When fiction ran out for Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard he turned to his own life, with devastating results, writes Tegan Bennett Daylight A Death in the Family: My Struggle Book 1 A Man In Love: My Struggle Book 2
SAW Karl Ove Knausgaard talk in the Richard Wherrett Studio at the Sydney Writers Festival last month. The walls of this beautiful room are the original bricks of the old bond store, left bare, and there is 19th-century industrial equipment and a landing suggestive of goods being swung over the audience’s heads. The place is highceilinged but warm. It reminded me of the interiors of Knausgaard’s novels, the feeling of sheltering from the cold outdoors, of yellow light, of darkness outside.
And here was Knausgaard, as though forged for this setting: a tall man in jeans, boots, a leather jacket, but with a beard and long hair. He is in his mid-40s but seemed older, perhaps because of his rather startlingly Norse appearance, perhaps because of the way he spoke. He was calm, thoughtful. This is a man who must have been interviewed hundreds of times and yet he was respectful towards his interviewer, generous with his answers, open to the audience. Nothing seemed too small for his attention.
Knausgaard is little known in Australia but his books, six volumes of an autobiographical ‘‘ novel’’ collectively titled Min Kamp or My Struggle, have been published across the world. The first volume, A Death in the Family, came out in Norway in 2009 and won or was nominated for a swath of Scandinavian awards. Since then, all six volumes have been published in Norway; in that country, which has 10 million inhabitants, more than 450,000 copies of A Death in the Family have been sold. Some workplaces have declared ‘‘ Knausgaardfree days’’ to stop their workers reading — and, I’d say, obsessively discussing — the
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The books travel the whole landscape of the author’s life: his miserable childhood, his father’s death, his failed first marriage and stormy second marriage, his struggles with writing and the world of writers, and his frustrations with fatherhood. Some members of Knausgaard’s family will no longer speak to him; many friends and relatives have talked to the press about the damage they feel he has done. Knausgaard has said: ‘‘ My intention throughout has been to write, to create literature, and to be able to look people in the eye after I’d done it, the people I’d written about. I did this with a pure heart.’’
There is no question that Knausgaard turns as pitiless an eye on himself as he does on his friends and family. He is honest about the most shameful human moments: jealousy, cruelty, stupidity. He describes himself as a teenager, bullying the kids next door. We see him in his second book, A Man in Love, cutting his face after his future wife has rejected him. He is drunk, he breaks a glass, and he uses one of the shards to slice his whole face open, all of it — ‘‘ The chin, cheeks, forehead, nose, underneath the chin’’ — and then, thus bloodily scarred by rejection (and spectacularly hungover), has to head out and do an interview.
The Min Kamp books are not Knausgaard’s first. He has been a respected writer in his country since the late 1990s, with two novels and an established, enthusiastic audience. But literature seemed to have run out for him when he tried to write his third novel. Suddenly it became important that he tell the truth, as he saw it, without recourse to fiction. As he writes in A Man in Love: The only genres I saw value in, that still conferred meaning, were diaries and essays, the types of literature that did not deal with narrative, that were not about anything, but just consisted of a voice, the voice of your own personality, a life, a face, a gaze you could meet.
The six volumes of Min Kamp were written at speed, released every six months for three years, and Knausgaard, for the moment, is trapped in the fishbowl of his own life, with everyone watching.
In the Sydney interview Knausgaard spoke about the style he adopted for the new novels, describing it as being ‘‘ like a bath in a sea of banality and triviality’’. He related how he had attended creative writing classes in which his work was cut, line by line, while his tutors looked for the perfect sentence. These books are in one sense a reaction to that; he decided, ‘‘ If it is bad, I will do more.’’ And this is what he has done. It is bad, and there is more. There is no cliche too weary for him and no situation too trivial. Cooking, putting out the garbage, nappy-changing, train-catching, saying ‘‘ Hello?’’ and being answered, ‘‘ Hi. It’s me’’, and then replying, ‘‘ Hi’’ — none of these is beyond Knausgaard’s scope. Of course there is still selection at work; these books don’t unfold in real time, but it can feel as though they do.