19 May 2018

Karl Ove Knausgård: struggles and seasons

From Saturday Morning, 10:04 am on 19 May 2018

Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård came to the attention of the literary world with six autobiographical novels based on his family, collectively called My Struggle (Min Kamp).

The series was a publishing sensation in Norway and was critically acclaimed around the world, earning Knausgård the title of the "Norwegian Proust".

Karl Ove Knausgård

Karl Ove Knausgård Photo: Supplied / Sam Barker

His latest series, Seasons Quartet and delves this time more specifically into the lives of his immediate family.

The third of these, Spring, published this year, details the psychiatric struggles of his ex-wife, the mother of his four children.

Knausgård's writing is without affect, there's scant plot and he talks about things that are not usually written about - the mundane.

Nevertheless critic James Wood said there was something "ceaselessly compelling" about Knausgard's books saying "even when he's bored, he's interested".

My Struggle is 3500 pages about the boy bullied by his alcoholic father, the awkward teenager, the failed marriage and subsequent fatherhood.

Knausgård's decided to use his life as raw material for his writing after his father died.

"My father died just before my first book came out and he died in kind of brutal circumstances for me. He was an alcoholic and he lived with his mother and he drank himself to death.

"He shut the door, went down to his mother's and drank himself to death. I came there when he was dead, with my brother, and I thought I hated my father but in the end I was crying for a week for some reason.

"And I knew I had to write that story, and I knew I had to get it right."

He says he started to write it as a fiction, but it wasn't working and after trying for five years he abandoned that approach.

"I decided to just write it as it is. I used my father's name, my own name and tried to write the story directly and raw.

"I wanted to find out who was my father, who was I. How did we end up here? I had three children and a marriage and why was my life so bleak and why did I feel no happiness - that was the starting point, I was 40 years old."

He says he didn't know at the time whether writing this way would destroy his reputation.

"I thought this was almost like literary suicide because I was writing about myself very privately who would be interested in that? No one I thought."

Happily for Knausgård he was very, very wrong. Going with his literary instincts had chimed with millions of readers.

"I'm a writer, and as a writer you can't think about the audience or the reader. If you do then you start to please them and try to fulfil their expectations. Writing to me is to try to go beyond that, go beyond expectations."

His writing is an attempt to know himself, Knausgård says, however elusive that self might be.

"If you start to write about yourself it's layer upon layer upon layer upon layer. There's no such thing as a core - but I think there is a tone or a voice. I think that's us."

Happiness is not his natural state he says and he's OK with that.

"I could go into therapy, I could become happy but that's not my aim in life, that's not my goal to be happy."

When he finished the draft of his first book he sent it to family members.

"I was completely unprepared for the rage that my dad's brother met it with. He tried to stop it being published.

"I hadn't published the book so I could say to them OK if you don't want this book to be published I won't publish it - it's fine I'll write another book."

He says he was tormented about hurting his family but a powerful desire to tell his story won out.

"Could I act like an immoral person, publish it, and just hurt them? This lasted for about a month and then I thought but he's my father, it's my life, it's my story - who can say I can't write a book about my father?

"So I published it but it felt like a very insecure, almost dangerous thing to do."

Literature can shine a light on complexity, he says.

"The whole point to literature is to open it up, to show the complexity."

And writing literature takes him somewhere he craves, he says.

"There's only one thing I'm really interested in and that's presence. Because I'm not present in my own world, it's like every single moment I'm thinking of something else

"I'm longing for that presence and I can get it through writing."

Karl Ove Knausgård was a guest of this year's Auckland Writers Festival.