“I couldn’t know if someone I had written about would kill themselves”: Karl Ove Kausgaard on what it means to be venerated and vilified
Say bye to the bad guy
We don’t expect bad men to look like Karl Ove Knausgaard – who emerges from the taxi rangy, handsome, silvered; Brad Pitt as a time-travelling Noah – but something in our culture, our inherent, outmoded raptness with beauty, likes it when they do.
Let’s stress, Knausgaard is considered ‘bad’ only in literary circles. It isn’t particularly hard to be considered bad in literary circles. Smoking normally does it. Or acknowledging you have genitals and use them. But Knausgaard’s badness, or otherwise, is kind of what we’re in this pub to talk about. If he can bear to.
Because Knausgaard is close to the end. The sixth and final volume of his autobiographical novel My Struggle is now published in English, seven years after its release in his native Norway, where a copy is owned by one in 10 of the population. He has a few more interviews to do. A quick tour of the US. Then that’s it. He’ll no longer have to talk about one of the most talked about books ever written.
“I never wanted to sit and talk about my life,” he says. “That was never my intention. But because of [the book’s success], that’s what I’m doing. It’s a side-effect. It turns into a kind of a curse.”
He pauses, thinks. “I am no good at setting boundaries and borders. Maybe this will be a great interview. Maybe this will be a terrible interview. I don’t know what I’m going to say.”
And what is left to say?
Volume one of My Struggle made Knausgaard a literary phenomenon, telling his story, via that of his abusive father’s alcoholism and death, in unflinching detail that exposed the private lives of his friends and family whether they liked it or not. Many disowned him, more had journalists camped outside their houses, as Knausgaard’s transgression, and the real-life people snared in it, became the subject of a fierce, national debate. Does one have the right to dissect their own lives, if cuts are made in the skin of others?
“Sometimes [while writing the book] it felt like I had killed someone,” he says. “It felt like I had done something very, very terrible. I couldn’t know if someone I had written about would kill themselves. Maybe not because of the book, but the book might have been an addition [to their reasons].”
Knausgaard was not only turning his life into art, but also discovering whether it was worth it, a high-wire endeavour that sacrificed his relationships with those closest to him, and changed the form of the novel itself. My Struggle (3,770 pages in English translation) is both warped social experiment and experiment in realism. Among meditations on the nature of humanity, God, evil and all between, Knausgaard devotes page after page to detailing perfunctory and repetitive everyday tasks – making coffee, smoking, changing nappies. It is both boring and mesmeric, achieving a fully fleshed portrayal of ordinary human life in the same way that continually punching someone in the face will eventually achieve their unconsciousness.
Within this he reveals his inner life too, committing to print thoughts few dare admit: the miseries of fatherhood, and how his wife’s manic-depression could, on occasion, be a pain in the arse. The effect, won through a kamikaze commitment to telling his truth, is to make the private indistinguishable from the public, and leave his tortured self on display, like something in a Victorian museum, alive, transfixing and grotesque.
“I speak very little and don’t think much in my real life,” he says. “I do all my speaking and thinking in the writing. I think it’s very interesting, the notion of self and what self is, and the writing of the self. Does every person have the same amount of richness in their inner life? We can’t know, because it is a matter of what is expressed. But I think even a cat would have a rich inner life. Maybe not as rich as me, but still rich.”
I ask if he’d encourage others to write about themselves, like he has. “If they want to learn about themselves?” he says. Another long pause, and then, “No.”
The six books were written in just two years, meaning the final volume (titled in English The End), gives a unique account of the publication of volumes one and two, and the reaction to them. Knausgaard finds himself facing his ‘badness’ and examining his shame as the people he’s written about discover what he’s done, most significantly his uncle, whose fury and threats to sue feed a frenzied media interest.
“I have a tendency to punish myself,” he says. “Not physically. Mentally. I am very easily ashamed. I say things in the grip of guilt. I think it’s a Protestant, north European thing. I am not easily able to forgive myself.”
While public and press interest in the misdeeds of ‘bad’ men is long-established if somewhat archaic (Knausgaard recognises himself to be part of that phenomena, but feels unable to view it from the outside), the issue of their forgiveness – for so long given too easily in a world where women must work harder to be forgiven, if they are forgiven at all – is present all around us.
We meet just as Louis CK made a return to public life, performing stand-up nine months after the truth about his sexual misconduct came to light. While CK and Knausgaard’s past actions are incomparable, the notion of forgiveness, where, when and if it’s given, sought or deserved, loom large in The End, in more ways than one.
“The saying that understanding is forgiving is to a certain extent true,” he says. “The more you understand about a situation, the easier it is to forgive. But then there is definitely a point where it is impossible to forgive, and I am writing about that in the book, because I am writing about Adolf Hitler.”
Yes, My Struggle is so long, and so full of stuff, that it’s almost possible to conduct and write an interview with Knausgaard without mentioning that, in the middle of The End, is a 400-page essay on the early years of Adolf Hitler, from whose Mein Kampf Knausgaard provocatively took his own work’s name. It’s an extraordinary and eccentric piece of literary criticism, an autopsy on the early years of a man whose life before history fell into darkness at his hands bore similarities to Knausgaard’s previous to the publication of My Struggle: the intolerable but inescapable influence of a father unfit for fatherhood, and the attempts, failures and crushing frustrations of finding a foothold in artistic life. And, beneath it all, a treatise on the nature of forgiveness itself.
“Mentally. I am very easily ashamed… I am not easily able to forgive myself”
“It is to try to understand him,” Knausgaard says, “and see him as a man and a person. If you just see him as evil, or as some incarnation of evil – if he was just that – then it’s almost like he has no responsibility. Because he had it in him. But if you open him up, and you make him into a man like you and me, then there is a responsibility. And can you forgive that? Even if you understand it?”
And this is also what Knausgaard has done to himself. He, too, is opened up. If you need to understand him, to decide if he is bad, or committed a bad deed, it’s all there. The rest is for others to decide.
But My Struggle also teems with the influence of place. There is, for example, the ‘Law of Jante’, an unspoken 10 Commandment-style code of conduct common in Nordic countries which Knausgaard remembers as a part of his childhood in the Seventies.
“You were supposed not to think you were special,” he says, “or that you were doing things that were special.”
This perhaps explains at least a little of Knausgaard’s discomfort with the attention that has come his way. “I got a critics’ prize,” he says. “And I remember going up to collect it, and hearing the sound of many photos being taken at the same time. That was the first time I had heard that sound. That is addictive. That’s what you want. And I was aware of that. And it f*cks completely with you. But one day it stops and it’s terrible. So I don’t go there. I don’t read about myself. I don’t read reviews. I don’t go to premieres or those kinds of things. I am a writer, and that is the opposite.”
Then we are done, and Knausgaard is closer to the end than before. Soon, he won’t need to talk about his struggle again. Good or bad, forgiven or unforgiven, a writer is what, once more, he’ll become.
The End is out now, priced £15.99 (Harvill Secker)
(Photography: Alice Griffiths)