The sixth and final volume of “My Struggle” was published in English this fall. But it came out in Norwegian, in 2011, three years after Karl Ove Knausgaard began writing the first volume, in 2008. The person who wrote those books both is and is not the man who, last month, came by my office to talk about them. He is now, for one thing, famous in an unusual way, having shared a remarkable number of intimate and embarrassing details with his readers. (“I have to hide from myself how much people know about me,” he said.) He is divorced from Linda Boström, to whom he is married in the novel. He lives in London and has quit smoking. He seems to be happier.
To some readers, these changes may feel almost like a betrayal—as though “Karl Ove,” the character, has walked off the page, gone rogue. But if the passage of time has made the man a little blurrier, it’s also brought the novel into greater focus. Over the course of an afternoon’s conversation and a subsequent e-mail exchange, it became clear to me that I had not quite understood Knausgaard’s book. What I’d taken for a self-portrait was more like a snapshot, and what had seemed like a monument was actually something stranger—what Knausgaard, in our conversation, called a “cave in time.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Is it true that “My Struggle” was originally going to be twelve books?
Yes. In 2008, when I wrote Book 1 and Book 2, the head of the publishing house suggested twelve books—one each month. For practical reasons, that didn’t work out. But they said they could do six. All the books were to be published in a year, from 2009 to 2010. It would be more like an art project, almost, than a novel.
I had to decide how to write four more books. I already had one about my father’s death and a second about the present, with the children. The obvious thing was to go back in time. Then I thought that Book 5 could bite Book 1 in the tail—a circle. And Book 6 could be outside of that circle, dealing with the consequences of all of it. In the end, I did write Books 3, 4, and 5 during that year.
How did you write so much, so fast?
I wonder about that, too! It’s strange that, with three small children and limited time, I wrote so many pages a day while, before, when I spent all the time I wanted on writing, and even lived on isolated islands and in remote lighthouses, I hardly wrote anything. But writing “My Struggle” was all about lowering thresholds—between what was in my head and what was on the page, but also what was in the novel and what was in my life.
When I wrote my first novel—I was nineteen—I did it very quickly. If you write fast, you feel like you’re entering something not yet familiar—a world rather than thoughts about the world. The novel was crap, unbelievably silly and stupid, but at some point speed-writing became like reading, a place where I disappeared. When the novel was rejected, I lost belief both in myself and in speed. I started to polish the car instead of driving it—and, obviously, when you polish your car, you don’t get anywhere, no matter how nice the car looks.
James Wood’s review of “My Struggle.”
I spent six years after my first novel and five years after my second without getting into a new book. That was what I was longing for, just to write at full speed. Book 1 was written slowly, in something like eight months. I spent oceans of time on the opening pages—the sentences were written and rewritten—but the rest of the sentences were written just once. Book 5 was written in eight weeks. When the books started to be published, I had incredibly tight deadlines, which was a great help. Then I couldn’t afford to think about quality, only quantity mattered.
So you were cruising—until Book 6.
I failed with Book 6. I had to bury that book, and I took a break and wrote a new version that was finished six months later.
I knew so much about what people liked, I completely lost authenticity in the writing. I just mirrored and repeated things. It was awful—really awful. So I decided to just write about what was happening at that moment.
Book 6 is almost like a blog, with time stamps (“It’s the twelfth of June, 2011, the time is 6:17 A.M., in the room above me the children are asleep. . . . ”), whereas the previous volumes often focus on specific days or weekends. How did you choose those moments?
In the beginning, the method was different. We moved stuff around and took things out in order to make it into a novel. The first book opens with a reflection on death, and then it’s the father-son thing, and then the being-sixteen-years-old thing that has been in my notebook since I started wanting to be a writer. It said, you know, “A bag of bottles of beer in the snow.” I always wanted to write about that.
But from the second book on I never thought, I have to write about that moment. I would just start writing, and then I remember something, and then I write about that, and then I remember something else . . . and I like that, because then the moments will maybe not always be the important moments but could be the moments that are just beside the important ones. There’s a freedom in that.
In Book 6, on the other hand, you’re not journeying through the past. You’re describing things that have just happened.
The events I’m writing about are much closer to now, so they are much more precise. If I were to go back to the hotel and write about this encounter with you, I could write fifty pages about it, but if I were to recall when we met—like, two years ago?—it would be more vague. In that case, I would already have selected what was important. It’s two very different modes of writing.
In Book 6, you call “My Struggle” an “experiment” that has “failed.” What did you fail to do?
Well, you can never reach an authentic “I,” an authentic self. I think it’s impossible to free yourself from the social being you are. I remember seeing an interview with Ian McEwan where he used the word “selflessness,” and I really understood what he meant: that’s the dream for a writer. That’s a precious place to be—and if you are there then you are authentic.
But it’s not often that the writing goes there. I think of this book as many different modes and many different levels, and some are very close to me and authentic, and some are distant, and they contradict each other, and there’s a multitude, and that’s a self. I think I came as close as I could.
Was that the experiment? Getting closer to the self?
I had felt for many, many years that the form of the novel, as I used it, created a distance from life. When I started to write about myself, that distance disappeared. If you write about your life, as it is to yourself, every mundane detail is somehow of interest—it doesn’t have to be motivated by plot or character. That was my only reason for writing about myself. It wasn’t because I found myself interesting, it wasn’t because I had experienced something I thought was important and worth sharing, it wasn’t because I couldn’t resist my narcissistic impulses. It was because it gave my writing a more direct access to the world around me. And then, at some point, I started to look at the main character—myself—as a kind of place where emotions, thoughts, and images passed through.
Does storytelling itself—one thing, then another, then another—exert some falsifying force?
Yeah. I’m reading now a very interesting book I should have read many years ago: Frank Kermode’s “The Sense of an Ending.” Have you read it?
He explores the idea of all the stories that are around us, and then you have the real world as something almost outside of that. So the notion of Tick-Tock, if you remember it. . . .
The idea is that, if you isolate any span of time—even the span between the tick and the tock of a clock—that duration acquires a narrative structure: a beginning, middle, and end.
I mean, “My Struggle” could have gone on and on. I have a colleague—Thure Erik Lund, he’s a really great novelist—and he said, “If you want to make this really original, you should just keep going, keep doing it for the rest of your life!”
But, no, what I like is that it’s very much about those years. That’s why I dated it, because if I had started two weeks later or two weeks before it would have been different. It’s more, like, This is a block of time. That was me.
Do you still feel like the same person?
No. At an event in Edinburgh about Book 6, I started to read the essay part in the middle, and I couldn’t recognize the thinking. It’s like a cave in time that I made.
You write, in the new volume, about a book by Peter Handke called “A Sorrow Beyond Dreams,” from 1972. It’s about Handke’s mother’s suicide, but it describes her life entirely from the outside, unemotionally. You describe Handke’s writing as both beautiful and “merciless.” Is there some part of you that wishes your writing had been more merciless?
That’s a good question. Handke’s book is about the death of his mother, who committed suicide. My book is about the death of my father, at the end of a destructive period that I think of as a slow suicide. But Handke never represents his mother in the text, while I describe my father, his movements; I re-create his speech. Which text is more truthful? Obviously, Handke’s. I think I could have been braver, gone further in that direction. The question is whether, like Handke, you can represent the world more truthfully when you don’t use the conventional tricks of the novel. When I was writing, I felt very strongly that I had made my father into something like a character in a novel, and that I had manipulated people so that they could feel what I felt, or what I wanted them to feel, in relation to him. I felt that I was cheating.
So you wish that you had been more objective?
I think “objective” maybe is the wrong word—and objectivity is impossible, anyway. What I admire in “A Sorrow Beyond Words” is that it’s uncorrupt. We have expectations about how a good novel should look, how a good sentence should look, what quality is, what a story is, what a life looks like.
That’s why not fulfilling expectations is so important in literature and art. It makes it possible for us to see ourselves, because we’re no longer inside the expected but somewhere else—and from there we can see the world as we think it is. Art is a form of negotiation between our ideas of the world and the world. I had many ideas about what death was, like we all do, but then I saw the dead body of my father, and it was something else completely. I tried to represent that insight, or feeling, or whatever it was, and I failed, I wasn’t even close, but I realized that there was a gap, and through trying to fill that gap, the novel was written.
In writing about yourself, were you also negotiating a gap between what you thought you were like and what you are actually like?
In other people, I can see how suppressed anger, or suppressed jealousy, or even suppressed hate—and also, of course, class and gender and geography—play an important role in what they do and express, without those people knowing it themselves. I can’t see that in my own opinions and views, but the mechanisms have to be the same
An important part of my books is that they want to find out how a particular view of the world comes into being. For Heidegger, the mood or state of mind always came first, because that is what you think through—your mood is always there. No document states it, it’s in no archive, you can try to describe it, but the point is that we don’t think about it, it’s just there. In these books, by writing about so much that I don’t control, I hoped that all this would somehow become visible.
Heidegger thought that some states of mind could make it harder to see the world clearly, while others could open it up. Often in “My Struggle” you write about seeing the “divinity” in the world—in Book 6, you write, “All it takes is one step and the world is transformed.” Are there spiritual possibilities that we can grasp if we approach the material world in the right way?
Yes. Otherwise it would be meaningless for me to write about my life. The last time I was in New York I bought a book: Kierkegaard’s “The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air.” It’s about, what do you call it—Jesus’ Mountain Sermon?
The Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus says you should be like the birds, and then you can enter the kingdom of God. And Kierkegaard writes about how if a bird’s nest is destroyed, the next day he’s happily rebuilding it. The future just doesn’t exist if you’re a bird. And I read this with, you know, such an incredible desire. A friend of mine has wood pigeons who build a nest, lay eggs, have chicks, and there’s a hawk that comes and takes them. That’s happened four years in a row. But the pigeons still go to the same place because, for them, the future doesn’t exist. Maybe they’re in what Kierkegaard would say is the kingdom of God.
And then you’ve got Heidegger’s view on the birds, which is that they have a poor existence—they don’t really know anything. Two positions about being in the world. I mean, your baby is in the world. [Ed. note: He’s four months old.] He’s not aware of himself or who he is. It’s probably wonderful to be him! But would you go back there and renounce everything you know now? We’re not in the world—we’re looking at the world, longing for it. Do we want in there? Is that where God is?
In Book 6, you describe how, at your father’s funeral, the priest drew a lesson from your father’s life: “One must fasten one’s gaze.” You write, “Everything is there, the houses, the trees, the cars, the people, the sky, the earth, and yet something is missing because their being there means nothing . . . We have not fastened our gaze, we have not connected ourselves with the world, and could just as well, taking things to their logical conclusion, depart from it.” You write that we all have an “obligation” to find meaning in the world—even though, “objectively,” it’s meaningless.
My father, I think he always wanted to be in another place—always wanted to be another person, to have another life. He had no presence, and sometimes, it seemed, even no awareness of us. I think it must have been painful to be him, and drinking was a way of getting away, of getting out.
And there’s also a pull in me—away from home and into art, for instance—that I fear. It’s much better now—I think I’ve managed to fasten my gaze somehow—but I’ve struggled with that throughout my life. Because nothing is as defined in life as it is in literature or in art. If everyone fastened his gaze on life, there would be no art.
Do you consider yourself a religious person?
I don’t. But, I brought up Kierkegaard’s discussion of the birds because I think the same: being present, being present in a moment, that’s the beginning of the kingdom of God. In that sense, I’m religious. You know, recently, someone else asked me if I believed in God. It was a very young person. And I said yes.
There’s a connection, in Book 6, between the desire to get beyond the rules and patterns of social life—to get “outside,” to the sublime—and Nazism. Did you always plan to end the novel with a long essay on Hitler? Is that why you called the book “My Struggle”?
No, no, it was nothing to do with that. I thought it was suitable because that’s what the book was: my struggle. It was also a provocation—the perfect title. I didn’t actually plan to write about Hitler at all. But then it came to feel like an obligation. Using that title for your own purposes, it left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I thought that I had to go there.
You did find a Nazi pin in your father’s belongings after he died—a souvenir of some kind. Maybe it was in the back of your mind.
Yeah, that’s true.
Was your approach to writing the essay different from your approach to writing the rest?
No. I started reading, and then I started to write about it. The thought was that now you know this man; you know all his flaws and shortcomings and interests, and now you see he’s reading about Hitler—what will happen? This is a novel written from inside of one person. But also the things we’ve been talking about, about cheating—those things become acute when you write about the Holocaust. That’s where you really have to think about what it is to make something “appealing.” Because when you write about even the most horrible thing, there can be something appealing about it—an attraction, an artifice. That’s why “Shoah” is such an absolutely amazing film.
Because it’s completely concrete.
Because it doesn’t pretend to give a picture of the past, because that’s impossible—it’s just the present. Just the people you meet. It’s just what is, now.
In the history of the novel, there’s long been a connection between a kind of concreteness, or aesthetic reticence, and an idea of “manliness.” In Hemingway, for example, there’s a distrust of language, and that distrust is linked to a desire to break out of the social world, which is seen as feminine, and into something more “pure.” Did you see masculinity—which is a major theme in “My Struggle”—as connected, somehow, to these kinds of questions?
No, no. Anyway, it’s hard to say, because being a man is such a big part of my identity that it’s invisible—it’s obvious if you read the book, but to me it’s just how the world looks. I’m interested in masculinity, but I’ve never thought about whether masculinity has anything to do with the desire to get out of the world and out of one’s social circumstances.
Knausgaard in The New Yorker
Read essays and excerpts by the author.
I do feel that there is an incredibly feminine side to the book—but, then, if I start to talk about it I’ll end up defining what’s “feminine” and “masculine,” and people will get angry. It’s almost impossible to discuss these things outside of a novel—although, in novelistic terms, it’s a great subject. It has to do with identity, and with what it is to be “something.” And, for me, masculine identity was something that I was standing outside of when I grew up. I was bullied because of the ways I was “wrong”: I liked flowers and I liked to read, and I liked clothes and to dress up, which was completely wrong where I grew up. And then there was the feeling that I had no will of my own, that I didn’t stand up for anything. That had nothing to do with being feminine—just with not being a man. And all the emotions I had, the crying: it was everything a man shouldn’t do.
There’s a moment in Book 3 where your brother tells you not to worry—he says, “Think about David Bowie. He’s androgynous. It’s a good thing in rock, you see. David Sylvian as well. Ambiguous sexual identity. A bit woman, a bit man.”
Yeah, exactly. . . . But, still, it’s very much read like a man’s book, and men relate to it. And in Sweden there’s a provocative masculinity in it somehow. It’s very strange, because I think that it’s exactly this area that’s very complicated in the book, because there are so many different layers and contradictions.
But there is in “My Struggle” an idea of representing attitudes that are forbidden today—the way you represent the homophobia you felt when you were a teen-ager, for example. Right now there are a lot of disaffected men who feel that their attitudes are unspeakable. Were you thinking about the politics of your own thoughts?
For every thought, you reflect: Is this what I am? Is this what I thought? But that doesn’t mean that there’s a political view connected with it. Like, in the book, when I’m walking in Sweden with a pram, and looking at a woman, and feeling all kinds of things—or when I’m at a children’s singing class and feeling undignified, intimidated, minimized—that was how it was, it felt like a shock! A year later, I was fine, my masculinity wasn’t caught up in that. But then I felt it very strongly. People say, “Oh, that’s his view.” But it’s more about the feeling of being a teen-ager and being a failure; of growing up, being in your twenties, and being a failure; of feeling so many pressures about how you are supposed to be. Being outside of things. And that is a dangerous feeling.
You say that feeling outside of things is dangerous. But in “My Struggle” you often write about wanting to get outside of everything—outside of yourself, outside of life, which can feel narrow, constricting—as a kind of spiritual longing.
It’s very much about ideas of art and the sublime. The sublime is the perspective outside of us, which I feel is more and more lost in our time, because we’re more interconnected and less outside, and there’s no God anymore. Nowadays things are less and less things in themselves—they are in a position, you know? And I think there is a longing in “My Struggle” to get to the things in themselves. It’s the same with the self. I think that’s why the self is so huge in the book—because there’s a feeling that somehow it’s disappearing.
Is there a connection between the spiritual aspects and the political aspects of this idea? Today a great many people feel as though they’re outside of their societies—on the fringes. And they also feel trapped in systems, maybe of oppression, maybe of bureaucracy, or economics, which they feel keep them from living authentic lives.
I grew up in one of the most homogeneous countries in Europe. My family was middle-class—my father was a teacher, my mother was a nurse—and in my lifetime the country has been deluged with money. Schools are free, hospitals are free, if you lose your job the government will support you. So, when I’m writing about the feeling of being “outside” society, it’s very far from the direction your question takes us, toward the name of Trump and the rise of populism, or toward what I can see in Sweden, for example, where the integration of immigrants has failed completely, so that you have a generation living on the margins of the society—meaning that they don’t identify with it, that the police are not their police, the politicians are not their politicians, the teachers are not their teachers, and so on. The rise of the populist right, and the rise of terrorism, is of course always connected to poverty and to hopelessness, and to the feeling of not belonging. It’s about economic inequality. That is what we should talk about, nothing else.
But I’m not a historian or a politician or a social scientist, and I have nothing insightful to say about this. There are a lot of brilliant analyses of our time—Timothy Snyder’s great book “The Road to Unfreedom,” for instance—but they are by nature about the big picture, the general structures and the long-term tendencies. What a novel can do is the opposite—it can go into the particular, into the concrete, singular life. That’s the only thing that really exists. The Rust Belt, the joblessness, the poverty, the opioid epidemic—they only exist as seen or experienced by particular individuals.
And that’s what you’re interested in.
A novel is the only place where it’s possible to explore that. That is what makes literature so important. I mean, the two best books I have read about contemporary America are Rachel Kushner’s “The Mars Room” and Maggie Nelson’s “The Argonauts.” If people two hundred years from now wanted to reconstruct today’s U.S.A., they would come a long way by reading those two books. Central in them both is the feeling of being on the outside of the society that they’re, at the same time, embedded in. As a reader, you identify with them, and with identification a certain form of insight comes, filtered through your emotions rather than through your thoughts.
Now, this starts to get complicated because what populism and the far right offer is exactly that—an emotion-based belonging. A common history, a common culture, a common people. It is “we,” it is “us.” But that “we” is general—it doesn’t really exist, it’s a fiction. So the duty of literature is to fight fiction. It’s to find a way into the world as it is, to open a road we can glimpse for a second or two before a new fiction has covered it again.
You write about how, as a child, you played in a Nazi bunker near your house. At that age, the Second World War felt completely abstract—like a story you’d read about. And then you found your dad’s Nazi pin; you heard your grandfather make an anti-Semitic remark. It turns out that the Nazis inhabited our reality. And yet their way of viewing the world was completely wrong; it was a fiction.
There are so many fictions about the world, and what happens in those fictions is important for our view of the world. Maybe that’s why Handke, in “A Sorrow Beyond Dreams,” didn’t want to evoke feelings through representation. It’s one thing to read about the myths of history, to feel their pull, and quite another to see those myths unfold in the real world, as Handke’s mother did, being Austrian during the war. I assume—but I don’t know, of course—that Handke’s way of writing that book, of withholding all manipulative power, was a reaction to growing up in the shadow of Nazism.
I keep returning to the moment when your discussion of Hitler ends. It’s gone on for hundreds of pages. Suddenly, we’re on the balcony outside your apartment. You hear a child laughing, and a man’s voice, and the laughter is so infectious that you look over the railing, but you can’t see them. And that’s how this long contemplation of the Holocaust ends. Why did you choose to end it that way?
That was how it was when I was writing about all of this. I was on the balcony, writing, and I heard this child laughing and I couldn’t see anyone. And I was filled with the feeling of having dealt with all of this, and now I don't know—I have no idea. I didn't plan anything. That was how it was.
That was part of real life, too.
Now that we’re talking, I remember that, when I came to that moment, I was at home, reading, and I looked up and saw my wife and infant son. I didn’t think that juxtaposition was very remarkable. But in your novel it feels that way.
What did you feel, when you read it? Did you think that it didn’t belong there?
In the novel, it feels like a shocking juxtaposition: the Nazis and a child’s voice. But not in real life. In general, I found Book 6—the last part of which deals with your then-wife Linda’s nervous breakdown, which is brought on, in part, by the publication of Book 1—to be almost uncomfortably real. You write, “Linda isn’t a character. She is Linda. Geir Angell isn’t a character. He is Geir Angell.” And so on.
Someone was talking to me about the book, and she said that when my father’s name first appears, it’s almost shocking. His presence is different when he has a name—it’s a connection to the real world. And literature always has a gap, a veil between it and the real world. It has to be like that, and it should be like that . . . and then I took real people and put them behind that veil, into this closed world. Seeing their names, it’s like a glimpse of their real existence.
Toward the end of the book, you write, “This novel has hurt everyone around me, it has hurt me, and in a few years, when they are old enough to read it, it will hurt my children.” And, on the last page, you write, “I will never forgive myself . . . . In two hours Linda will be coming here, I will hug her and tell her I’ve finished, and I will never do anything like this to her and our children again.”
I felt very bad at that moment. It was a guilt-ridden ending.
That was seven years ago. You and Linda are now divorced; you’ve moved from Sweden to London, where you have a new partner. Do you still regret “My Struggle”?
I don’t regret it. I think it was hard to see then, and easier to see now—people were hurt, and it was terrible for them when it was happening, but, still, it wasn’t the end of the world. There’s the guilt for my children, which is constant, which has to do with how I gave our story away to everyone. But, on the other hand, there’s a lot of love for them in the book. And when I’m gone that story will also be there for them.
I can’t, if I’m honest, think that it could be wrong to add a book to the world. How destructive can that be, really?
Are people still angry with you?
Yeah, yeah. That will never go away.
Is Linda still angry with you?
Linda? No. She read it and accepted it.
Reading about Linda’s breakdown made me feel guilty for enjoying “My Struggle” so much.
Really? I never thought about that happening.
It made me think about the novel as a whole. It starts by reckoning with your dad, who felt trapped in his life, and who did what he needed to do to feel freedom, and it tallies up the costs of what he did to you and other people. And then it becomes about you, his son; you also feel trapped, and you do what you need to do to escape, and that also has costs, not just for you but for others.
I agree. I think it’s true. I never drew that parallel. But I think it’s right. That’s a very accurate way of saying it.
Looking back on the whole project, what surprised you the most?
One thing is just how much is in a mind, you know? The past, memories, books. But what also surprised me was that what I thought was idiosyncratic—what I thought was for me and me only—connected with other people. That surprised me very much, and still does. I think we are much more alike than we normally think we are. I think that’s a fact. It must be a fact.
You’re back to writing fiction again. Has “My Struggle” affected how you experience that?
It has. I feel much freer. The hard thing is to find the sense of obligation. Because you’re free—you don’t have to be true. And it still needs to be.
What about from the perspective of craft?
I have no idea what craft is—and I have no idea what writing is. That’s true! The more I write, the less I know about what it is that makes something good. I normally think, you know, This is complete shit. And I send it to my editor or someone else, and sometimes they say, “No, this is alive.” Maybe two or three months later I can see that it was good. But I don’t know why. Really, I’ve developed a method, which is being in the present, sitting here, drinking some coffee, thinking of a memory. That’s the only way I know how to write. I don’t know how to write a novel. But I know that, if I just try, something might happen.
Suppose you were to take Thure Erik Lund’s advice and just keep going. Just write “My Struggle,” Book 7. Reading it, would we encounter the same “Karl Ove”? Or a different you?
When I wrote “My Struggle,” I was very frustrated, I felt trapped in my life. Before, the only way of escaping I knew of was through literature. That had always been my way—escapism. But in “My Struggle,” I used literature to confront my life, instead of running away from it. It was obviously a midlife crisis, every sign is there. Now I’m in a completely different place. I live the life I want to live. I am the same, of course, but maybe I am looking in different directions. My father is no longer a haunting presence in my life, and my childhood seems very remote compared to when I was forty and everything seemed recent, in an almost acute way. Now I’m much more interested in what I see, more than how what I see makes me feel.
In Book 6, you write that when you started “My Struggle,” you had “nothing to lose.” Looking back, do you feel that you made a decision to write it?
Do you feel like you made artistic choices during it?
No, not really. I was just looking for a way to make it possible for me to write about my father.