Reality Hunger: The Six Books of Karl Ove Knausgaard, Part I

It was like / A new knowledge of reality.
— Wallace Stevens, “Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself”
JUST DAYS after finishing Book One of My Struggle, an unusual six-part novel, I took a train from Boston to New York to see if I could meet the author, Karl Ove Knausgaard. This was last June, after the release of Book Three. His New York Public Library appearance was sold out, but there were two other events scheduled, and the writers lined up to hold public conversations with him gave a hint of the excitement people were feeling: Zadie Smith, Nicole Krauss, Jeffrey Eugenides. In my duffel I’d packed Book Two, but already the first volume was enough to make the trip a kind of pilgrimage for me.

My Struggle — 3,600 pages in Norwegian, which Don Bartlett is translating at a rate of one book per year — sets out in astonishing and dispassionately forthright detail the struggles both large and incidental of a life: a boy, a young man, a father, navigating his days in Norway and Sweden. Knausgaard has a gift for analyzing precisely the self at the center of the narrative without in the least neglecting the pleasures of being alive. Rarely have I felt more gripped by a novel.

I arrived at Community Bookstore in Park Slope two and a half hours early, having mistaken the start time. Already there were people waiting. I left and came back. By then, with an hour to go, only a few seats were available. Two women stood up so I could climb past their chairs to an out-of-the-way bench no one had noticed. People were comparing how far they’d read, talking about the rave reviews, commenting on his good looks. In The New York Times ArtsBeat blog the next day, John Williams wrote: “About 30 minutes before the start […] people packed the entire space in a scene more reminiscent of the calm before an indie-rock storm than an author appearance. Ezra Goldstein, an owner of the store, approached a microphone. ‘Don’t get excited,’ he said. ‘This is just a sound check.’”

My imagination had constructed two not entirely unrelated images of who the writer might be: the taciturn, somewhat antisocial Karl Ove, the character from the novel (its protagonist shares Knausgaard’s name and biographical details), or, alternately, the dismissive hero suggested by the author photographs and some of the early reviews — an overnight sensation only accidentally literary, whose cigarettes, long hair, and sex appeal seemed to emphasize offhandedness. The first of these would be impossible to get to know, the second would be insufferable.

When he arrived, we applauded and caught images on our phones. He was more handsome and magnetic than in pictures, his silvery hair combed straight back, his public smile infectious. But during the ensuing conversation with Nicole Krauss, I was struck by how private the hour felt, how much Knausgaard seemed to think things through as he spoke rather than reciting paragraphs he’d delivered a hundred times before. He talked slowly, with his shoulders hunched, his hands alternately clasped and gesturing, his forehead wrinkled. He came across as modest, thoughtful — full of hurt and humor. Or maybe it was jetlag. I was as drawn to the man as I’d been to Book One.

The next night I waited for him again, at McNally Jackson Books in Greenwich Village. A line extended halfway down the block — 100 people or more — even after the lower level, where he’d be appearing with Zadie Smith, had filled. Some in the audience stood behind bookshelves, others sat on the wide steps, and still more listened from upstairs. It reminded me of accounts of Dostoevsky’s reception late in his life, when an adoring public thronged his dedication of the Pushkin Monument.

When the Q&A at Community Bookstore ended, the entire audience — maybe 200 people in a space designed for far fewer — transformed into a signing line. I hung back, watching and listening, hoping my friendship with his American publisher would give me license to meet Knausgaard at a quieter moment and join in for whatever was happening after. And that’s how it went. We sat in folding chairs on the back patio — me, the editors of Archipelago Books, the staff and owners of the bookstore, a representative from his Norwegian publishing house, and Knausgaard, drinking can after can of Dale’s Pale Ale, a few of us bumming Knausgaard’s Marlboros — and talking late into the night.

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