My Long Chat With Karl Ove Knausgaard (Not Just About Hitler, Syrian Refugees, and His Own Dream of Escaping to Postwar Argentina)

Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Like most Norwegian schoolchildren of his generation, Karl Ove Knausgaard started learning English at the age of 10. The curriculum didn’t extend to the study of literature, so he had to come to British and American authors on his own. Though he says the opposite, his English is excellent, but there were two words I used that he didn’t know: placid (crucial because he grew up in a placid country, but in a home that was anything but); and refinement (crucial because his prose is marked by its high variance of refinement, veering between the cooked and the raw). I met Knausgaard on a recent afternoon outside the offices of the New York Times, which had just published his review of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission. (Our meeting occurred before the attacks in Paris.)

We walked east a few blocks and up to 44th Street for a drink at the Blue Bar of the Algonquin Hotel. I was disappointed to learn that massive international literary celebrity is such that you can pass through Times Square without being stopped by a fan. Knausgaard stands about six-foot-six, and his hair and beard at age 46 are a touch grayer than they appear on the cover of book two of his My Struggle series — the fourth of six volumes that appeared in English translation last spring. Two nights before he had been fêted at a gala at the New York Public Library, and he would be again that night at MoMA. At the Algonquin, Knausgaard had a black coffee and a Diet Coke, and I had a bloody Mary. I’ve been told that I’m a laconic interlocutor and in this Knausgaard was more than my match; on the recording of our conversation, the long pauses are filled with Sinatra songs playing from the bar’s speakers. What follows has been edited and condensed, omitting our discussion of Houellebecq and Lars von Trier (he gently scolded me for not having seen The Idiots); of his eldest daughter, who hasn’t read his books but is beginning to write herself (“She doesn’t yet know that it’s difficult”); of his recent trip to Albania and my Albanian heritage (“You must go back to Albania; it is Europe but it is not Europe”); and of the Boston bands I grew up listening to (about which he was curious — “Great bands,” he said). As I walked him back to his hotel, across from the library, Knausgaard, who lives with his wife and four children in rural Sweden, said he could never live in Manhattan. Brooklyn? “Maybe.”

You’ve had some journalism appear in English recently. Was there a hiatus in your writing after you finished the My Struggle books?
I was exhausted at the end of My Struggle, but I started writing again a few months later, only essays. I started a publishing house in Norway. In the beginning it was translating works close to home, only Germans, Austrians, and some Swedish writers, but we have started publishing Americans. This fall we published Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet. In the spring there’ll be Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. Later Rebecca Solnit, Atticus Lish, and Donald Antrim. I tried to get the rights for Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? but missed it. Same with Ferrante, and the recent Nobel winner Svetlana Alexievich. I tried to get the rights to her book on Chernobyl, but they were gone.

Is it fair to say that when you started writing My Struggle you’d come to something like a hatred of literature?
Hate is a very strong word. No. More than anything else it was my own fiction writing — that was what I hated, and I had hated it for a while. For a time I stopped reading novels, and only read nonfiction. But when you read a book like The Flame Alphabet, how can you say you hate literature? It would be a stupid thing to say.

Is there an avant-garde tradition in Norway?
No, modernism never came to Norway. There were no experimental novels until the 1980s. It’s never occurred to me, but there was no avant-garde, and what we have now is different from modernism.

Did you consider My Struggle an experiment?
Yes, for me it was an experiment in extreme realistic prose. In my imagination, it was an experiment. But from book two it becomes less experimental, and more traditional.

Book two is a domestic novel, but there’s hardly any sex in it. There’s hardly any sex in the series until the last two pages of book four. Why is that?
I found it extremely difficult to write about sex in a book that deals with real people — almost impossible. That’s the only reason: I had to protect the others. I couldn’t go there. But I have no problem writing about sex explicitly — that’s not why. It’s about the intimacy of it, which makes it impossible to write about it in real life. But it’s the same as with brain: The physical thing of it is worth writing about it, and the difference between the inner desire and the physical manifestation of it — all those things are interesting.

Aside from the invasion of privacy, when you’re writing about real people, what are the problems?
It’s a violent thing to do. It’s taking something from them. I didn’t realize how powerful writing is. It fixes something in place, and it’s always a reduction. My mother is treated very well in the books, but she was angry, it’s so hard to be reduced.

Do you ever think of it as a creation?
Not when I’m writing. It is, of course, but when I’m writing I’m not thinking. When I’m writing I’m moving inside of myself, among all the people I know. I have no sense of creating at all. But now I’m writing portraits. I’m publishing four books this year. There’s one about objects. I’m writing about animals, and I’m writing about my friends. Then I send what I’ve written to them, and they’re shocked. It’s painful, and I feel very guilty, and I don’t want to do it anymore, but there it is. It’s a very intimate thing to be seen. I start with something characteristic. I try to catch their soul. I have a friend who’s very little connected to people, he’s very light, he just moves, and he never really connects to people, never commits. And he read what I wrote, and he wasn’t insulted, he was pleased. Everybody knows these things about themselves, but their reactions can differ. I have a friend writing about me, and it is terrible. I just have to endure it and accept it no matter what.

You took the title of your series from Hitler, and the last volume, which I haven’t yet read because it won’t appear in English until 2017, is largely about Hitler and Anders Breivik, who committed a massacre in Norway in 2011. Do you think your generation of writers is trapped by the legacy of the Second World War?
That’s a huge question. When you have this refugee crisis in Europe, you can’t see it and not immediately think about the Second World War. My Struggle was originally called Argentina because there was so much longing in the book, so much longing to get away from where I am. And Argentina, for me, is the dream country, starting from the World Cup in 1978, which I saw on television, not knowing anything about the political situation, just seeing those pictures of the soccer players, moving on to Borges and Cortazar and even Gombrowicz, who wrote his greatest things when he was there, his Diaries. At the end of his Diaries, he moves to Paris and the book dies. It’s completely dead. But I never knew I was going to write about the war and Hitler. I didn’t read Mein Kampf until just before book one was published, and I knew I would have to write about it. When I started book six, I thought it would be ten or 20 pages, but then it just exploded. But I also like to read writers before the war, where you don’t know where you’re headed. There are elements that look ugly to us now, but they didn’t see it then. Exactly the same elements that led to that catastrophe are still around us now, but we’ve just distributed them differently, which is basically what I’m writing about in book six.

When did the Breivik massacre occur in the course of your writing?
It happened after I had spent the whole winter and spring writing about Hitler and Vienna. It was the natural way to end the book: a person of my generation and cultural background doing such a thing. The most interesting anti-Nazi book I ever read is Peter Handke’s book about his mother’s suicide, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. Handke writes about his mother without representing her in any way, which is the opposite of what I do in My Struggle, turning my father into a character. Austria produced a lot of great writers because of such terrible conditions in the country. There the writing is dominated by what they don’t want to know. Bernhard is another, one of the greatest European writers of the last 100 years.

Did you ever worry that Norway was too peaceful a place to be a writer?
No, I never thought that. It’s a very, very innocent country, and very narrow-sighted. Norway is very much about Norway. It’s outside of the world, in a way. It feels very protected. It’s a very good place to grow up, I think, up to a certain point.

How has the Syrian refugee crisis been affecting Norway and Sweden?
Sweden very directly, because they’re accepting 200,000 refugees, the equivalent of a major city. The political situation is very polarized. There’s one anti-immigration party, and they’re really out in the cold. None of the other parties want to deal with them. But they’re growing 20 to 25 percent in the polls. I don’t think 25 percent of the Swedes are anti-immigration, or racist, but the problem it creates is that no one wants to talk about it, because that makes you a racist. And the refugees are a physical presence, and this is something new. The Swedish government wants to do good, so there are good accommodations, but people are burning them down before they get there. There have been 20 fires. It’s very turbulent, but it’s also very exciting to me, that everything is changing. It’s exciting that it’s possible — the war has been going on for years, so why hasn’t the government done this before

Was there a possibility that you could go away and become an immigrant, say, to Argentina, when you left home and went north to teach, as you write about in book four?
It didn’t exist, that possibility. I don’t think those who grow up now have that mentality. The whole world has changed. They’re relating much more to the rest of the world. I’ve written about this in a literary magazine, Vagant, for its anniversary. They were founded in the 1980s, and I wrote an essay about its whole story. It’s like when punk came and shook everything up — well, this magazine, it wasn’t punk because it was a serious, hard-core literary magazine, but it still introduced so many things very suddenly, a lot of philosophers, a lot of writers no one had ever heard of, a lot of things from the world, even the classics — writers in Greek and Latin, this whole classical tradition that had never existed in Norway outside of the academy. It was as if someone had lit a torch and allowed us to see things all over the world. Everything’s been different since then. I started working for it in 1999. The editors change quite often. That’s part of the concept. All the people who were involved in the beginning are now in prominent places in the literary world; my editor, for example, was writing for them, and all the important critics now.

How has it felt now that your writing has started to appear in America?
When you live in Scandinavia, it feels like everything that’s going on is out of reach. Even British literature — reading Ian McEwan in the early 1990s, it felt like we didn’t share the same world. It’s been very strange for me to come here and meet these writers and realize that we were contemporaries. One of the reasons we have this publishing house is to have them come to Norway and create something that’s not constricted to Norway.

There are varying levels of perfectionism in your books, an uneven quality that’s deliberate and part of the artifice. Did you feel that in abandoning refinement you were somehow compensating for it with other qualities?
I started to write in the ’80s and the beginning of the ’90s, and everything I learned and read gave me a certain standard of what quality was and what really good writing was. The notion of quality — I could use it to construct something, but that was like pretending in a way, even if in the end it was impressive, or good, or even beautiful. When I finally started my first novel in 1998, I started writing differently, with much more speed. I had a dream of something much more organic, not constructed, something that was moving around and could grow.

Did you have an example in mind?
You wouldn’t have read him, there’s a Norwegian writer, Thure Erik Lund, he’s the greatest prose writer in my generation. He’s ten years older than me. He’s very wild. His novels start in one place and end up somewhere completely different. His dream novel, he told me, was a novel that starts here and ends up in Chinese, and the readers should have learned Chinese by the time they got to the end. He’s untranslatable. In one of his books, there’s no people in it, it’s completely empty, but it still works, it’s just great. In Norway, Lund was the only expansive writer I knew of. And there was the example of Marcel Proust — his are books that just grow.

But speed isn’t something associated with Proust. It’s something we associate with Kerouac, a writer people read in their teens and then often discard. What about him?
I read Kerouac when I was 18, and I left him behind, too. But he and the others in his school turned out to be very important to me when I got around to writing. That kind of energy is completely lacking in modernist writers like Musil, and I’m much closer to Kerouac than to Musil. I discovered that I could come up with things when I wrote quickly that I would never have thought of otherwise, and that’s the way it still is.

You’ve said something similar about Dostoevsky. In book two you call him a high-school writer.
That’s true, and I’m very afraid of that side of me, because there’s a juvenility in it. It’s there in my writing and I can’t stand watching it.

How do you feel when you look at the books now?
I don’t read them. I can clearly see, okay, this is good or this is terrible, but that’s not the point. I wanted these books to be freed from all that, and it was important to do it because otherwise I never would have been able to write anything.

How do you feel about having your face on the cover of the My Struggle books?
It has turned my face into a mask. When I look into the mirror, I see that mask. It’s estranging. It’s very interesting as a phenomenon for me, and ironic because the book is so much about the inner self.

And of course it’s a face that you write about cutting with a razor.
Exactly. I don’t retain scars from that experience, and I did it twice. Rather superficially, I guess, but it was bloody. At first the books had proper covers, but then my face appeared on the galley in England, and they understood that it would sell, and every book is now that. But in Norway there are rather nice covers done by my friend and his brother, photographs of scenes in the place where I grew up, the top of a roof, or a lamppost.

Do you ever go back?
I’ve been once. I met my neighbor and his parents. They were very grateful for book three because it gave them our childhood back.

Did you think of the character of your father as a different character across the various volumes?
When I realized it was going to be so long I realized I had the opportunity to do exactly that: to determine people at different stages of my mental development. It was difficult to do because I had to be 17 again and read the world that way — a sort of method writing. My father changes in the books because he changed throughout my life. And he still does. He’s present in my new books, but he’s very light and distant, it’s very different from My Struggle. But if I had followed a different path for the book than my father, it would have been a different life and a different book. He’s the one who determined everything in it. Sometimes I think if there’s a life after death, and if there is a hell, he will be waiting for me. I can’t free myself from that thought.