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Karl Ove Knausgaard Became a Literary Sensation by Exposing His Every Secret
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Karl Ove Knausgaard Became a Literary Sensation by Exposing His Every Secret Readers love him for it. He hates himself.

By Photo: Photographs By Felix Odell

Before he quit doing public events in his home country, the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard took the stage one night at the House of Literature in Oslo, a stately five-story building across from the Royal Palace. It was December 2009, a few months after his six-book autobiographical series, My Struggle, began publication. Across its 3,600 pages, Knausgaard recounts the banalities and humiliations of his life, the private moments of pleasure, and those dark thoughts that most people can’t bear to articulate even to themselves. The books were an immediate sensation. The line for the event curled around the corner, and Knausgaard’s appearance in the main auditorium had to be simulcast to other rooms to handle the overflow crowd. For nearly two hours, he was interviewed live by another author, Tore Renberg, a friend of his since their days doing student radio together in the early ’90s. The two talked about the books and what it took to write them.

Afterward, almost no one wanted to go home. A huge group packed into the building’s restaurant. The space is chilly and over-lit, with the feel of a museum café, but people stayed for two or five or six beers, talking about how much they identified with Knausgaard and telling intimate stories from their own pasts. Cathrine Sandnes, the 42-year-old editor of the prestigious Oslo journal Samtiden, thought to herself, “What is happening?”

By now the response in that room has become widespread. Speak to Knausgaard’s devotees and you will hear a persistent theme: that by writing about himself, Knausgaard has really written about them, that reading My Struggle is like opening someone else’s diary and finding your own secrets. In Norway, where the hardcover editions cost more than $50 each, nearly a half-million copies of the books have sold, or one for every nine adults in the country. Grown men and women, Sandnes says, have the same kind of relationship with My Struggle that they had with Nirvana when they were teenagers: “You know, when you live it and you breathe it?” The series is available or forthcoming in 22 languages and counting. Ladbrokes began tracking Knausgaard’s odds for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012when he was only 43 years old. In the United States, where the third book will appear in May, he counts Jeffrey Eugenides, Zadie Smith, and Jonathan Lethem among his many admirers. “Knausgaard pushed himself to do something that hadn’t quite been done before,” Eugenides told me. “He broke the sound barrier of the autobiographical novel.”

Sparing nothing, however, has brought consequences. Although originally categorized as fiction, the series is an unflinching self-portrait that has Knausgaard as its protagonist and his relatives and loved ones as the supporting cast. Almost all of them are identified by their real names, and the vast influence of his work has changed their lives, too. People close to him have leveled bitter and public accusations that he has trespassed on their privacy and damaged their reputations.

Karl Ove Knausgaard
Photograph By Felix Odell
Knausgaard in his writing studio in the remote Swedish village where he now lives with his family. 

Today Knausgaard and his family live on a rutted lane in a tiny village near the southern tip of Sweden, where they moved in 2011. The wind blows hard over the surrounding farmland. Flocks of geese break the morning silence. “Nobody cares about literature around here,” he told me when I visited in February. That suits him well. He is trying to protect his wife and four young children from the ongoing storm of attention.

It is too late to shield himself. For all the success of My Struggle, Knausgaard speaks of its impact with more regret than pride. Sitting in his rustic studio across the yard from his modest house, he looked down and said, “It fills me with sadness every time I talk about it.”

His best friend, the author Geir Angell Øygarden, says, “Karl Ove, he can’t cope” with the idea “that he has done something wrongor more correctly that somebody thinks he has done something wrong. He can’t. He can’t cope with it.”

 

In continuous front-page coverage, the Scandinavian papers have made My Struggle sound much more salacious than it is. Throughout the series, Knausgaard consciously risks boredom by pushing realism to its extreme. He trains his eye on the things we do and the thoughts we think on the days we don’t remember: running errands, self-Googling, passing time on a park bench with a cigarette and a cup of tea. But on occasion he departs from the mundane into great flights of contemplation“speck-ooh-lations,” as his editor, Geir Gulliksen, calls themthat offer a wider view: “In the same way that the heart does not care which life it beats for, the city does not care who fulfills its various functions. When everyone who moves around the city today is dead ... the sound of people’s comings and goings, following the same old patterns, will still ring out. The only new thing will be the faces.” Thirty pages later, he’s back on the bench still smoking the same cigarette.

The dramatic events in Knausgaard’s account rise up like rogue waves after long intervals of calmer seas, just as they do in most lives. The cumulative effect, Sandnes says, is “this very strong feeling of being there together with him.” We were speaking in the elegant Oslo offices of her magazine. “You know, melting together with him,” she added, pressing her palms together in front of her face and crossing her eyes.

That vivid intimacy is also what made My Struggle controversial. Knausgaard fell for his wife, the Swedish author Linda Boström Knausgaard, at a writers’ conference he attended while still married to a journalist named Tonje Aursland, though Linda rejected his advances at the time. In Book Two, he describes Linda’s outfit on the day he met her, how she twisted a blade of grass in her fingers, the way he drunkenly cut his own face when she turned him down. Aursland found out about all this when she read the passage along with the rest of Norway. She was enormously wounded, as she recounted in an emotionally raw radio documentary she collaborated on called “Tonje’s Version.” Knausgaard agreed to participate in the production (how could he say no?) and Aursland confronted him on air. He did not acquit himself particularly well.

For Knausgaard’s relatives, the part of the series that hurt the most was a crucial episode involving the death of his father. In Book One, after receiving the news, Knausgaard and his brother travel to the pretty house where their father had been living with their beloved grandmother, which occupies high ground near the ocean in Kristiansand, Norway, a summer destination surrounded by rocky hills. Inside they find an unspeakable scenebottles and filth everywhere, human waste on clothes and furniture. The grandmother is incontinent and clearly senile and seems to be pining for a drink. After days spent crying and cleaning, the brothers sit in the kitchen and have some vodka with her. She comes to life, indulging in her favorite old stories. The liquor and laughter flow freely. The father has died of alcoholism in the next room a few days before.

Knausgaard’s father was a respected teacher and a local politician and the family had always taken care to maintain an image of propriety. In a public statement in 2011, Knausgaard’s uncle vented his outrage at his nephew’s transgression: “Put yourself in the position of a relative, and imagine how YOU would react.” A separate letter from 14 family members to the Oslo newspaper Klassekampen called My Struggle “Judas literature.”

Gulliksen stopped talking to journalists about Knausgaard several years ago, frustrated that they were misrepresenting the series as a malicious act. “Sometimes writers write to make a kind of revenge on the world or on their family,” he told me. “He wasn’t doing that.” This is not the kind of work, Gulliksen said, where “the writer gives himself all the advantages. It’s the other way round. It’s mostly, I think, himself that is exposed.” Where Knausgaard’s critics see cruelty, his editor sees a kind of masochism. In a sense, they are both right. In My Struggle, Knausgaard leaves everyone open to judgment when he plunges into the events of his past with no gloss of self-justification.

When Knausgaard finally gets together with Linda, his wild elationhe faints during their first kissis not tempered by retrospect; we are right alongside him in the throes of bliss. And we are right there with him when the two are married and grappling with strollers in roadside exhaust and carping at each other. “I would have left her,” he writes, “because she was always moaning, she always wanted something else, never did anything to improve things, just moaned, moaned, moaned.” That is a merciless remark about Linda, but Knausgaard comes off even worse. What kind of person would publish such a thing about his wife?

Karl Ove Knausgaard


Photograph By Felix Odell

“Writing My StruggleI didn’t believe that Karl Ove would do that,” Hilde Engenes told me. “That came as a shock.” She was sitting in the high school classroom in Kristiansand where she and Knausgaard were schoolmates and became close friends, later exchanging letters she loved to read. Knausgaard moved to the town after spending his early years on a nearby island that resembles the peninsulas of coastal Maine. He and Engenes co-edited a parody newspaper and after graduation worked together at a psychiatric hospital, caring for patients and taking them on walks. She made it clear she did not think he had done something wrong, only uncharacteristic. “He used to be very afraid of hurting people,” she said.

The governing force of Knausgaard’s childhood was the need to navigate the world without inviting his father’s fury. Knausgaard spent a vast portion of his upbringing either in terror or in tears, a tendency his father cruelly mocked. Unlike his older brother, Knausgaard didn’t loathe their father quite enough to stop seeking his approval in vain. He castigated himself for his missteps. As a teenager, Knausgaard grew to a strapping six-foot-four, but to this day his “spiritual height,” in his words, is less imposing. “I have this habit to bow my head, as to look shorter,” he told me, “maybe as a result of an unconscious demand of not taking up so much space.”

Knausgaard studied at the University of Bergen, then held various jobs during his twenties, including pouring concrete on a giant oil platform, while trying to become a writer. He believed he had a gift but stewed in envy toward his published friends. “I was black inside every time I talked to them,” he says. Instead of working harder, Knausgaard lived out his romantic image of the heedless artist, imagining he was rebelling against his bourgeois roots. He would drink too much and act out, then be flooded with regret. After he slept with another woman at a party, his marriage to Aursland (who was unfaithful as well) went into a slow collapse. When they split up, Geir offered him a place to stay in Stockholm. There he reconnected with Linda. This time they both fell in love.




Photograph By Felix Odell

With Gulliksen’s encouragement, Knausgaard eventually applied himself to a novel, and at 30 he became the first debut author to win the Norwegian Critics’ Prize, with Out of the World. His 2004 follow-up, A Time for Everything, was widely translated and garnered several more awards. But no matter what he achieved, Geir recalls, it seemed “impossible to satisfy him.” Knausgaard submitted to interviews and readings to please people and walked out of them hating himself for being such a fraud. “How can you sit there receiving applause when you know that what you have done is not good enough?” he later wrote.

 

He and Linda wed and had three children in quick succession. Turmoil arrived along with them. The tedium of diapers, double strollers, and trips to Ikea exacted a toll on the marriage. The couple argued constantly. Knausgaard craved solitude and more time at his desk. “I really just wanted to go,” he says, “and I couldn’t.” He was ashamed of his selfish desire to escape, but he was panicking that his ambition to produce a lasting book would never be fulfilled. He would later write, “Time is slipping away from me, running through my fingers like sand while I ... do what? Clean floors, wash clothes, make dinner, wash up, go shopping, play with the children. ... It is a struggle, and even though it is not heroic, I am up against a superior force.”

Between child-rearing duties, Knausgaard was trying to reckon with his relationship with his father in a new novel, but it was falling flat on the page. He saw an evasiveness in his work that gnawed at him. He didn’t believe in it. Maybe he didn’t believe in fiction at all. “He was so desperate and full of pain,” Geir says.

In early 2008, Knausgaard decided to try something different. He would cast aside carefully crafted phrases and narrative arcs and just write plainly about his life. No one will be interested, he thoughtand his British publisher at the time was notbut it was something to do to break the dam. He recalls, “I wanted to just say it, you know. As it is.”

Knausgaard would call his friend Geir at least once a day and read aloud his new material, always with a preamble about how awful it was. He felt “very pushed into a corner,” Geir says, and he just needed someone he trusted to tell him, “This is good, go on.”

As he began what would become My Struggle, Knausgaard wrote in a combination of naïveté and willful denial about how the people close to him might respond. “I was kind of autistic,” he has said. “I didn’t think of the consequences.” He never imagined that all of Scandinavia would be talking about what he was typing. But as he wrote the passage about his grandmother, describing her grease-stained dress and ruined mind, he felt the risk: “ ‘Can I write this?’ I thought. There I knew.”

The daily calls with his friend helped him press on. Geir wound up listening to 5,000 pages. He is more upbeat and relaxed than Knausgaard, with a certain bravado. Without Geir, Knausgaard told me, “I couldn’t have done it.”

I said, “He seems like someone with a strong stomach

“Very.”

and not too concerned with what the world thinks.”

“No. A cynic. A cynic is the proper expression for him. I needed a cynic.”

It was Geir who came up with the title, which he described to me as being perfect. No one else I spoke to said that. While some Americans may fail to recognize that My Struggle carries the same meaning as Mein Kampf, in Norwegian it’s hard to miss: Knausgaard’s series is called Min Kamp. Book Six includes a 400-page essay on Mein Kampf and Hitler’s early years, but it has not appeased some critics. When Sandnes saw the title on an advance copy, she called Gulliksen and said, “Are you out of your mind?” Gulliksen had initially forbidden Knausgaard from using the title, but he came around. “This feeling of stupidity, this feeling of going too far,” he says, was part of the project.

 




Photograph By Felix Odell

 

Before the release of book one, Knausgaard sent the manuscript to about ten people who figured prominently in it, saying he would change their names if they wished. His older brother, Yngve, responded by sending him an e-mail with the subject “Your fucking struggle,” filling him with fear, but the message began, “Just wanted to scare you a bit.” Knausgaard’s mother also gave her OK. But relatives on his father’s side threatened legal action and tried to prevent publication, later stating, “It is a book full of insinuations, untruths, false personal characteristics and disclosures.”

Knausgaard faced a dilemma and a crisis. “I realized, of course, this is really going to explode and it’s dangerous. And I was very, very scared,” he says. Knausgaard corrected some clear errors, changed a number of names, and removed one person from the text by request. But as he went forward with publication he did not comply with all demands. Finding his senile and alcoholic grandmother living in squalorthat was going to stay.

Knausgaard had completed only two volumes of My Struggle when Book One appeared. The plan was to somehow bring out all six within a year. “It was really crazy!” Gulliksen recalls. But Knausgaard wanted to be “under the knife of the deadline,” and Gulliksen agreed it was good for him, as an author who was “nearly always living very near some kind of a writer’s block.”

What they had not anticipated was that Knausgaard would have to complete the series in the middle of a tempest. Reporters were contacting everyone they could find who had ever known him. It was not difficult to find his relatives because there is only one Knausgaard family in all of Norway. But journalists also tracked down his mother-in-law’s ex-husband, who was in his seventies and living in the woods.

Knausgaard holed himself up and tried to avoid all newspapers, television, and radio. He instructed his friends not to tell him about any of the coverage, even the ecstatic reviews. He woke up at 3:30 or 4:00 a.m. and wrote till 7:00 a.m., when he took the kids to school if it was his turn, then returned to his desk until it was time to pick them up at 4:00 p.m. In that span, he could produce 20 pages. At one point, he stayed up for 24 hours and wrote 50 pages about his early days with Linda, trying to capture the rush of feeling. He wrote the fifth volume, 550 pages long, in eight weeks. Speed was a way of keeping himself free. He needed to not think about what he was doing.

 

Books that alienate the author’s family and acquaintances belong to a long tradition. The customary refuge for the accused writer is to come up with a cover story or point to the prerogatives of art. In Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow used an embarrassing anecdote about an old friend who had asked him never to do so. Bellow replied to the man’s complaint by writing, “I should think it would touch you that I was moved to put a hand on your shoulder and wanted to remember you as I took off for the moon.” When Thomas Wolfe sparked outrage in his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, with his novel Look Homeward, Angel, an old teacher wrote to him, “You have crucified your family and devastated mine.” Nearly all characters were easily identifiable, but Wolfe hid behind the fact that, unlike Knausgaard, he had changed their names. Anyone offended, he said, was “so damned little that they smell little.”

That is not how Knausgaard responds. In his writing studio, he settled into a worn armchair across from me. The space has the feel of a grad-student hangout from the indoor-smoking erapacked bookshelves, shabby furniture, a drum set and electric guitar. Knausgaard grew up on Talking Heads, Echo and the Bunnymen, REM. Two weeks earlier, Linda had given birth to their fourth child, and he was on night duty with the newborn. He looked tired.

Knausgaard believes that to create literature of lasting value, a writer must try to carve out a freedom from the strictures of society, to stand outside the realm where consideration comes before honesty. It’s an important principle, he thinksbut it carries no weight on a human level. “I ... am ... the guilty one,” he said, drawing out the words. “And I can’t defend myself. I can defend myself in principle, but not in those individual cases.

“I would never have the ability or the power to do it now,” he said of writing My Struggle. “But I could then, because I was so, in a way, fucked up in my life. I was so desperate, and I didn’t really care. And now I care, you know?”

But admitting his guilt after the fact, Knausgaard went on, is nothing but a cowardly gesture, because “I did it!” It’s like killing someone, he said, and then saying sorry. His voice rose as he made sure I understood that when relatives wanted to stop publication, it was still possible to do so. “I made a choice,” he said, “and the choice was I publish it. No matter what.”

Knausgaard tipped some ash into a coffee cup. Gesturing with his palms to the ceiling, he spoke slowly: “The difficult thing for me is that I want basically to be a good man. That’s what I want to be. In this project, I wasn’t. It is unmoral, in a way.”

Knausgaard’s attempts to block out the controversy sparked by the first two books were not entirely successful. He feels that the third, fourth, and fifth volumes suffered for that. Aware of how his words would affect the people he was depicting, he experienced a failure of nerve, or an onset of greater kindness. Which was it? It was both.

To “save the project,” Knausgaard says, he returned to an unsparing honesty in the final book. He trashed a 400-page partial draft (“it was a kind of pantomime”) and started over. Much of Book Six, ultimately delayed for more than a year, is devoted to the consequences of publishing the earlier volumes. One of those consequences, as he saw it, was something that happened to Linda. She is manic-depressive, as she had revealed in a radio piece she made years before. During the uproar over My Struggle, she suffered a breakdown, an episode he revisits in detail.

Though Linda was deeply hurt at times by the series, she asked him for only one small change, to correct something he had misremembered. She has stood by him in her few public comments. But portraying her at her most vulnerable “was the most painful thing I’ve done in my life,” Knausgaard told me. “I gave away my family,” and now “everybody can see us.” My Struggle closes with a declaration: “I shall enjoy, really enjoy, the thought that I am no longer an author.”

 

During my visit, Knausgaard invited me to join him and his family for dinner. He was doing the cooking: beef bourguignon and potatoes. Spiritual height notwithstanding, the pale wood door frames seemed perilously low for him as he moved about the small house, built for farmworkers in the nineteenth century.

Just inside the front door was a sea of little shoes. At the dining table sat his three older children, carefully rendered as singular personalities in My Struggle: Vanja, Heidi, John. Linda held the new baby girl. She is the untouched one, but someday she will read about her parents and her siblings. Knausgaard is concerned about this for all the kids, and he is thinking of reading them passages to ease them into an experience that is likely to be difficult no matter what.

Ingmar Bergman came up in conversation, and I remarked that I recalled from Book Two that Knausgaard and Linda went to a Bergman production of Ibsen’s Ghosts on an early outing together. It’s a romantic scene, but I sensed that I had said the wrong thing, that I had reminded them their memories are public property. Soon the kids were drawing the attention back to them and smiling. Knausgaard and Linda looked at them the way parents do.

In his series, Knausgaard portrays himself as torn between the banal domesticity of his days and a grandiose, almost adolescent desire to make great art. Indifferent to food, clothes, and money, Knausgaard the character often resembles a recognizable type: the creative guy who views family as an obligation to be kept at the margins so he can get back to the studio, because the real business of living is work. But the books themselves represent a decision that the real business of living is living. The true preoccupations of his series are childhood, marriage, parenthoodthe collapsible stroller that stood in his way, the time he thought he wasted. What matters most in My Struggle does not happen at his writing desk. It happens here in the main house, where his wife and children are.

Knausgaard is young for the author of a 3,600-page account of his life. He turned 45 in December. Geir says of his friend, “He is one of the few people I know that has gotten everything he wants in life.” Yet it has not brought contentment. Geir adds, “You can see this guy with all this force, all this talent, everything, and he just suffers.” It’s not clear where a person goes, Geir remarks, when “everything is fulfilled.”

Before I left, Knausgaard told me something unexpected. “I shouldn’t talk about this,” he said, shaking his head and smiling a little. In interviews, Knausgaard has insisted that he meant what he wrote in the last line of his series: that he is through writing novels. But he told me he is working on a new one. Amid all the turmoil over My Struggle, now he can “sit down and be somewhere else, do something else,” and that carries him forward. Influenced by Borges and Calvino, the new book will have elements of the fantastical, the otherworldly. It won’t be about his life at all.

Evan Hughes is the author of Literary Brooklyn. Additional reporting by Morten Gilje.

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