Early in the morning, I’m sitting at a small table in a narrow hotel restaurant across from Karl Ove Knausgaard and his much-replicated face. His features are full of motion, his blue eyes express sentiment and humor. He is tall enough that he flinches whenever he walks through a doorway, half-expecting to clip the frame, and he often sweeps his left hand over the table as we speak.
It’s Knausgaard’s first time in New York since his two multibook series concluded. The first, My Struggle, made him a phenomenon. Six volumes of a relentlessly confessional, anxious work congeal into a life. Loosely: Book One is about his father’s death; Book Two is about love and parenthood; Book Three is about his early childhood; Book Four is about his teenage years; Book Five is about his 20s and writing; Book Six is about the release of Book One, plus a 400-page interpolated essay on Hitler’s adolescence.
The second series, the Seasons tetralogy, is a quiet, lyric assemblage of flash dictionary entries written for Knausgaard’s unborn daughter, with an ambush novella, Spring, lurking in the sequence. This operates as something of a coda to My Struggle—both Spring and the finale of Book Six depict Knausgaard’s second wife’s ongoing battle with bipolar disorder.
I was nervous about interviewing Knausgaard after reading his personally harrowing complaints about the banality of interviews in Book Six, but I find him warm and funny. He speaks like his prose, in expansive sentences whose digressions somehow loop back to where they began. He really likes talking about the oeuvre of Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk was a disappointment, The Prestige underrated).
Many interviews of Knausgaard focus on the salacious personal aspect of his works, but I was more curious about how he’d crafted them. The fact that the source material is his life can conceal how structured My Struggle is: a several-hundred page digression in the middle of preparing a lobster; objects and landscapes resurfacing volumes after they first appear. When writing at such length, the ordering principles inherent to literature must become more complicated. And given that, how did he still write My Struggle so quickly—as many as 20 pages a day for three years?
“There are no choices. You can’t ignore impulses, because they’re too valuable,” Knausgaard says. “The book I wrote the fastest was Book Six. I re-read the Hitler part because I was in Edinburgh and had to talk for the first time about the book and I couldn’t remember what I’d written—I couldn’t even recognize the thoughts in it.”
Book Six’s charged treatment of Hitler as a young man, an outsider, but not yet a monster, swims up in the text unexpectedly as a counterpoint to the author’s personal narrative. Knausgaard’s reaction to the sequence surprises me. “It was fun,” he says. “It was the one part that was fun to write of the whole of My Struggle—obviously because it isn’t about me, but it’s also exploring something. Even when I was writing Book Six, I didn’t plan to do it. It came exactly as it is in the book.”
But it’s not that it doesn’t link to the rest of the work. Knausgaard’s father operates as a sort of bogeyman throughout the series; he’s terrifying in the author’s youth, then reduced into a fog of alcoholism. His father is ever unnamed, like Hitler’s father in Mein Kampf. But toward the end of Book Six, Knausgaard’s father’s name simply appears, stark on the page.
This contrast between the Kampfs was intentional, Knausgaard says. “There is a veil when there are memories. I only call him father throughout the books, even though his presence is strong. When the name comes, it was like: ‘It’s him’—some kind of naked thing, shocking to see. I did that on purpose. But I didn’t know if I was allowed to.”
His uncertainty was due to the legal issues over Book One that are explored in the first half of Book Six. As the first installment of My Struggle nears publication, it’s vetted via email by people whom we haven’t seen in thousands of pages. This functions like a modernized version of the extraordinary party at the end of In Search of Lost Time, when readers reconnect with figures from Proust’s work who have been so transformed by time that the narrator doesn’t know them.
“That’s what I wanted to do very much,” Knausgaard says when I make the comparison. “The book starts in the present in Malmo, and there is just a long, long, long struggle. Then it comes back, and you know who these characters are because you’ve met them before, and it’s more like, not only the past and the present, but literature and not literature.” In other words, in Book Six, at the end of My Struggle, real life intrudes on Book One’s constructed memories of real life. A memoir, no matter how honest, is still skewed by the obligations of fiction—the actual texts from supporting characters create a supra-layer of reality.
“That’s the thing I’m really playing with,” Knausgaard says. “The characters are almost in the room. I really wanted to be in the real world in Book Six, and one way of doing that is to write about everything that happened in the real world because of the other books. That’s the trick I really stole from Don Quixote—the opening of the second book, when they read the first.”
It’s a telling citation. The second volume of Don Quixote is an angry response to a real text, a Don Quixote sequel that wasn’t written by Cervantes. Book Six also features a shadow text, wherein Knausgaard’s uncle argues for an alternate history to Book One—one in which Knausgaard’s father doesn’t die in squalor. This throws the veracity of My Struggle into intentional doubt— what was in reality a distressing conflict generates unique literary potential. How odd for one’s life to be a novel. Every break-up is a story arc; every first date glimmers with narrative possibility.
When I asked Knausgaard about this, he takes things a step further: “It is possible that we understand life as a novel, because we’ve read novels. I’m reading, at the moment, Frank Kermode. He has a book, The Sense of an Ending. It’s absolutely brilliant, and very much about the fictions that we have. Not literary fiction, but fiction in real life. He writes about, say, the sound of a clock.” He pantomimes the motion of a clock’s second hand. “Why do we say ‘tick tock’ when the sound is ‘tick tick’? Well, ‘tick’ is Genesis, ‘tock’ is apocalypse, so it’s a story. ‘Tick tock’ is a story. ‘Tick tick’ is not a story. You see that we are shaping the world into fiction, into stories, on absolutely every level. And what should a novel do? Discover that, and explore that, instead of being straightforward.”
Knausgaard’s mention of the bible reminds me of his excellent novel A Time for Everything, a re-imagining of biblical stories that explores the transformation of angels from seraphim to cherubim. Though the work predates My Struggle, its descriptions of place are strangely identical to the setting of Book Three—Knausgaard’s early years. Having the ur-fiction echo his childhood’s ur-spaces seems to be another attempt to blur fiction and reality.
“That was no theoretical implication—only practical, because I couldn’t make these people alive in a world I didn’t know,” Knausgaard says. “So that was the ‘a-ha’ moment: ‘Oh, I’ll put the bible in Norway.’ All the elements in A Time for Everything are in My Struggle. I wanted to make My Struggle the backstage thing. So, for instance, the beekeeper in A Time for Everything—that’s my grandfather in My Struggle.”
I realize that though he has consumed a cheese omelette with ham, potatoes, toast with butter, two coffees, and two orange juices, I never once saw him take a bite. Knausgaard has critiqued the middle volumes of My Struggle for lacking the open, non-linear feel of Books One and Six; they function more like constructed fiction. “Everything in Book Five happened, but it was made into a story,” he says. “Book Six isn’t a story. That’s the difference. But I couldn’t have no narrative in all the books—it would have been much more unreadable than it is.”
He goes on to criticize what he calls the “naiveté” of his work. “I feel that’s a weakness with my writing. I can see it when I have to do readings. I think it’s a weakness and a flaw: a naiveté and a lack of… not cynicism but almost helplessness in it.”
But this observation doesn’t match the experience of reading Knausgaard on the page. There is a canny meta-play to his writing, no matter how honest and heartfelt he has tried to make it. His slippage between reality and the representation of reality is most apparent in Summer, when, in a strange moment, the familiar first person of his books suddenly transforms midsentence into a woman having an affair with a German officer during World War II.
“I’m always fascinated by what you can do when you have a self,” he says of this sequence. “You have an I, and you can just fill it with something. That’s the trick—the magic—of writing, that you can do that.”
This transference, like the Hitler section of Book Six, is evidence of Knausgaard craving different points of view. Indeed, his next novel will be multi-perspective, attempting to get away from his familiar register. “I want to get the same world looked at by different people, to see how the book changes and see how relations change,” he says of this new project. “But I have only written 60 pages. The challenge is to make the language different from one person to another.” But, he says, he can always break glass in case of emergency and return to his trusty, reliable first person.
Adam Dalva teaches creative writing at Rutgers University and is a book critic for Guernica Magazine. His comic book, Olivia Twist, will be published by Dark Horse in fall 2018.