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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

IBy Karl Ove Knaus­gaard Vin­tage, 416pp, $19.95 By Karl Ove Knaus­gaard Harvill Secker, 528pp, $32.95 Both trans­lated by Don Bartlett un­fold­ing true story of Karl Ove Knaus­gaard.

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.

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