Author Karl Ove Knausgaard on the joys of seafood and Liverpool FC
‘When I baptised my children, it was completely unrelated to God’
For anyone who has read all or part of the six volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical novel My Struggle , I guess it would be a profoundly curious thing to meet him in person. The books – he likes to call them “the project”, as if they were a sort of demonic exercise – set a new standard of literary self-disclosure. Written over two and a bit years, around the time the author turned 40, their 3,600 published pages seem to offer a direct line into the Norwegian’s troubled and attentive mind as it tries to understand itself through the reconstructed detail of everyday life.
My Struggle proceeds as if the clues to Knausgaard’s fractured formative years, the breakdown of his first marriage, his dislocating move from his native Norway to Sweden and a new wife, Linda, and the brief joys and long frustrations of looking after three small children, might make some more sense in their reliving. He wrote, he says, always out of a desire to make something better of his life, in the hope of “a cool hand on a warm forehead”.
As an interviewer, the curiosity of first meeting Knausgaard is doubly unnerving. A default question to any man in middle age, for me, is often: “What kind of man was your father?” In Knausgaard’s case, I have read several hundred unforgettable pages devoted to the emotional actuality of clearing up his dead dad’s rancid home after the hated man, who made his son both a reluctant misery and a writer, drank himself to death. What else might there be to know?
These days, Knausgaard divides his time between London and Sweden. He has chosen to meet for lunch at Fischer’s, Chris Corbin and Jeremy King’s fabulous Viennese cafe on London’s Marylebone High Street, designed in 1920s style, created four years ago. It is a favourite London haunt of the author: “I like the schnitzel.”
Knausgaard, who became almost as famous for his straggly and somewhat unhinged intensity in interviews when his books first made headlines, seems a sleeker, more measured presence now. His beard is trimmed and his eyes are steady. Though the final translated volume of My Struggle is only now appearing in English, it is more than seven years since the frenzy of writing the books and their scandalous fallout.
By way of hello, he surprises me with something I didn’t know: that 15 years ago we played football against each other for teams representing England and Sweden, at a “writers’ world cup” in Malmö. I convince myself I can recall tangling with all his rangy selfabsorption in midfield. And, of course, we talk football, about the prospects of his beloved Liverpool FC, an obsession that hardly made it into his books, though it took root in his head as a nine-year-old and has never gone away.
One passion that does punctuate his writing is food. It is telling of Knausgaard’s power as a writer that when I knew we were to meet for lunch, a menu of dishes from his early books appeared in my head: the sardine sandwiches his father grudgingly set before him and his brother; the meatball and ketchup combinations he made for his own children, in defiance of Swedish clean-eating habits; his dislike of boiled fish and the rare epiphanies he finds in seafood. “The crabmeat on the bread was smoother and uneven,