‘The Novel Is Like a Room’—an Interview with Karl Ove Knausgaard
Sitting down to interview Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian author of the six-volume autobiographical novel My Struggle, I was confronted with the problem of repetition. Knausgaard wrote the books, he says,in an effort to empty himself of the details of his everyday life, of his obsession with his own childhood, of the boredom that confronted him while he tried to create important works of literature. Now these details exist as more than 3,500 pages of prose. Considering the extreme thoroughness of this purging, it seems redundant to make Knausgaard say anything.
Nonetheless, Knausgaard has already been asked to say a lot; he’s been interviewed extensively. And there are certain answers he likes to give in every interview. He says he is reluctant to participate in the discussion of his books. Despite the acclaim the first three volumes My Struggle has won internationally, he doesn’t view it as a major work of literature. He explains feeling tormented by the exposure the books have brought to his life. He avoids the Internet.
My Struggle originated in Knausgaard’s failed attempts at writing a novel about his father, which grew instead into this a painstaking act of self-documentation. His father’s death remains the pivotal event around which he structures the six books, but just as vital are mundane accounts of his quotidian existence that become something else entirely when they’re written down. For instance, there’s an episode in which a young Karl Ove is afraid to tell his father that the milk has soured, and so eats his cornflakes with bad milk. When his father uncharacteristically decides to eat some cornflakes too, he spits out the bad milk and stares at his son in disbelief. There is a nearly unfathomable gulf between father and son that contains something Knausgaard can’t exactly explain, but he can make what is unspoken both visceral and palpably familiar..
Knausgaard doesn’t worry about contradictions. The contradictions are simply there. Contradictions are facts, like the expiration of milk. It was as if eating his cereal with the milk that was bad was supposed to change something, but it didn’t. His father still loomed as a terrifying presence in his life. And then his father died. And then he tried to write about it.
Our conversation took place in Hazlitt’s windowless sound studio with cream-coloured walls. Two large microphones faced each other across a black, oval-shaped table. The decor was sparse, but warmed somewhat by the illumination of a floor lamp. The carpeting was grey. There was a grid of eight black padded squares on one of the walls, to soften the studio’s ambient sound.
Ultimately there remains an equation to be worked out: the relative value of being boring about being interesting, of being interesting about being boring.
Do you think of the six volumes of My Struggle as one book? I’ve seen you refer to it as “the novel.”
Karl Ove Knausgaard: For me it is definitely one book, and is written like one long movement from the first to the last sentence.
When I wrote the first 100 pages I thought it was just one novel, and then we made a plan that we should publish it as six. Novels three, four, five, six are structured like independent novels in a way.
There’s been a lot made of the overall effect the books have had on your life. Does it occur to you when everyone talks about how much they know about you, or about how much of you has been exposed, that of course it’s never everything? That there’s still so much more you could have divulged?
Yeah. It’s like my friend—he knows me really well and he knows everything in my life very well, and he says everything that’s happened is much, much worse and much, much better. And it’s like, the book is really about what’s in the middle, that’s the only thing you can really write about.
We only have the first three books translated into English so far, but the third one departs from the two previous in that it resets everything—it tells your story from early childhood. It stands alone as a more discrete novel.
That’s right. The whole series starts with the death of the father and then in book five it catches up with that story and continues it, so you are in the funeral and in the days after. And then book six is contemporary—it is set two or three days before book one is published. The first five books form a circle, and then six is outside of that circle and it’s kind of commenting on what’s going on.