretending among Scandinavian fathers who stay at home with their children. The differences between men and women are more than cultural constructs but, when I expressed this view in Sweden, I was labelled 'anti-feminist', which I certainly am not."

His attitudes are also connected to the awkwardness he felt as an adolescent. "I was called 'feminine'," he explains, "so I tried to compensate by posing in a very macho way. I was afraid of anything to do with sex or gender."

If I hadn't read his books, I wouldn't associate vulnerability with the stylish man sitting opposite me. With his long hair, leather jacket and Marlboros, he exudes something of the rock star he dreamed of becoming, and the photographer hails his striking face. He played in bands as a teenager and in his twenties, but it's a surprise when Knausgaard nominates Paul McCartney as his favourite Beatle. "He's hard to like as a celebrity," he concedes, "but as a songwriter he's unfairly overshadowed by John Lennon."

Aligning Knausgaard with the visceral, as opposed to the saccharine, might be simplistic, but he's unequivocal in his literary preferences: "Dostoevsky and Nabokov are opposites and Dostoevsky... appeals to me. His prose isn't brilliant but the way he makes details interact is extremely intense."

Knausgaard's sentences are rarely elegant so he rejects comparisons between My Struggle and Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time. However, with 2013 marking the centenary of the first volume of Proust's novel, now is an ideal time to ask Knausgaard if he imagines future generations reading him. He smiles and says: "I like the thought of my books enduring as historical records. They were dependent on what was happening around me so if I'd written them any sooner or later they would have turned out differently. Each volume of My Struggle is a sealed piece of time and things we can't see, which people one hundred years from now will see, are in there."

The prospect of his children reading My Struggle is more troubling. "It's my nightmare and one day I expect it will come true," he says, shaking his head. "I have documented their parents' inner life and that could be problematic for my daughters and my son when they become teenagers. Maybe I shouldn't have written about us but I felt I had to. I just hope there's more to us than this." He's wrestled with this question for several years but, judging by the grave expression on his face, he feels fresh anguish whenever it's discussed.

Knausgaard says literary success hasn't made him feel less like an outsider. But one reason for his books' popularity is that, by closely examining his world, he gives readers impetus to reflect on their lives. He reveals plenty about himself and his loved ones, but the people we learn most about from My Struggle are ourselves.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor