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Hyperreal Norway

Could a radical novelist who wrote 3,600 pages on his life so far be Europe's best?

The more authors I meet, the less authors I like. Or fairer to say the less I like myself for being ingenuous enough to think that because I get on with what they “say” in their books, I’ll get on with them. I was not so naïve in the run-up to meeting Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard. Having got on like a house on fire with the first two translations of his six-part autobiographical novel, Min Kamp, My Struggle (Part One: A Death In the Family is out now through Harvill Secker and Part Two: A Man in Love is released on the 2nd May), I was all the more wary of meeting him. Off the back of this latest project – 3600 pages long and spanning pretty much his entire life from childhood to date, sparing no feelings of those implicated along the way, a decision which lead to his uncle threatening publicly to sue him and his publishing house on behalf of his incontinent grandmother – I was anticipating a hard and pretty narcissistic soul. How audacious, how self-interested does a man have to be to write, without any narrative plan, for 3600 pages about his life? Nevermind one that is a genuine literary sensation in his home country – half a million copies of Min Kamp have been sold, which means, in a country of 4 million, one book for every eight Norwegians. At the start of our interview, as if he’d read my mind, Knausgaard told me coolly: “My purpose was to write a novel. I am a novelist. I’m not interested in my own life. In no way do I want to present my life. That is not the aim of this project. I’m only looking for freedom on my writing really.” In other words, he’s less interested in himself than in writing processes. “For me the ideal is … to make the distance between the self and the writing as small as possible. You don’t direct it. You try to bath in it and live in it. It’s the opposite of something calculated.” What came out of this particular process – a lot of content – was almost secondary to the state he came to in creating it. 

But as a reader you want to know what you’re signing up for when you buy Part One of six. One way to give an idea of how this vast novel reads is to compare it to a Twitter feed, published in its entirety forty years from now. Some lines are quality; others, if not badly written, are painfully banal. That’s life. But the Twitter comparison’s not quite right, because My Struggle wasn’t written as a diary in vivo but rather as an experiment in vitro in the novel, retrospectively, as if Knausgaard had popped his life in a petri dish and recorded every microscopic detail. The kind of record Knausgaard’s doggedly detailed, cinematic narrative provides should, as another critic mentioned, make for mind-numbing reading for the rest of us; presumably as with the most meticulous scientific research, some of Knausgaard’s life write up is, well, banal. But when reading, for example, about his first teenage gig in a shopping centre, the first grope of a girl’s breasts under her jumper, the first experience of getting drunk at a party (securing, hiding and finally drinking some precious beer takes more than 60 pages) you can only marvel at the details he recalls. Despite the controversy around it, this novel won’t satiate a scandal-thirsty reader; the paradox is that it’s exactly the absence of sensationalism and glamour that makes My Struggle so shocking and compulsive to read. He goes to the supermarket with this brother:

We took Jif for the bathroom, Jif for the kitchen, Ajax all purpose cleaner, Ajax window cleaner, Klorin disinfectant, Mr Muscle for extra-difficult stains, an oven cleaner, a special chemical product for sofas, steel wool, sponges, kitchen cloths, floor rags, two buckets and a broom from this aisle, some fresh rissoles from the meat counter, potatoes and a cauliflower from the vegetable section. 

He says nothing; he says it all.

Having written his version of the truth around his upbringing and adulthood, a family portrait emerged that was deemed hugely unflattering to those implicated in it – an alcoholic father, incontinent grandmother, ex-wife, current wife, children etc. etc. Like the Austrian heretic writer, Thomas Bernhard, (considered by many to be one of the most important voices in 20th century literature) Knausgaard was denounced as a nestbeschmutzer (one who soils his own nest). After reading the first two translated books of the six-part novel, I found myself bemused as to what all the public outrage was about. Is life still so sacred in Norway that a scene wherein a weeping man and his stoical brother clean the shit-infested home of their grandmother, who they’ve found in the wake of their father’s death reeking of urine can cause domestic litigation and national uproar?

There are another four books on the way. Has all the infamy been worth it? Has what he lost as a man, he made up for as a writer? “It has nothing to do with loss… I’ve created something. And I don’t think anyone in my surroundings have lost anything, either. They have got something they don’t want, which is different.” It’s a pretty callous reaction by moral standards but it’s clear that it isn’t Knausgaard’s besmirched morality that he laments, but his “bad” writing. “The cost of this kind of writing is that a lot of it is very bad, you know? Some parts are very good. Some parts are very bad. During the project I got less and less interested in quality… you just have to write it. I can’t read back my work because I find it very… bad. You know?” Bad? I think, looking him in the eyes, gauging his authenticity. When even the bad stuff is good, I can’t say I do. I’d liken Knausgaard to Bernhard for more favourable reasons: in celebration of a new literary voice, a personality on the page. After all, writers shouldn’t be judged as men, in quiet cafes with Dictaphones shoved in their faces, but on the page. It seems Knausgaard would agree. For him, quality “has only to do with personality. Bernhard’s personality is so strong… when you read it you want to be there, with them.”

Enjoy his conversation as I did, I couldn’t agree more; I’d happily meet the bad man again for a beer, but I’d rather have my head in one of his bad books.