Karl Ove Knausgaard: ‘I’m not f**king around. This is hardcore’
Bestselling Norwegian novelist insists he is not a good writer. He has been corrupted by pleasing people, he says
Karl Ove Knausgaard: ‘All the great writers were meant to be sparse and minimal, like Beckett. That... completely f**ked my writing up. It didn’t suit me.’ Photograph: Simone Padovani/ Awakening/ Getty Images
I am sitting opposite Karl Ove Knausgaard, the best-selling Norwegian novelist, and he has just told me that toast – as in, lightly grilled breakfast bread – reminds him of Jesus. Then he’s talking about a brain surgery he once witnessed (an experience he describes as “absolutely fantastic”) and then we’re back on toast.
If you’ve read Knausgaard’s books, this conversation won’t come as a surprise. His most famous work, My Struggle, is a six-volume autobiography that is very intentionally named after Hitler’s book. There are no chapters, and very little plot. Each volume details the story of Knausgaard’s life, complete with the agonies of adolescence, the agonies of love, the agonies of parenting. There’s a lot of agony.
Yet his books are endlessly intriguing, and are nowhere near as melancholic as their reputation (and their titles) imply. They can be quite good fun: the writing gliding between the deeply philosophical and the absurdly comic. Think the Adrian Mole diaries, if Adrian Mole were as talented as he thinks he is.
With his new book series, The Four Seasons Quartet, Knausgaard has left his struggles behind him. Autumn is the first of these: a book of short essays, each about a page and a half long, and together form an encyclopaedia of the physical world. Entries include “chewing gum”, “thermos flask”, “wasps”, “labia” and “teeth”.
It’s a concept you’re either on board with or you’re not, and it’s interesting to see a writer such as Knausgaard – who famously abandons structure in his writing – to participate in something as formulaic as titled essays. The work itself varies between being excessively frustrating to the darkly funny, to the deeply cerebral. It’s remarkably tender, too: this entire project is to give his infant daughter, Anna, a guide to the world as her father sees it.
It is, in essence, the world’s most literary toilet book.
With that in mind, I decided to take a number of subjects – people, places and things – written down on pieces of paper, and allow Knausgaard to meditate on each for a few minutes. It’s almost exactly the same experience as reading Autumn: he will briefly outline the thing, then deviate so much that you almost think he’s forgotten the subject, and then circles back again.
Knausgaard’s English is perfect, but there’s still a long pause between every slip of paper he unfolds and his response. He is someone who hates to be misunderstood and tries, when he can, to say exactly what he means.
“There is a toast I once saw, a famous photo, that had a picture of Jesus on it,” he says, finally. “I have always liked that. Images and faces of things appearing in the clouds or in the sea.”
The first instalment of My Struggle features just this – a face appearing in the sea, that only the narrator can see.
“I’m very interested in the physical world. That’s the fascination with this book, in contrast to the abstract world, which is where we live. An image of Jesus on a toast is where those two worlds cross over. And the brain is very physical, it’s just a lump, it’s just matter. You have religions, you have art…
What Knausgaard really loves about Herman Melville’s book is that – like his own work – it 'throws it all in'
“I was once in a brain surgery. I watched one. I saw it opened, I saw them digging in it. It was absolutely fantastic. The patient was also awake, so I could talk to the patient while they were having their brain operated on. That was impossible to grasp. I saw it. I almost touched it.
“So I guess I would write about that, and then the feeling of butter as it melts, and then jam. And then I would go back to the 1970s. It didn’t exist in Norway until then. Toasted bread was a very British thing.”
“Oh,” he says, and a rare smile grows slowly on Knausgaard’s face. “That’s a good one.”
“It’s one of my favourite books, actually. When I was a child I really wanted to read about sail ships, and strangely there aren’t a lot of books about that.”
But what Knausgaard really loves about Herman Melville’s book is that – like his own work – it “throws it all in”. Melville was perfectly happy including long chapters on rope in his masterpiece, whereas Knausgaard will spend five pages describing every person in his primary school classroom.
“It’s formless,” he says. “It’s the opposite of minimalism, it’s maximalism, and I love that. I was taught in a very minimalist aesthetic. You [were supposed to] look at the text, take away everything that’s bad, and what you’re left with is the core, which is supposed to be good.
“All the great writers were meant to be sparse and minimal, like Beckett. That... that completely f**ked my writing up. It didn’t suit me, but I didn’t know that. I tried to be that.
“But when my first book came out, it was because I realised that I had to do the opposite. I had to leave it all in. Throw in everything. Expand. All the rules were abandoned somehow. The rule is that you shouldn’t psychologically explain your character, you should just show what they’re like. But then I thought: what happens if I do?”
When Knausgaard pulls his third piece of paper, he laughs.
“I’ve never met him, but I love him,” he says of the German filmmaker. “I love his documentaries. And his films. I mean, he’s obviously crazy. He’s wild. Untamed. Did you see Heart of Glass? The whole cast are actually hypnotised. It’s fantastic.”
(When Knausgaard likes something, it is either “good” or it is “fantastic”. For someone whose conversational style is so downbeat, it’s a delight to hear him say it: stressing every syllable, hissing slightly on the ‘s’. Herzog is fanTASssTic. Brain surgery is fanTASssTic.)
“I’m not that good. I’m corrupted. I’ve been corrupted by pleasing people, by compromising. Not consciously, but I could have been… I’m much more mainstream. I can’t pretend I’m Werner Herzog. I can’t do it.”
I had this idea of myself as a very narrow, serious, modernist, non-sellout person. And then my first book came out, and it sold
Knausgaard is openly bemused by his own success. While fairly well known in Ireland and the UK, he’s a household name in Norway, to the extent that young Norwegian writers are actively distancing themselves from him because “they don’t want to be associated with the mainstream”.
“I was so shocked when my books came out, because I was the editor of a literary magazine. I was interviewing other writers, I was doing criticism. I had this idea of myself as a very narrow, serious, modernist, non-sellout person. And then my first book came out, and it sold. It was popular. I had an identity crisis then. What is this? Am I a commercial mainstream writer? How come? How come I sold 100,000 copies?
“I was expecting a thousand copies. That was the image I had of myself. Then I had five years of writer’s block. Then, when my second book came, I started it with a essay, which is basically commercial suicide. A long essay about angels. I wanted to warn the reader: I am not f**king around! This is hardcore!”
“The first association is Elvis. I was so shocked when I read that he was 42 when he died. That’s so young! I thought he was old. How can I be older than Elvis when he died? He was the only American that everyone knew in our culture. My father loved him, and it’s what we grew up with. He was this godlike creature.
“The day he died, I was nine. I remember taking the bus to school and someone said ‘Elvis is dead’. And everyone kept saying it: ‘Elvis is dead, Elvis is dead, Elvis is dead’. We didn’t cry, because we were too young, but it made such an impression. I can’t think of anyone with that kind of influence now.”
“I love them. My favourite album of theirs is Remain in Light, which came out in 1980 and was produced by Brian Eno. It’s very much about rhythm. It’s one of the best pop rock albums ever.
I heard a good cover the other day by Iron & Wine of This Must Be The Place. It’s a great song, on a really good album.”
“My girls are 13 and 12, they have complete command over the music in the car. Every morning I drive them to school, and back again. They listen to music on the hit list, and if it’s three weeks old, it’s old. I don’t know the names and they don’t either.
“It’s an integral part of my childhood. My brother was a Queen fan. He was a member of the Queen fan club! I also liked them, because I was fed them by him. They were a great band. Bohemian Rhapsody is of course a cliché, but it’s still so great. The vocals are fantastic. It’s a successful pop song, but it’s not a pop song at all.
“I saw the Village People, around the same time as Queen, and I had no idea what it was to be gay, so I had no idea what the context was. I didn’t know Freddie was gay until much later.”
“I loved The Smiths. It ended there.”
Autumn is available from Vintage Books