Text by Emma Pressley
Karl Ove Knausgård is the man Norway knows everything about. The writer’s 3,500-page confessional Min Kamp (My Struggle), spread over six books released between 2009 and 2011, sold almost half a million copies in Norway and became such a national obsession that when Knausgård got his hair cut it made front-page news. Some Norwegian companies saw fit to institute “Knausgård-free days”, when the subject of the author was banned from conversation.
At the centre of it all was an intriguing, shaggy-haired anti-hero, as compelling and conflicted as the very best literary creations. To many in Norway, he was the provocateur who named his book after Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and ruthlessly exposed the private secrets of friends, family and, in a sense, Norwegian society. His family on his father’s side threatened a lawsuit and disowned him after the first book’s unflinching depiction of his remote father, who abandoned Karl as a teenager and sunk into alcoholism. The second volume, A Man in Love, has recently been released in English and details Knausgård leaving ex-wife Tonje Aursland for the Swedish poet Linda Boström. It enraged not just Aursland but the likes of Swedish radical feminist Maria Sveland, who compared him to Anders Behring Breivik for his supposedly sexist depiction of women.
What’s easy to forget is that the searingly honest books – with their echoes of Proust and long, sometimes banal descriptions of daily life, from shopping trips to children’s parties – have been a sensation in purely literary terms, with the critics almost universally impressed. “Even when I was bored, I was interested,” wrote James Wood in the New Yorker. After the release of A Man in Love, author Rachel Cusk wrote in the Guardian (UK), “this deserves to be called perhaps the most significant literary enterprise of our times.”
So I’m intrigued but mostly terrified when I turn up outside an East London pub to find the craggily handsome Knausgård smoking a cigarette and clutching a carrier bag full of books, his trademark leonine grey hair tumbling over expensive-looking aviators. He gives a cursory nod and a “hi”. My early attempts at small-talk seem hopelessly inadequate, and when he’s photographed before our interview, Knausgård looks like he’d rather be anywhere else.
Yet, after we sit down and start talking, a different man emerges. In private, Knausgård says, perhaps surprisingly, “I always want to be liked; I want to say the right thing.” He laughs regularly, acknowledges his own contradictions and is self-deprecating enough that I muster the courage to tease him about the photoshoot. “I am both very shy and want to be seen at the same time,” he explains, stroking his beard, a regular tic. “There is still a part of me that is 10 years old and dreaming about all the attention.”
He insists, however, that attention wasn’t the motivation behind the Min Kamp books. Before he decided to write them, Oslo-born Knausgård was a comfortably-off, middle-aged author living in Sweden with his wife and three young children. His 1998 novel, Ute av verden (Out of the World), had been the first ever debut to win the prestigious Norwegian Critics Prize for Literature, and his second, 2004’s En tid for alt (A Time for Everything), retold parts of the Bible, won a clutch of awards and was described by the New York Review of Books as a “strange, uneven and marvellous book”.
But, as he tells it: “I was extremely frustrated. I felt like I was living another man’s life.” At the core of the frustration was his unsettled relationship with his father, whom he’d tried and failed to use as inspiration for his fiction. Writer’s block is one of the themes that runs through the books – but Knausgård’s breakthrough came when he decided not to change names and to just write what happened, from detailing his grandmother’s incontinence to cleaning up the mess of his deceased father’s ruined house.
“It wasn’t a conscious thing,” he says. “I just started to make confessions about things I’d never told anyone. On the one hand, it seemed shameful to be writing about myself – yet when I wrote the details down there was so much energy in them; there was some hypnotic quality there.”
He insists that there was no sense at that stage of how Min Kamp would be received. “Maybe I was completely naive, but I thought I was doing good. I knew that some people would be a little upset with aspects of the book, but as a writer you can’t be restrained by the thought of what other people will think.” However, when he took the decision to publish his confessions, as he says, “all hell broke loose – it’s the worst thing I’ve ever experienced. I was portrayed as a ruthless character who didn’t think of consequences at all. That’s very far from me as a private person.”
Does he now regret publishing the book, a decision he later admitted to be a “Faustian bargain” in a radio interview? “Well, for me it was worth it. I wrote the book with good intentions and a pure heart,” he says, though he does also admit that an element of it all was to say, “Fuck you, I’m doing this for my own sake and not trying to please anyone.”
The reaction’s the bit that bothers him. “I wish this could have been done without hurting anyone,” he says. “They [his father’s side of the family] say they never want to see or talk to me again. I accept that. I have offended them, humilated them just by writing about this and I understand the reaction.”
The effects of the book on his immediate family have been more complicated. A Man in Love enraged ex-wife Aursland, but the reaction of second wife Boström, the love of his life, is perhaps more interesting. Boström, who suffers from bipolar disorder, gamely agreed to a no-holds-barred account of their life together. “When I was writing, she was afraid of being made into a bore,” Knausgård says of his wife. “She encouraged me to go all the way – as long as it was honest, she said she was fine with it.”
So what was her reaction to A Man in Love? “She first read the manuscript on the train and called to say she was fine with it. Then she called again and said, ‘Goodbye romance.’ The third time she called, she cried and I cried. There are a lot of things that are there in a relationship that you both know, but don’t say because you’re not supposed to say it. So, suddenly, things are written down, like me turning in the street if I see a beautiful woman, and they have to be dealt with.”
In one scene in the book, Knausgård describes attending a rhythm class with his eldest daughter, and being simultaneously attracted to the woman leading the class and emasculated by being the only man among a group of attractive young mothers. Like much in Min Kamp – from the first grope of a girl’s breast to the 60-page description of getting drunk at a party – it’s painstakingly detailed and brutally honest.
Boström was ill in the wake of the publication of the book in Norway, something Knausgård bitterly regrets. Now, he says, they pretend it didn’t happen. “We don’t want it to be a part of our life now,” he says. “But in a way it brought us together. She is very brave and very generous, and she has come to terms with it.
“I had to face the question of whether writing is more important than my life with my family,” he continues. It isn’t, and he worries about the effects of the book on his children. “I do feel some guilt at giving away the story of their parents and writing about them. I don’t know how they’ll react when they’re old enough to find out about it all, but I just hope there’s more to our life than this book.”
He is proud that people have told him the series has helped them live with bipolar disorder or alcoholism, but Knausgård says this is the last year he’s going to talk about Min Kamp, before casually dropping the bombshell, “I’m no longer an author.” Really? “The point was to put everything on the table,” he says. “What is there left to write about? I don’t even read much anymore.”
He is still writing, though. He tells me he’s translated Maria Zennström’s novel Hur ser ett liv ut om man inte har tillräckligt med kärlek? (What Is Life Like If You Do Not Have Enough Love?) from Swedish, which is out in May 2013. He’s got a collection of essays due out in August, and he’s been busy working for his publishing house, Pelikanen, which he runs with his brother, Yngve.
Perhaps more surprising is that he’s working on a script for a film version of his first novel, Out of the World. “A friend is a director and he contacted me saying he wanted to do a film about my first book. I wanted to write the screenplay so I could direct it towards him. It is a completely different way of thinking and telling a story. It is still a challenge and I like it. I want to make more films if this turns out well, and maybe write some original scripts.”
On the one hand, Knausgård seems desperate to move on from the celebrity aspect of Min Kamp, pointing out with some relief that foreign journalists are more keen to talk about the books themselves than his life, and saying that back home “I can cut my hair now and no one cares”. Yet he also says he “was in the right place at the right time” with the books, a tacit admission that the Faustian bargain was worth it in the end. Either way, whether he likes it or not, Karl Ove Knausgård will forever be linked with his creation – after all, it’s the story of who he is.