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.
Friday 19 April 2013
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.
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