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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.

"Min Kamp" author Karl Ove Knausgard
"Min Kamp" author Karl Ove Knausgard
Richard Kämmerlings

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 want to 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.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire


According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA

Unsplash/@nemo23


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council


Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire


The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

Unsplash/@hkblind


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke


During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press


Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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