Karl Ove Knausgard: The Radical Triviality Of Life
The controversial Norwegian author reflects on the state of the novel, the ghost of Hitler and plans for the future.
Karl Ove Knausgard is one of the most radical contemporary writers. A Death in the Family, the first of six books in the series of novels called Min Kamp ("My Struggle"), unleashed considerable debate. While Book 3, Boyhood, has just been released in the United States, Book 4, Leben (Living), is now out in German translation.
Knausgard, a Norwegian, was born in 1968. A friendly, rugged-looking man, he is known for dramatic statements uttered in a soft voice. This father of four lives with his family in Österlen, Sweden.
DIE WELT: How in God’s name could you name a book My Struggle ("Mein Kampf" in German.)
KARL OVE KNAUSGARD: It was an intuitive decision. The working title of the cycle was "Argentina." Then I was talking about Hitler’s Mein Kampf with a friend of mine and he said: That’s your title. And yes it really is about "my struggle," but of course the daily struggle contending with banalities like raising children and so forth. But I also liked the irony of the political reference. The ideological is also present in my book — the yearning for greatness, for great art.
But the title is also a provocation.
Of course. I was very frustrated when I wrote the book, which I wrote exclusively for myself. It’s also a way of saying "F**k you!" And Hitler’s Mein Kampf is part of the fabric of my book. We found a copy of it at my grandmother’s house, hidden in the living room. I wanted to understand how things came to that, and so I read it for the first time. Another time I was leaving for a reading in Iceland and thought I’d read it again in the plane. But then I realized it’s impossible to read that book in public. In Book 6 of my series, 400 pages are devoted to Adolf Hitler's life story; it’s a mixture of biography and essay on national socialism.
Do you identify with Hitler, a failed artist?
There used to be a lot of artists with similar biographies: a vicious brutal father, a loving mother who died early. Photographs from that period always have something of a nightmare quality to them, a little like Michael Haneke’s movie The White Ribbon. And then we had the Utoya massacre in Norway. There are several parallels between Hitler and mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik. In Mein Kampf there’s always only an I and a We, never a You, and it’s the same with Breivik’s manifesto. The novel is the opposite of that. It’s where all the small things, the banalities, happen.
What does that mean for the present?
I ask myself where all those utopian energies went. The dreams of an ideal body, a perfect society. Look at advertisements. In human life, it’s all about appreciating inner values, individuality, difference. And then this kind of heavenly ideal world that doesn’t have anything to do with us is suddenly hanging over us. Those are two value systems that completely contradict one another. Hitler tried to fuse them. We can’t do that.
Are you happy with the German titles Sterben (Dying), Lieben (Loving), Spielen (Playing), and now Leben (Living) or would you have preferred Mein Kampf 1-6?
My German publisher said that wasn’t possible. And I can live with that, I don’t want provocation for provocation's sake. But I do think one should read Hitler’s Mein Kampf. It certainly won’t turn you into a Nazi. It’s such a terrible book. And of all things, it survived.
How about your readers? How do you explain your huge success in Norway?
Before the series, I’d written two books that got a positive reception. But reactions were completely different with the series. People wanted to talk to me, write to me, tell me their own stories.
A kind of catharsis ...
It had nothing to do with literary quality, not even with generational experience. Ninety-year-old women wrote to me. It’s absurd; the book is so private, and seems to me to be so shuttered. The reactions still confuse me. Some kind of identification with life per se is going on, what it’s like to have kids, what it feels like to be mad at them, or what it feels like to have an alcoholic father. The book addresses many things people keep hidden from each other.
When I read Lieben I thought it was written for me personally. Or for my girlfriend. It’s apparently taboo to describe how you can lose yourself when you have kids, or that you have to give up a normal sex life.
Precisely those kinds of confrontations, with enthusiastic readers identifying with what I’ve written, are a real problem for me. At readings I still find them embarrassing.
Why do you write in the first person? That’s a radical decision.
Yes, I’ve lost my trust in fiction. I was reading diaries. But that’s not what I wanted to write — I wanted to write a novel, a dramatic story. And to be as authentic as possible doing that. Later when I read David Shields' Reality Hunger I saw a lot of similarities. I just have a wish for reality.This time I didn’t wantto go to some outer place, I wanted to go inside. No more escapism. I wanted to relate to the world the way it is.
What models did you have for that?
A book that was very important for me was the one Carina Rydberg wrote in the 1990s, in which she took her revenge on a former lover. It created a scandal in Sweden because she used real names. Witold Gombrowicz’s diary influenced me a lot. And finally, playwright Lars Norén published his diaries. And I thought: "My God, how can he go that far." So that made it a little easier. Something like that is also very dependent on cultural context. Anyway, a possibility opened up. You can only do things entirely on your own if you’re a genius.
What does the Protestant influence on culture, such as we know it from Ingmar Bergman movies, mean to you?
Bergman is also very important to me. But that culture is on its way out, this is sort of its last stand. All I see around me is shamelessness. People do and say what they feel like. I do the same thing — but I do so full of shame. That’s extremely Protestant. Without a god, the Protestant ethic makes no sense. Almost the only thing left are the restrictions, which is good for art and bad for life. My work centers on getting rid of boundaries, overcoming shame, and becoming free.
What does that mean?
Too much self-awareness can be destructive, as we can see with over-reflective people such as David Foster Wallace. The drive for everything to be perfect, to be nice, to want to please everybody — that’s what I wanted to break. But you can only do that when you’re writing.
So total freedom exists only in literature? Because it would be asocial in real life?
Exactly. Rimbaud tried it. But you can’t channel that violent energy. Besides, I’m too much of a coward to do what I really want: to wreak havoc with my life, leave my family. The book emerged from that particular type of frustration.
So you’re giving meaningless daily reality meaning by describing it.
Life is mainly about trivial things. I wanted to see how far I could go with details before the whole thing became unreadable. What it’s like to be a man, a father. I have only very rarely read that type of description from a male point of view. You find it more with women. But I’m also interested in the material world itself, that’s becoming increasingly virtual.
What does your wife Linda Boström Knausgard think about being revealed so openly in the novel?
She felt terrible, but she’s also a writer. Before I started she said: You can write what you want, it just has to be good. Then she read the finished manuscript and she hadn’t been expecting that. She cried; it was a crisis. Then as in a Bergman movie we talked about it for two straight days. She ended up accepting it, and giving me this freedom. She never asked me not to publish it, or to take certain things out. It was very generous of her.
What kind of literature does she write? Can we expect a book that tells her side of the story?
She’s published a book of poetry and short stories, and recently a brilliant first novel. But she’s not interested in realistic details. She’s the opposite kind of writer, she makes things up.
In Germany, Book 4 will be published shortly, to be followed by the last two volumes. But those are translations: For you the project is completed. So what now?
My intention was to reach a point where there’s nothing more to tell. There’s a rule for writers — never write about your main conflict because you’ll ruin things if you do. I knew from the beginning that the last volume had to end with the sentence: "I’m so happy not to be an author any longer." Committing writer’s suicide instead of real suicide, that was the plan. So now? I’ve put together a book of essays, I’m writing a screenplay, I translate, and I founded a small publishing firm. As for novels, we’ll see.