"Something that’s not yourself." — An Interview with Karl Ove Knausgård
Karl Ove Knausgård enters the empty cinema in the Ingmar Bergman Center with a package of cigarettes in his hand and asks me where I got my coffee. He runs away to get a cup for himself before sitting down beside me in front of the white screen.
We’re at the festival “Bergman Week” at the Swedish island Fårö. Knausgård, his wife (the Swedish author Linda Boström Knausgård) and their three children arrived yesterday. I haven’t met Linda or the children; however, after reading Knausgård’s autobiographical series, entitled “My Struggle,” it feels like I know them. In the six books (of which two have been translated to English) Knausgård seeks to tell about his life and the world he lives in just as he has experienced it, and does so with a compassion, intimacy and sense of detail that absorbs the reader in descriptions of even the most trivial parts of everyday life.
I. “A SENSE OF LIFE”
THE BELIEVER: Let’s start with a quote from “My Struggle”: “What I’m talking about is everyday life; the metaphor for that is death.”
KARL OVE KNAUSGÅRD: Oh shit.
BLVR: Yes, it’s quite heavy. I’m bringing it up because “My Struggle” is basically thousands of pages of everyday life. Did you write it because you needed to write about death? Your explanation is that death and the minutiae of everyday life are the things that are always present in life.
KOK: Something that I’m trying to achieve with these books is to create a feeling of here-and-now. And I do that, at least to some level – I tell about this, where we live our lives, this is what we have and it’ll be over soon, right? At the same time there is this feeling that we don’t really care and that we’re living our lives like they might last forever.
BLVR: You also often write about death without using metaphors. Many times your reflection is that in the culture where we live, you and I, we try to deny death.
KOK: I don’t mean to judge us—but the way we deny death says something about how we live our lives, doesn’t it? At least in Sweden or Scandinavia, you don’t have to search further back in time than maybe three generations to find another way to relate to death. People then had a different, closer relationship with death; at least it was like that in the countryside. There is a Norwegian author called Olav Duun who has written a fantastic novel about a rural society in the 1600s. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to live like in that novel anyway. There was so much superstition, so much pain and a very high infant mortality rate. When you see it like that, we live in the best of worlds… still, it’s like we’ve lost something on the way to here: a sense of life. I can’t know for sure, I might be the only one who’s lost it. Maybe everybody else is living the now, thinking they’re having it well. Anyhow, that motivated me to write the books.
BLVR: In the last part of “My Struggle” (not yet translated to English) you state that writing is a way to lose oneself. Is it also a way to get rid of oneself? You seem to feel a lot of shame and you’re pretty hard on yourself.
KOK: Oh yes, absolutely. A problem with my novels is that they, from the start, have been infantile, yes, incredibly childish. Before I debuted, I didn’t write childishly, nor did I write well. Then an editor called me and told me that he wanted to read more of what I’d written. He believed in me and that gave me confidence to sit down and write. And for the first time I really managed to write! But the text had these childish parts. When the editor commented on what I’d written, it was exactly those parts he pointed at and said was good. Then I felt that it might’ve had certain qualities. But it can still be like that when I look at what I’ve written – that it seems childish… and stupid.
BLVR: What do you mean when you say it’s infantile? That it’s self-centered?
KOK: No, it’s more like that it seems like a child has written it. There are childishness, stupidity, lack of wisdom, fantasies. At the same time, that’s where my creativity can be found. If I tried to control it and make it more mature, it wouldn’t be good at all. It’d be uninteresting, without any vivacity.
BLVR: So does it help to write? Can you escape the shame by doing it?
KOK: Yes, but not in the long term. When I look back at what I’ve written and try to explain it, it doesn’t help, but it helps to be in a process of writing. It’s the same thing with reading – you lose yourself when you read as well. When I was younger I used literature that way, it was just escapism, a tool to run away from things. In “My Struggle” I try to do the opposite, to not let myself get away and to be here, and that’s why I write about my life and myself. But even when I do that there’s an element of disappearing to a place that’s not me. It’s “the selflessness of writing”. It seldom happens, but when it does it’s worth quite a lot.
BLVR: Isn’t that always the case with complete devotion?
KOK: Yes, you’re right about that. Especially with art and music, well, all kinds of creativity are about that. And maybe it’s not the case with real love, but at least with a crush, when you just disappear into each other. When you do that you’re also in touch with something that’s not yourself. That’s what it’s all about, and also how you get into the religious part of the context… so well, what is it that you become a part of when you write? It’s language; it’s literature.
BLVR: I’m thinking that shame has a function for you: it pushes you to write.
KOK: Well, that’s really interesting: what shame is and what it does to me. It’s constructed for social purposes, to protect us and make us behave well to others. But for me, the shame has become a bit extreme. However, if you take for example my mother, you’ll see that she’s driven by moral values – meaning that you should behave and shouldn’t behave in certain ways, and not trespass any limits. If you go back further, to my grandmother, you’ll see that she’s even more like that: driven by shame and the thought that you shouldn’t think you’re someone special… but now, society has become almost shameless. That’s actually good since it gives a kind of freedom. We consider the old, functionless shame destructive. Today, if you have a strong sense of shame you also have a strong desire to overcome it. And that’s when you can write.
BLVR: Maybe you must overcome your sense of shame to be able to be individual and personal.
KOK: Yes, I think so. Shame tells you when you’ve gone too far. Then you try if it’s okay to go too far. And it might be so that shame was right. You can never, never know that.
II. A LOST BALANCE
BLVR: Throughout “My Struggle”, you express a longing for purity, truth, something “original” and less artificial – values often associated with fascist ideologies.Did you know that you would finish off with an essay about Paul Celan, Hitler, ‘Mein Kampf’ and identity when you wrote the first book?
KOK: I had no idea about that. When I had written five books and was about to start with the sixth, I knew that I had to write very fast. And I started doing so. However, after a few hundred pages I realized that it wouldn’t work. The text was permeated by vanity, because I was aware that I now had a large audience. Then I started all over again and this structure developed pretty quickly – starting with life in Malmö, then the essay just came… well, I was about to write a bit about the name (his father’s name, which is left out from the book) but then this thing with Paul Celan came about, and then Hitler. But the real ending of the book is the part when Linda gets ill. That’s where it all ends, to where it all leads.
BLVR: You’ve also been working with the revision of the Old Testament. This was just before the Norwegian publication of “My Struggle 1”. What influence did it have on your writing?
KOK: It had an enormous impact on my reading. I’ve always been a fast reader. Now I had to do it slowly, discussing each sentence. And every time I wanted to change something I had to come up with an intelligent defense I could be pretty sure that they would turn my suggestion down, as they had so many aspects to keep in mind. However, if I argued well, I could have a chance. I had to think of every comma, every word. In addition, this was a completely new scene to me. I’ve always been a writer or journalist but in this project another type of people worked. And we were so many! And everyone knew much more about what we were doing than I did.
Moreover, I would never have been able to do my reading of Paul Celan the way that I did it, if it hadn’t been for the way I learned to work with the Bible. And other interesting things: when you think of religion you think of theology and high levels of abstraction. But the Old Testament isn’t like that. There’s just stories, incredibly simple stories. Despite that, you can read and interpret them for thousands of years. I think that the best literature has that – a core that you can’t lock to a time or place but that can generate lots of meanings and translations.
I find it fascinating that there is a completely different way of thinking in these books – of course because they were written such a long time ago, in another type of culture. A culture that in a natural way has been a part of our own culture, but recently has ceased to be so. Like a month ago I was in Beirut to attend a festival of literature. I met a German author there and he said that he found it obvious – that the culture in the Old Testament was a peasant’s culture, with animals and stuff like that. In our culture, that’s completely gone.
BLVR: You write that Christianity equalizes everyone and makes people part of a mass, a collective. Didn’t your worlds collide, reading the Old Testament and at the same time writing something as personal and individual as “My Struggle”?
KOK: That thing about equalizing is very interesting. On one level, a social and intellectual level, I’d like there to be differences. It’s horrible that things are getting more and more similar with commercialization and globalization… and the differences between the sexes. I mean, men and women are different, and you know those are things that are hard to discuss in Sweden and that I’ve written a lot about. That’s one thing. On another level I find the equalizing that exists in Christianity, the equalizing in which you find mercy… “As he was buried his name disappeared and he became one of many”. And in that, there was an enormous consolation when my father died.
BLVR: I’m thinking of what you said about everyone getting more and more alike, but you also mention that there are actual differences, and that it’s hard to talk about this in Sweden. Critics of your work often take issue with your views on gender roles. In “My Struggle 2” you write that the feminizing aspects of the fathers (including yourself) with strollers parked outside Stockholm’s cafes made you feel “a little uncomfortable.” Who has decided these differences? Are they social constructions?
KOK: Identity is a key question for me. What’s identity? If you’ve read my books you’ve read about an extremely feminine boy. He’s into clothes, he likes to talk to girls and he’s very sensitive. That’s me when I was younger. Then I understood that no, it won’t work this way. I was bullied because of it. When I turned thirteen it became something dangerous. I felt like I had to get out of it and try a masculine role. Somehow in that I lost balance, I wondered who and what I really was… and later, I became a father, I got a new role, and at the same time I was incredibly afraid of my own feminine side, and everything crashes together, it boils, and becomes something amazingly beneficial to write about, it’s exactly the kind of complexity that I always look for. And if the main character says or thinks something it’s because he is there. He is there looking at it right then, whatever age he’s in.
I also mean that there’s a huge difference between being a man and being a woman. Just the fact that women give birth proves that. And I think that the differences create attraction and tension. A tension I’d find it catastrophic for us to lose. It’d be unsexy to just throw away these roles. That’s something you discover when you have children because then it’s easy to just let the roles go – life becomes about surviving. But this is a motion. National identity is a motion. It’s something you’re inside, you don’t get what’s happening, you can’t see it from above… and that’s where you have to write. You can’t see what’s happening now or what’s going to happen, so you just dive into it and write. In our society I think that this is where it’s happening – gender roles, personal identity and national identity.
Illustration Credit: Cari Vander Yacht