The Light Behind the Bookshelves
Karl Ove Knausgaard interviewed by Daniel Fraser.
Karl Ove Knausgaard‘s first novel, Out of the World, was the first ever debut novel to win The Norwegian Critics’ Prize. His second novel, A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven, was widely acclaimed. A Death in the Family was awarded the prestigious Brage Award and is being heralded as a masterpiece wherever it appears.
3:AM: I’d like to start by asking about the book’s title. The working title was Argentina. However, you changed it to My Struggle. How do these two titles relate to the book and what makes My Struggle more appropriate?
KK: This book is really about being at a place in life and wanting to be somewhere else and Argentina has always been a sort of a dream country for me. I had always wanted to go there and had never been. The first time I was aware of it was in the football World Cup Final in 1978 but then it became a kind of a mythical country for me: Borges is from there and for me he is an incarnation of literature, and Gombrowicz he wrote his diaries there, so it was the place of literature and myth, the place all my longing was directed towards. However it’s a bad title because nobody would understand that. But My Struggle, Min Kamp, is different. Well first of all it says ‘Fuck you I don’t care about you, I’m just doing this’. But then there is also something basic in that title, it’s my struggle, and the book is a description of a struggle, it’s a small struggle, a real struggle which is also the book itself.
Another good thing was that it meant I had to read Hitler’s Mein Kampf and in the end it meant I also had to write about it too. I wrote about four hundred pages in the last volume about Adolf Hitler mostly about his path to Mein Kampf because there are a lot of similarities in there, a lot of parallels in the descriptions of my life and the young Hitler’s because we are both sixteen and in love and wanting to be artists and so on and so on.
But most of all, that difference and relation between: overall construction, life, the world, the biggest concepts, and the smallest ideas is something which is perfectly captured in the title.
3:AM: I wanted to ask you now about the mechanical aspects of writing My Struggle, in particular the length of the book and the speed with which it was composed. How important were they and what did these mechanisms allow you to do?
KK: The speed is the most important thing. Both challenge the concept of form but the speed has a practical element as well for me because I am a perfectionist in my writing, in my way of thinking and I want to be clever and I want to make it into real art, real literature. But I had to fight against that thing in me because I became so critical of my own writing and I needed to get over that, and the only way I could do it was by speeding up because then you don’t have time to be critical at all.
It also allowed me to escape the notion of knowing what to write. If you know what you’re going to write then that’s death for me, then nothing is happening. If I plan something it’s just dead. And almost everything I write is dead in that sense really, but if I speed up then something, all of a sudden, is happening because I can no longer control it.
There’s also something else in there too. When I was nineteen I went to a creative writing course and we were basically taught that if something is bad then you should just take it away, essentially a very minimalistic approach to writing. It took me ten years to overcome that and to understand it’s possible to do the opposite, that if it’s bad you can just add more in because then something else is happening.
It’s the same thing with the length. If you write a hundred pages then it’s all about concentration, it’s all about sentences or language. But if you write 3600 pages the sentences are no longer the important thing, it is something else that is going on that’s difficult to explain.
Writing about life I just love the thought of being able to write a hundred pages, two hundred pages, three hundred pages about one day and then just spend maybe ten sentences on ten years and try to make a dynamic. But I am really sorry for doing this because now I cannot do it again. I’d love to do something like Marcel Proust because for me that’s the perfect novel but I have wasted it away. It’s too late. It was this, this is the result.
3:AM: There’s a point in the first volume where you write about a ‘calibration of the senses… the point where all necessary distances have been set’, was the form an attempt at breaking free from what you describe?
KK: Yes, that’s absolutely so. That has to do with concepts and ideas. The way we think of ourselves is static, it’s unmoving and fixed and I just wanted to crush all that up. To move in those directions where I don’t know what things really are. I mean I wrote a lot of pages about taking care of children, doing all these things which don’t have any meaning but I just go in there amongst the everyday and describe it and hope that something will show itself.
Another thing is that when I turned forty it was kind of like I was dead. I thought ‘This is it and it’s going to be like this for the rest of my life.’ And the only way for me to deal with that was through literature. It’s difficult to explain but I had to attempt to get closer to life, which is a stupid thing to do but that’s what I was trying to do, to avoid all the structures and forms of the novel.
A Man in Love really has no dramatic plot, it’s a really horizontal book in a way, whereas the third book is a very ordinary classic childhood description, almost like a cliché. That’s the danger with writing fast, you write quickly to get away from something but that means you also do it mechanically and you can end up with a cliché.
3:AM: That’s one of the things I like most about the book, unlike the so much of the over crafted, sentence obsessed literature of today, My Struggle has a complete lack of fear of cliché.
KK: That’s the risk in this book, to bathe in banalities is a dangerous thing for a writer to do. But then you need to ask yourself what quality is, what is quality in literature?
3:AM: You wrote in Volume II that literature’s sole obligation is the search for something different. What difference is it that you are searching for in My Struggle?
KK: Literature when I was a kid was always a place I could escape and when I grew up and became a writer myself it was still a place where I could get away and get outside of everything and use it as a kind of perspective for everything. But this time I am deciding not move away, not to go away but just try to describe this here as it is. The only thing I was looking for really was meaning, because I started off with such a desperate feeling of meaninglessness and knowing that that feeling isn’t like things should be. To consider everything meaningless is one of the deadly sins, so I just try and make things alive and the only way I can do that is in writing.
3:AM: Does it have any relation to the notion of difference Foucault describes?
KK: Definitely. His book The Order of Things is one of the two or three most important books in my life as a writer, reading it was a revelation for me so he has to be in there somewhere.
3:AM: Death, of course has a commanding presence in your work. How did your Father’s death change how you thought about death in general?
KK: His death or seeing him dead confirmed something for me which is very important: the physical material element of death which is something I have been very occupied with. When I was twenty I worked at a hospital for the mentally ill, the patients didn’t have much of a life and their strange forms made me see the body for the first time in that biological, materialist sense.
At the same time my grandmother was very ill and I saw her too and had never seen the body in that sense because we tend to hide these things away. When I saw my father dead it was the same thing, I saw how individuality, psychology, culture, all those things just disappear. In this book I have tried to write about all things in a strictly physical sense and I also view death from this perspective because so much of our lives are made up of other things, images, abstractions and concepts so that’s the real subject in My Struggle, that there is a difference between the way we think of ourselves and the way we really are.
We can say something about who we are but that doesn’t really mean anything. And in the end, it ends with a poem by Paul Celan, He is someone trying to move in those directions where there is no language at all, no world of material things. This is the exploration which is going on all the time in the book but only among the most banal events. Like the end of The Order of Things where Foucault describes man disappearing like a face in written in sand at the edge of the sea.
3:AM: Heidegger features a number of times in My Struggle. What effect do you think his thought has had on your work?
KK: I have never finished Sein und Zeit and I don’t know if I get more than five or ten percent of it but I just love to be in his language and the way her forces you to follow his path. There is also something attractive in his ideas about our automatic lives and of course his reading of Hoderlin is very important to me and my work. My thoughts about Heidegger also reached a conclusion in the sixth book writing about the Nazis because he was of course a Nazi for a while and it’s very interesting how he got to that point. I feel the same longing and the same affection for him when I read Adorno’s The Jargon of Authenticity, I am completely on Heidegger’s side. I am not a philosopher at all but I love to read his works and they relate to my writing in ways I don’t even know, but then I feel his ideas are sophisticated and difficult and writing is not. But still he deals with life and I deal with life.
3:AM: One quote in the book which really stuck with me was ‘The difference between nineteenth century nihilism and ours is the difference between emptiness and equality.’ I wondered if you might talk about what you meant by this.
KK: I cannot really talk about this at the moment but if you wait it will come in the sixth book where there is a long discussion on the idea of equality.
3:AM: Poetry features quite heavily in the books too. I was wondering what influence poets and poetry have had on you as a writer?
KK: If you are a writer you will recognise what you think the best is, the pinnacle of writing, the place where you think ‘this is really the point of everything’; and for me this is almost exclusively poets because of what they can evoke.
I never really talked about poetry or painting or art at all before because it is something totally different to writing, but in this book I tried to. I read Paul Celan, I had never talked about him or even really understood the work but I just read and was struck thinking ‘Wow this is really something else’ the ultimate place of words. I read Celan’s poems slowly, one word at a time, trying to see what’s going on but it was a strange experience as unlike most poets the words are not the important thing, there is something else there in between.
And it is the same with art. It is a mystery for me as I find I am often moved by it, and think it is very meaningful and very important but I can’t integrate it into my own life and make it relevant there, it’s something outside of what’s going on here, now.
Poetry is also the source of a lot of longing for me. If I read Hoderlin I feel almost only longing and sorrow, it has to do with the feeling of being alive I think.
3:AM: I wanted to ask about the religious themes in the book and how they relate to your materialism.
KK: My last book before this was about angels and the fall of angels and my fascination there was of the double character of angels, both divine and human, they have bodies and are wandering on Earth.
The idea for this book [A Time for Every Purpose under Heaven] was that the angels were tempted by life on Earth, they came closer and closer and eventually became Darwinist, they evolve until they eventually become like seagulls. Afterwards I was invited to do a retranslation of the Bible into Norwegian and then I was writing with theologians and of course Hebraic experts and when I was working on the first four books of Moses and I was amazed by the fact that there are no abstract motives, no abstract thoughts, it’s all read through the body all related to movement which is the opposite of what my image of the Bible was. And it is that which I saw and have been using ever since really.
I am not a religious person so for me religious ecstasy has the same meaning as it does in literature, as ecstasy in Holderlin and whatever is strongly connected to me. I am interested in those kinds of experience.
In the research for A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven I read a lot of theological texts and found some amazing things. One of the most important things was that the story of Cain and Abel, the story of one brother murdering another, is only eight lines long. It’s a really short story and yet it has been constantly reinterpreted for thousands of years and when I was writing about Hitler, the incident with the mass murderer Brevik happened and I ended up writing about Hitler, Brevik and Cain & Abel because there was something there in the story of Cain and Abel which was connected to these figures.
3:AM: You wrote that you are ‘never one for receiving’ and that you desire distance/turning away and quite clearly you have transmitted much of yourself in the book and may who read it will feel that they know you intimately. How has that outpouring or act of transmission allowed you to distance yourself and are these two things reconcilable?
KK: That is the paradox of this whole situation really. I turned away from everybody, even my family to do this and to hide really. Then the reverse of this is that I am recognised everywhere and people send me letters and speak to me as if we have known each other forever. But that has to do with what I was searching for: to be free in literature, and to be free in literature you really cannot allow any other to be present.
If you have a voice in your head saying ‘I can’t do that’ or ‘I should do that’ then it’s no good. And in social situations that voice is constant and I really am no good at dealing with it because I’m so occupied with it but in literature I can be free from that and just be, with no other there at all. And it’s interesting because in the other where there is the moral or ethical component of everything and if you want to do what I did you have to overcome the ethical, you have to overcome the moral, which is impossible in a social situation but is possible in the novel.
I never thought that this was going to be read and I honestly thought that people would hate it, but I still did it so there is obviously something I want to say. It’s strange turning away from life, which is necessary to write or do anything really, and at the same time doing it in order to make life more rich or more meaningful or more intense.
At the same time as I was writing My Struggle, Anders Brevik wrote his manifesto and we are pretty much the same generation and he did the same, he turned away, there is no other there in his work and there’s no moral component there, no ethics. The strange thing is he transgressed the literature to act on it in real life but it is the same mechanisms in action. The only thing I learned from this project is to do with this: with the social and the self and relations and with freedom and what freedom is.
3:AM: The book is also about the inadequacy of writing. At one wonderful moment you write ‘And writing, what else was it but death?’. How can the ultimate impossibility of writing, the fragmentary nature of memory reconcile itself in this work/in literature?
KK: That’s a very good question and to the point but it’s impossible for me to answer. It’s impossible for me to reduce it.
3:AM: Finally I just wanted to ask, seeing as though you end the book with the line ‘I am so happy I am no longer an author’, if this is the end of writing then?
KK: Not the end of writing, the end of being an author. Since then I have been writing essays which is a completely different form. I wanted this book just to end in life and to turn away from literature into life. And I wanted it to end there and the sentence should be true I really must be filled with desire to live and it was like that, it was a relief to write that sentence. Now I want to write again but really there is nothing. I have some strong fascinations I want to write about but not the urge. I don’t know.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, April 29th, 2013.