Karl Ove Knausgaard: the shame of writing about myself

It was a summer’s day 18 years ago and I was sitting in a car with my brother. We were in Kristiansand, the town my father was from, and had stopped at a junction and were waiting for a gap in the traffic so we could pull out. It was hot and overcast, and as we were waiting it began to rain. My brother switched on the wipers, I remember, and then without looking at me said: “You can write about this. No one’s going to believe it anyway.”

We were in Kristiansand because my father had died. And what my brother was referring to there in the car were the circumstances of his death. Neither of us had been in touch with him during his final years and although we were aware that a lot of strange stuff had been going on – once we were informed that he had disappeared and the police were out searching for him, only for him to turn up at a hospital a few days later, unable to walk having suffered some kind of temporary paralysis, for which reason he was sent to a treatment home for alcoholics – it all took place outside our field of vision and was therefore rather abstract. Our father drank too much, we knew that, but what that actually entailed was still something we were ignorant about. We didn’t want to know either. Our uncle called my brother one time and told us we had to do something and take care of our father, but we said no, that was out of the question, he had to look after himself. So it came as no surprise to us to receive word that he was dead. The shock came when we travelled down to Kristiansand, to the house in which he had grown up, where he had lived out his final years together with his mother, our grandmother. There were bottles everywhere, on the floors, up the stairs, on all the tables and sideboards, and the fine old home we had visited so often throughout our childhoods had degenerated completely. It looked like a squat. Our grandmother had found dad in his chair, but she was in shock. Confused, she shuffled about the house as thin as a skeleton, and when we asked her about what had happened she would tell us it had been morning when she found him, only the next moment to insist it had been evening. When we visited the chapel to see our father for the last time, his nose was broken and the pores of his face seemed to be clogged with blood which the staff of the funeral parlour had been unable to remove.

But the question of what had actually gone on in the house was totally overshadowed by the feelings it aroused. I kept crying all the time. The hatred I felt towards my father, a hatred almost as old as myself, was now completely gone. I wept and wept again – for him, for me, for us.

In the midst of this emotional chaos, one thought remained unaffected, as if contained in its own compartment, lucid and distinct regardless of what I otherwise saw or felt, and that was the realisation that I had to write about all this. That it was a great story.

I was 29 years old and in my suitcase was the manuscript of my first novel, due to be published that autumn. My brother had read it, and the first thing he said was that our father would sue me. The book was fiction, but there was enough of my father in it for him to be able to recognise himself and hit the roof, so my brother thought. This was what he was alluding to with his comment in the car.

We buried our father and carried on with our lives. My novel came out as planned, but although its publication meant I had achieved everything I had ever dreamed about, I felt no joy at the fact, because what I realised when my father died was that I had written that novel for him.

During the next five years I tried to tell the story attached to the house in Kristiansand, the story of my father’s decline and death. But it wouldn’t work. I had 800 pages of beginnings, none of which led me inside the inversion of light and dark in which I had existed during those days, none came anywhere near representing what I had experienced, neither on the personal level relating to my father, my grandmother, my brother and me, nor in what issued out of it in terms of how death affects the way a person looks on life and the world. After seeing my father lying there on a stainless steel trolley in the chapel, the very fabric of the world, the physical and material aspects of all things, seemed altered, even the people surrounding me, who suddenly appeared to me as bodies, physiology, biology.

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