Karl Ove Knausgaard: A writer's life

By Hermione Hoby

It’s raw, relentless and, at an epic 3500 pages, a best-selling literary phenomenon. But the brutal honesty of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle has shocked many — and alienated half of his family, writes Hermione Hoby.

Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard. Photo / Getty Images
Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard. Photo / Getty Images

When Karl Ove Knausgaard began writing the books that have already made him one of the most famous Norwegians in history, he was impelled, in part, by a sense of a surfeit of fiction. There were too many stories, everywhere, "films and DVD box sets but also documentaries and even reports in the papers and on TV" and they made him sick.

There's a wonderful irony to this. Knausgaard, 45, now sustains the kind of fervid public conversation usually induced by those stories - the cliffhanger-heavy soap operas and HBO drama series. But My Struggle isn't television, nor is it even fiction. His six-volume epic is nothing less than his entire life, in all its tedium and occasional ecstasy, committed to paper, at the rabid rate of 20 pages a day.

The level of obsession around this literary work of art has been so intense that some Norwegian workplaces have reportedly instituted "Knausgaard-free days", when staff are forbidden to talk about the books. This is a country of about five million, where half a million copies have been sold - in other words, one out of 10 Norwegians has bought at least one of the volumes, which makes the phrase "publishing sensation" seem inadequate.

Now, the books have been translated into 15 languages and the English-speaking world is impatiently awaiting the third instalment of Don Bartlett's translation, to be published in May.

Knausgaard was already a respected writer in Norway before he began the work that made him an international literary phenomenon. His first novel, 1998's Out Of The World won the Norwegian Critics' prize for literature, the first debut ever to do so.

His second, 2004's A Time For Everything is a meditation on angels that earned him more critical acclaim and several prizes.

My Struggle, though, came out of a personal crisis. He was 40 years old and had lost faith in fiction. He was attempting to write a novel about his father but every sentence he forced out "was met with the thought, 'But you're just making this up. It has no value'." So he began writing about his father as truthfully and directly as he could and didn't stop, not bothering to embellish or even to avoid cliches. Once he was done writing about his father he began writing about everything else. In 2009, he published the first volume of a work totalling more than 3500 pages.

"Concealing what is shameful to you," he's said, "will never lead to anything of value."

And the most indelible moments tend to involve his own humiliation. In book two, A Man In Love, for example, he describes getting drunk, breaking a glass and slicing up his own face when the woman he loves rejects him. Even more abject and embarrassing are book three's boyhood recollections, including an unhappy appraisal of his own penis, "like a little cork. Or a kind of spring, because it quivered when you flicked it lightly."

Writing became an extreme compulsion. He would go to bed at the same time as his children, 8pm, then begin writing at 4am the next morning. "I had," he's admitted, "no life outside of my family and my writing."

My world isn't minimalist; my world isn't perfect, so why on earth should my writing be?' - Karl Ove Knausgaard. Photo / Corbis
My world isn't minimalist; my world isn't perfect, so why on earth should my writing be?' - Karl Ove Knausgaard. Photo / Corbis

His headlong approach, devoid of artifice, makes for plenty of bad prose, but it also gives a reader the irresistible sensation of reading a life as it's lived - reality, in real time.

Real life of course, is mostly boring and, in book one, the longueurs are almost comic in their banality. A teenage mission to procure beer for a New Year's Eve party, for example, occupies about 70 pages in book one. Throughout, innumerable quotidian tasks are rendered as meticulously and exhaustively as autopsies. Here, for example, is the making of a cup of tea: "After a while I picked up the teapot and poured. Dark brown, almost like wood, the tea rose inside the white cup. A few leaves swirled and floated up, the others lay like a black mat at the bottom. I added milk, three teaspoons of sugar, stirred, waited until the leaves had settled on the bottom, and drank. Mmm." Yet, as the New Yorker's book critic James Wood put it, "even when I was bored, I was interested".

There is something so compelling and addictive about being immersed in a life like this that it is, as one novelist put it recently, "like reading a vampire novel". British novelist Zadie Smith is among the many writers to declare their fandom, writing at the end of last year: "A life filled with practically nothing, if you are fully present in and mindful of it, can be a beautiful struggle".

Smith also wrote: "Everywhere I've gone this past year the talk, amongst bookish people, has been of this Norwegian."

And Knausgaard does indeed seem to have reached a "writer's writer" status, like that of Marcel Proust, to whom he is most often compared. (Knausgaard has said: "I not only read A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, but virtually imbibed it.")

This fandom on the part of other writers is an envious kind, not just because he's so good, but because he has a knack for defying every piece of received wisdom about how to write well. As he declared in one interview: "The critical reading of the texts always resulted in parts being deleted. So that was what I did. My writing became more and more minimalist. In the end, I couldn't write at all. For seven or eight years, I hardly wrote. But then I had a revelation. What if I did the opposite? What if, when a sentence or a scene was bad, I expanded it, and poured in more and more? After I started to do that, I became free in my writing. F*** quality, perfection, minimalism. My world isn't minimalist; my world isn't perfect, so why on earth should my writing be?"

The novelist Rachel Cusk has deemed the series "perhaps the most significant literary enterprise of our times". Plenty of other critics, enthralled to its radical imperfection, would do away with the "perhaps".

Born in Oslo in 1968, Knausgaard grew up on Tromoy, the largest island in southern Norway. He then left for Bergen, where he studied arts and literature at university. In book two he describes how he leaves his first wife, Tonje, abruptly and brutally, and moves to Sweden where, by coincidence, he ends up renting an apartment in the same building as a woman who'd captivated him several years earlier. She is now his wife, the Swedish writer Linda Bostrom Knausgaard, with whom he has three children.

"I want to evoke all the things that are a part of our lives, but not of our stories - the washing up, the changing of diapers, the in-between things - and make them glow."

But he also wanted to be truthful, and that meant including the real names and real lives of the people he loves. It's a Faustian pact and Knausgaard, never anticipating sales like this, was naive about the repercussions, some of them irreparable.

Much of book one is given over to shockingly frank depictions of his father's alcoholism and squalid death in a house shared with his incontinent and senile grandmother.

As the only Knausgaards in Norway, his family have had few defences against the deluge of reporters; his father's side of the family now refuse to speak to him.

His wife had agreed to be included, telling him only: "Don't make me boring," and he gave her the manuscript to read on a long train journey. Having finished it, she called him three times. The first time she said she thought it was okay, but that she didn't like it. The second time, she told him that their life could never be romantic again. Finally, she called him and wept.

"I was so frustrated that I didn't foresee the consequences," Knausgaard has said. "I thought, if the consequences are that she's leaving me, then okay, she can go. That was how it was. There was a certain desperation that made it possible. I couldn't do it now."

Nonetheless, their marriage survived. Last year, Knausgaard admitted that he felt guilt, "for almost everything around this book. I was kind of autistic ... I was saying, 'My book is more important than your life'."

It's not quite true to say that the book has also become more important than his life because, in a sense, the book and the life are now too interwoven. Speaking about his work as a whole, Knausgaard has said: "It seems like a child has written it. There is childishness, stupidity, lack of wisdom, fantasies."

Gaucheness, intensity and sincerity are also traits associated with children. In this instance, they've pressed into existence one of the most grown-up works of fiction we have.

The Knausgaard File

Born: Karl Ove Knausgaard in 1968 in Oslo, Norway, the younger son of a school teacher and housewife. His second wife is Swedish writer Linda Bostrom; they have three children.

Best of times: In 2009, My Struggle: Book 1 wins the Brage award, the Book of the Year prize in Morgenbladet [newspaper], the P2 Listeners' prize, and the Norwegian Critics' prize.

Worst of times: His wife, who suffers from bipolar disorder, relapsed into a depression after reading the first manuscript and was hospitalised while he was writing the final book. Many of his extended family have refused to speak to him, post publication.

He says: "I guess I have a talent for humiliation, a place within me that experience can't reach, which is terrible in real life, but something that comes in handy in writing. It seems as though humiliation has become a career for me."

They say:"A living hero who landed on greatness by abandoning every typical literary feint, an emperor whose nakedness surpasses royal finery."

- Observer

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