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What's behind writer Karl Ove Knausgård's rock-star status?

Karl Ove Knausgård: the poster boy of modern letters. Photo/Alamy

Norwegian literary luminary Karl Ove Knausgård is coming to the Auckland Writers Festival this month.

There is a long and luminous tradition of confessional writing that can be traced back through the likes of Thomas De Quincey and Jean-Jacques Rousseau all the way to St Augustine. But in more recent years, the genre gained a bad name for the kind of self-pitying sentimentality exemplified by the misery memoir.

The literary credibility of personal experience seemed to be on the point of collapse when, in 2006, James Frey’s bestselling A Million Little Pieces, supposedly a memoir of his prison years as a drug addict, was exposed as a fiction. It was as if the demand for ever more extreme testaments had ripped apart the fabric of truth that made confessional writing worth reading.

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And then something strange happened. A Norwegian writer, unknown outside Scandinavian literary circles, wrote a six-volume, 3600-page account of his life as a timid young boy, frustrated novelist, failed husband and then an angst-ridden father of young children.

It was written in intense, sometimes forensic detail, with memories, for example, of a thwarted teenage attempt to get drunk or an awkward adult gathering of young parents, going on for 60 pages at a time. Often nothing much happens, and continues not to happen for vast sequences of descriptive prose. The setting for much of the action – for want of a better word – was in hauntingly remote locations that have more than a little in common with some of the farther reaches of the South Island. The overall effect was so unapologetically mundane that it was, in an obvious sense, transparently true, and yet it was described as fiction.

What’s more, this series of books, provocatively titled My Struggle (Min Kamp, in Norwegian, with its ironic and disturbing allusion to Hitler’s Mein Kampf), not only sold half a million copies in Norway, a country with a population only slightly larger than New Zealand’s, but also was a worldwide literary sensation, earning unconfined critical acclaim, with its author hailed as a 21st-century Proust.

That author is Karl Ove Knausgård, the now 49-year-old poster boy of modern letters. With his commanding 1.93m height, rock-star hair and brooding Nordic good looks, Knausgård has almost single-handedly made literary fiction seem sexy and dangerous again. After the long, barren years in which so much of Western fiction seemed marooned in soulless postmodern trickery or polite bourgeois mores, suddenly here was a writer with something to say that demanded our attention.

He wrote the six volumes of My Struggle in a frenzy, not troubling to compose perfect sentences – the prose veers from the sublime to the clichéd without ever losing its hypnotic grip. As critic James Woods put it: “There is something ceaselessly compelling about Knausgård’s book: even when I was bored, I was interested.”

Not the least of its achievements is that it managed to reverse the confessional momentum. Instead of wildly dramatic true-life accounts that turned out to be fiction, Knausgård wrote under the banner of fiction about the heightened banality of life and it turned out to be searingly true. Autobiographical fiction or autofiction suddenly made all other fictions look, well, fictional: made-up, contrived, fundamentally lacking in authenticity.

My Struggle proved to be too true, or too exposing, for some of Knausgård’s relatives, who complained about his depiction of his domineering and alcoholic father, and perhaps most painfully for his first wife, who discovered only by reading the book that their marriage ended because he had fallen in love with the woman who would become his second wife. A journalist, she made a damning radio programme in which she confronted Knausgård about his insensitivity.

Still, these uncomfortable episodes aside, the world was waiting on Knausgård’s every utterance. He became a much-sought-after speaker about his work, and was paid handsomely to write about an epic road trip around America for the New York Times – rather characteristically Knausgård spent an inordinate number of words explaining how he couldn’t drive because his driving licence hadn’t come through. Well-known writers such as Zadie Smith and Jeffrey Eugenides outed themselves as devoted fans – Smith said she needed Knausgård’s books “like crack”.

It was the literary dream writ large. However, into each life, to quote the title of the fifth volume of My Struggle (the sixth has still to be published in English), some rain must fall. And Knausgård, as I was to learn when I met him in his home in a village in southern Sweden, was – as his friends teased him – “crying into his limo”.

He had always craved recognition as a writer, and he was hugely pleased to have got it, but the odd fact is that, for someone who’s written about everything from his problems with premature ejaculation to his embarrassing drunken behaviour, Knausgård is socially withdrawn and shy.

Although he looks like a cartoon of Nordic masculinity, he’s always been afflicted by deep social insecurities and a tendency to cry under emotional stress. He told me that although he could write about personal issues, and even talk to me about them because it was a discussion of literature, he would be tongue-tied if he met me at a party.

He was as good as his word, or lack of words, when nine months later, we ran into each other at a party in London. He looked anxious, even hunted, as if the burden of social expectation was weighing too heavily on his shoulders.

But there was another problem, too. Where was the line drawn between his private life and his work? Having achieved such fame and distinction through the medium of personal revelation, where could he go as a writer when his subject and his audience were both concerned with the same thing: Karl Ove Knausgård?

He told me in Sweden that he wanted to get away from this way of writing. “I get so tired of my own voice,” he said. “It’s like it’s producing something like a machine. I need to get somewhere else.”

So he embarked on a discipline of writing about things, objects, the external, material world rather than his tormented interior one. The result was four shorter books addressed to his unborn and then baby daughter titled the Seasons Quartet. The first two volumes – Autumn and Winter – are a kind of idiosyncratic encyclopaedia with entries on such varied subjects as chewing gum – “From a purely physiological perspective, chewing something without swallowing is pointless” – loneliness, jellyfish and sexual desire.

It’s by turns charming, baffling and beautiful, but these books lack the magnetic hold of My Struggle – at least, that is, until the third volume, Spring, when Knausgård returns to the front line of domestic life with a vengeance.

The book documents the debilitating depression of his second wife, the poet Linda Boström, including a harrowing suicide attempt, and Knausgård’s feelings of resentment at her bedridden passivity. It’s powerful and troubling, as the writer returns to some of the themes – love, responsibility, authenticity – that animate My Struggle.

The book closes in April 2016 with Knausgård reassuring his young daughter, then aged two, that the darkness of her mother’s suicide attempt has passed and the family is united once more. There is an unmistakably tender note of hope and togetherness.

What makes it all the more poignant is the knowledge that the marriage ended a few months later. Knausgård now divides his time between London, where he lives with his new partner, Michal Shavit, the publisher of Jonathan Cape, and Sweden, where he looks after his four children.

He seemed a much happier man when I interviewed him again earlier this year in London. When I had visited him in Sweden, although open and forthcoming, he appeared preoccupied in a way that suggested the competing demands of author, husband and father were beginning to take their toll. Now he spoke of how much he enjoyed living with “the love of my life” in London, but also about his obligations as a father.

“When I was younger,” he told me, “I wondered if it was possible to be a good person and a good writer. And now is it possible to be a good writer and a good father. It’s more important for me at the moment to be a good father.”

He was quite guarded about his private life, at pains to make the distinction between what he wrote about and how he lived. But he also acknowledged that, while the difference was clear to him, he could understand that readers might confuse the two and why there would inevitably be a curiosity about his personal situation.

“That’s why I don’t get angry when I get personal questions,” he said. “I opened up about personal stuff and I have to take the consequences. I never wrote these books to talk about my private life. They were more like an existential enterprise than anything else. But the boundaries are blurred.”

It’s this blurring of lines, however, that lends Knausgård’s writing such an affecting intimacy. As Smith observed: “You live his life with him. You don’t simply ‘identify’ with the character, effectively you ‘become’ them.”

In an age of voyeuristic reality TV and incessant social media, when everything appears to be on display and nothing feels real, Knausgård offers a kind of sobering cultural corrective. He invites you to look at the world afresh, to pay renewed attention to the micro-dramas of life and that insistent inner voice struggling to be heard above the din of mindless activity.

Most of all, Knausgård’s vast and encompassing (self-)consciousness asks us to examine the gap between our intentions and our actions, that grey area in which we make up the stories of our lives. “Self-deception isn’t a lie,” he writes in Spring, “it’s a survival mechanism.”

His titular struggle, notionally about the trials and tribulations of becoming a writer, is really against that deception – and that, in the end, is what makes the Norwegian a singularly great writer.

This article was first published in the March 24, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.