There is a side to every man, so deeply personal, that it can only be revealed to strangers. When, at the age of thirty-nine, Karl Ove Knausgård decided to reveal his, the result was a six-tome autobiographical novel, totaling over 3,500 pages, as well as a very public lawsuit brought on by his family, and a subsequent controversy that fed the media in his native Norway for months. That was three years ago, and Knausgård is still uncomfortable with the attention Min Kamp (in English My Struggle, Archipelago, 2012), has received. Then again, naming a book after Hitler’s autobiography would seem to welcome controversy. Tall and slim, standing in front of a small audience in the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House in a black leather jacket and tight jeans, Knausgård gave the newly published English translation of his first volume a light squeeze. This, he said, trying to control the thick strands of greying hair that persistently got in his eyes, was as private as a novel could get. In it he revealed his innermost secrets, as well as intimate, merciless details from the lives of family and friends. Everything in it is true, but he refuses to call it a memoir; it is a long confession told with novelistic technique. He felt shame as he wrote it, not because of the nature of content, but because he thought it was devoid of literary value: who would be interested in his life? Eventually he realized that the work was relevant precisely because it was so personal; it created that unique fellowship between the writer and the reader, which is the very core of literature. ‘It is an intimate art form. One author, one reader. That’s it.’

My Struggle was, in a way, the product of Knausgård’s existential crisis, the kind that comes with middle age. Nearing forty, and having penned two award-winning novels, he was living in a nice house with his wife and three children. He should have been happy. ‘You are in the middle of your life and you think, how did I get here?’ This sober reassessment gave him new insight on his relationship with his father who was of the same age when he left his wife and kids and began drinking himself to death.

For four years Knausgård had tried to turn their complex relationship into fiction but his attempts consistently failed. ‘Everybody has one important story, and this was mine,’ he explains, ‘but if a writer knows a story too well, it is almost impossible to make it alive.’ One day, almost by accident, he used his father’s real name as he wrote, then his own, and then the name of the street in which he grew up. The energy of the words immediately changed. ‘If I knew then that this would be the beginning of a work that would take me three years to finish, that it would be three thousand and six hundred pages long, and that it would make half of my family turn their backs on me, I never would have done it.’

To write in what he calls ‘the language of self’ he had to keep the material raw and direct. ‘The most dangerous thing for a writer is wanting to sound clever,’ he says, though letting go of that impulse was not easy. There was no plot, no revisions, no editing, with the exception of very few passages. His goal was to experience the act of writing, from moment to moment, without knowing where it was leading him. He was not dictating the novel’s direction; it was the other way around. The page count rose at a galloping rate of twenty pages per day. Speed was what helped him access the parts of himself that were still unknown to him. ‘Of course then you start writing bad sentences. But what is “quality” in writing? It has nothing to do, I think, with good sentences.’ In fact, none of the conventional writing mantras, such as ‘show, don’t tell’ worked for him. For six years he tried to follow all the rules and his prose felt dead. ‘Then I thought, what if I did the opposite? What if I tried to tell everything about a person or scene?’ He hopes that eventually a subtext will arise from it, the distilled essence of the work. This was also why he chose the unorthodox title. ‘It was a combination of the personal, my struggle, everyday struggle, but I was also saying something about the whole. My view of life and what life is.’

Life and literature are similar in this, he believes: form cannot be imposed on them; it is something they create. Still, he will never revisit the work. ‘The only way I could do something like this was to have no self-criticism. People tell me it is good, and I know there is a quality in there, but I cannot bear to read it. It’s embarrassing.’ Not that this should matter. Only strangers were meant to read it, anyway.

 

Photograph by Robin Linderborg

The Last Hunters
Peter Stamm | Podcast