Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote a brutally honest epic on his life, and his family tried to sue him. As the latest volume is translated into English, ShortList’s Martin Robinson meets the writer who could change your life
An honest man is a rare thing these days, so allow us to share one. Karl Ove Knausgaard is a phenomenon in his home country of Norway, and as his epic non-fiction novel, My Struggle, continues to be published in English, the world is catching up. The fifth and penultimate volume, Some Rain Must Fall is out now, and marks the tipping point where Knausgaard becomes a must for UK readers. And you really must take on his breeze-block books; you will never read a more honest insight into the male experience.
My Struggle is Knausgaard’s own life story, an autobiography written in novelistic style, but raw, fast, improvisatory, unfettered. It’s addictive high-wire writing in which he unflinchingly reveals everything about himself, even the most uncomfortable aspects. The death of his terrifying father. His sexual failings. Cheating on his first wife. His black-out drinking. Carving his own face open with broken glass. No other writer is doing anything this daring, this real, this brutal. It’s made him an antihero in Norway, a household name who created ruptures among his family and friends.
I meet Knausgaard in a hotel room in London. His presence doesn’t disappoint; 6ft 2in, gnarled as a Viking. He doesn’t take off his coat, and could easily be a Scandi-noir detective. He has gravitas, but the humour in his books is there, too, as we talk masculinity, masturbation and Madchester music.
When you started the book, did you know it would turn into such a mammoth task?
I had no idea. I didn’t plan anything. I wanted to write a novel about my father’s death. And I tried, and I failed in all possible ways for many years. But then I just started to write a confession, when I wrote about myself and revealed some things I’d never told anyone. I sent it to my editor and he was taken aback, but there was something there. That was my way into writing about my father’s death – I didn’t want to make it into a story, but try to express what I felt. Another starting point was that I’ve always pleased people my life. If there was political discussion I always agree with the last speaker. I never said to anyone about what’s on my mind.
Was that social anxiety?
It’s probably to do with my father – he was a man I tried to please all the time. If you grew up with someone who is abusive it’s a common thing. Another reason to start the book was I was so frustrated with my life. I had three children, and I was living a life that wasn’t me. All those things went into making the book ‘I’ll just say it as it is’. That was the beginning. The rest was improvisation.
People have talked about it being experimental, but it doesn’t feel that cold – it’s more like you’re jumping off a cliff…
Yes definitely. For me that’s the only way I can write. If I know where I’m going then it doesn’t work. I have to be where the reader is at all points.
Was it fast to write?
Yeah, that was part of the idea. Something else I wanted to escape, and maybe the hardest thing, was the wish to be clever; that’s another way of restricting yourself. So I thought if I write five pages a day then I couldn’t evaluate them – I just had to write them. This Book Five I wrote in eight weeks. It’s good, because it keeps the thinking and criticisms away. The hard part is that there is then stupidity in there, and short cuts, and banality. But that’s the strength of the book, I’ve realised.
How difficult was it to maintain the honesty in the book?
The hard thing was writing about my brother. Writing about what I really thought about him, being ashamed of him sometimes, that was very, very hard to write about. Because I knew he was going to read it. It was a terrible situation, but I had to do it.
What about the male sexual anxiety – premature ejaculation, the shape of your penis – couldn’t you leave those out?
Yeah, but that was fun because you’re not meant to talk about these things. And it’s much easier to write about it than talk about it.
Have you had any responses from the girls you’ve described having sex with?
No, but I did meet someone I studied with, and she was like, “Hi I’m just reading your book and the minute before I met you, I read about you masturbating.” And she could hardly shake my hand.
Have you had much response from men about these things?
No, still no one talks about it! I read everything I write to a friend of mine. And I wrote that I didn’t masturbate until the age of 18, which was a weird thing. I’ve never said it to anyone, but I was reading it to him and he was laughing for five minutes – he couldn’t understand how that was possible.
In what way did the difficulties of being a father start you off on the book?
For me, I found I couldn’t write and have children, with all the work at home me and my wife had to do. I felt like I was completely tied up. And my wife could be angry at me if I went onto the balcony and had a smoke – she’s bipolar, and there was a lot of tension. And I feel guilt easily. Every Sunday morning I play football, and I felt such guilt for doing that. Going out drinking was out of the question. My only desire was to write, really. I manage to do it with the children now, but then it was impossible. Which is why the book is so wild, and there is so much energy. I felt sitting with a baby was taking away from my masculinity. I don’t any more – I have a little baby daughter now and I don’t care at all. But it was interesting and difficult, and is a perfect subject to write about, because it has to do with identity. I never got angry before I had children, but I found I could be screaming and shouting and full of uncontrollable rage. And that’s something you have to confront, and figure out why. What’s this? Am I becoming my father?
It's much easier to write about premature ejaculation than talk about it
You’ve said you’re looking to disappear with your writing – what do you mean by that?
It’s to be at a place where you’re not aware of yourself. That’s the best place to be. It could happen if you play football, or when you play music. For me it’s much more in literature to disappear like that.
Were you worried about the reaction from family and friends when it first came out?
No, I hid from everything that happened because I had to write the other books. I had one reading quite early, and people were treating me differently and that scared the shit out of me. Because they knew something about me, and I thought, “Oh, I’ve sold out everything I had. My own privacy.”
Are you enjoying fame now?
It’s scary, strange, flattering. In Norway, I’m recognised everywhere – it’s a celebrity thing. Normally it’s nice, but if I go out someone can be shouting at me, angry with me. I try to be careful.
Your tales of putting a band together are very funny. How important was music to you when you were growing up?
Very, very important. It was like the sound of the world: this isn’t everything, there is more out there. It was a question of identity, of who I was. And it was all related to British bands. So in Book Five, it’s Nineties bands; Stone Roses and Happy Mondays.
Did you ever go to Manchester?
Never been, but I saw Happy Mondays and Stone Roses live. It was great, but Happy Mondays played 30 minutes then went off, so I thought, “What the fuck? I’ve travelled 10 hours to get here.”
As with Stone Roses, you deal with a lot of the contradictions of men – of the sensitive, ‘feminine’ side as well as the macho side.
Yeah, but that was one of the more traumatic things. I don’t know what the English word is, but I had a nickname at school that meant I was a feminine guy. And it was destroying me, because I was in the first stage of puberty and that was the worst thing you could say. I was 14. I did all the mistakes – I cried easily, I wasn’t physically strong, but what saved me was I played football. That made me all right, somehow. But the nickname, it occupied me completely. You want to be ‘f*ck you I am who I am’, but it doesn’t work that way. And still if people say I’m feminine, I’m like [puffs his chest], And why?
You’ve said your book isn’t good writing.
I have this standard of what I think is the best writing, and it’s not in my books. I can believe the hype sometimes, thinking it’s good, and then I open up the books and go, “No, it isn’t.” People don’t believe it when I say that, they think it’s me being coquettish, but it’s true. But when I try to make something proper, it’s good, but lifeless.
You’ve become something of a sex symbol. Is that fun?
No. I was the centre of media attention in Norway in 2009, and listed as Norway’s Sexiest Man. That was just after My Struggle Part 1. That was ironic, because this was a book about an inner self. So then to get… the face, the face, the face. There were covers with my face on, which made it impossible to watch myself in the mirror. It’s ruined my face for myself. The book is about the inside.
Did you drink and write?
That was my father’s only writing advice, that I should drink to loosen up. It’s an absurd idea. There are similarities because you disappear from yourself, but in writing you create, whereas drinking just drains things.
Why should people read your books?
No! All writers know when you give it to an editor: why should he even read it? It’s valuable for me, why should it be for you? I have so many readers I can say ‘don’t read it’, and it will be OK [laughs].
Some Rain Must Fall, the fifth book in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, is out now from Harvill Secker. The first four books in the series are available in paperback and ebook from Vintage
[Images: Sam Barker, AccuSoft Co., Rex,]