In search of Karl Ove Knausgaard
In 1987, at the tail end of his monumental career, William Gaddis sat down for a rare interview with The Paris Review and explained why he had been so reluctant to engage with the press. "I've resisted partly because of the tendency I've observed of putting the man in the place of his work," he said, before going on to dismiss the kind of publicity that surrounds a famous writer: "that sort of talk-show pap, five-minute celebrity, turning the creative artist into a performing one."
Something like this sentiment is what I had in mind on Wednesday evening as I made my way to a bookstore in Brooklyn to attend what had been billed as a "conversation" with Karl Ove Knausgaard. In the past year and a half, the Norwegian novelist has evolved from a mere literary darling to a full-blown global phenomenon, appearing in the garish spotlight of major magazines and popular entertainment blogs like a mole squinting in the sun. Knausgaard's stop in Brooklyn was his third in the United States, and the first of three in New York alone, a tour that is meant to publicize the release of the third installment of his six-volume magnum opus My Struggle. But it also feels much more significant than that, closer to a ceremony for the English-speaking literary community to formally anoint this 45-year-old writer, as evidenced by the gold-plated industry names — Nicole Krauss, James Wood, Zadie Smith, Jeffrey Eugenides — that agreed to preside over his various events in New York.
It was easy to presume, then, that there was little point in attending the proceedings, which smelled very suspiciously of both pomp and pap. What could be learned about Knausgaard from merely sharing a room with him, when my bookshelf at home holds three volumes that convey across time and space, as all good books magically do, his most intimate thoughts and feelings? What is the benefit of hearing him speak, when what we really crave as readers is the writer's inner voice, which we can only hear with our inner ear? Indeed, seeing him in the flesh would only obscure him, for on top of the inevitable questions about process — "On which side of the paper do you write?" in Gaddis' sneering impersonation — Knausgaard was going to be wrapped in the cloak of his coronation.
When it comes to writers, the farther away you are, the closer you get, which is perhaps why the best ones always seem to be separated from their readers by the gulf of death. This strange dynamic is only compounded by the fact that Knausgaard is not like most novelists, whose true faces are hidden by elaborate masks of fiction, leaving much about the writers themselves to be sussed out and exposed. In My Struggle, the mask is the face:
In the window before me I can vaguely make out the reflection of my face. Apart from one eye, which is glistening, and the area immediately beneath, which dimly reflects a little light, the whole of the left side is in shadow. Two deep furrows divide my forehead, one deep furrow intersects each cheek, all of them as if filled with darkness, and with the eyes staring and serious, and the corners of the mouth drooping, it is impossible not to consider this face gloomy.
What has engraved itself in my face?
The answer to that question is the subject of this 3,600-page book, as Knausgaard relates in minute detail the various episodes of his life, from the modest (listening to the Pixies, playing soccer, taking a cab to the airport) to the definitive (the birth of his daughter, the death of his father). Seemingly nothing is held back, from his most abject humiliations to the alcoholic dementia of his grandmother to his wife's struggles with depression. This Proustian exercise in regaining lost time is told in the barest prose, which is to say in a style not at all like Proust's; there are no symbolic hawthorns to puzzle over, no Freudian undercurrents flowing beneath the surface. There is little, in other words, to know about Knausgaard that he hasn't told us himself, and in the most direct manner. His life is as close to an open book as is literally possible.
Still, there I was, walking from the F train to the Community Bookstore in Park Slope, a neighborhood that has been claimed by some to be the center of the literary universe. It is a designation suggestive of pale brooders smoking cigarettes in cafes and contemplating Kafka, but as far as I have been able to tell it is an enclave for stroller-pushing yuppies who have been unconsciously rocking normcore for years. (Trust me, I know; I live here.) I was going partly because I would need some material if I were to add to the already bloated body of Knausgaard-related commentary. But I also thought of this expedition as an attempt to solve a mystery, for if Knausgaard's prose is plain, the source of his appeal is anything but.
Critics have struggled to explain it. Many have resorted to describing their experience reading Knausgaard as a kind of illness, the book taking over the mind like a parasite consuming its host. Dwight Garner, writing in The New York Times, said it was like "falling into a malarial fever." Zadie Smith said My Struggle was "like crack." James Wood wrote in The New Yorker, "There is something ceaselessly compelling about Knausgaard's book; even when I was bored, I was interested." The novelist and poet Ben Lerner took this seeming paradox one stop further, writing in the London Review of Books, "It's easy to marshal examples of what makes My Struggle mediocre. The problem is: it's amazing."
Novelists are particularly enamored with Knausgaard, since he seems to have opened an escape hatch from the stale, airless tomb that is popular contemporary literature, particularly the American variety, in which every celebrated book seems to be a plot-driven behemoth boasting some strained, implausible storyline. "I wanted to just say it, you know. As it is," Knausgaard told The New Republic. Cue the sighs of a thousand pent-up writers.
My theory for Knausgaard's appeal, one that is admittedly less than revolutionary, is that he is immensely interesting company. If your neighbor with the 10 cats or the colleague who chews with his mouth open had Knausgaard's manic devotion to getting it all down on paper, would you be captivated by their struggles? Probably not. In fact, there are plenty of books about people's real lives — they are called memoirs, another tired genre — and I, for one, could not care less about them. But I do care about Knausgaard and his project; I am one of those who fell hard for his desperate attempt to draw meaning from this towering accumulation of meaningless stuff, which is just a way of describing what we usually call life. And I don't think I would have gone along for the ride if Knausgaard didn't have such a sharp, sly sense of humor; if he wasn't equally moved by Rembrandt as by Echo and the Bunnymen; if he didn't revere great authors like Bernhard, Dostoevsky, and Proust; if he didn't love smoking cigarettes and that first sip of beer; if he didn't seem so damn sad all the time. ("You can see this guy with all this force, all this talent, everything, and he just suffers," his best friend Geir told TNR.)
To put it bluntly, he's my definition of a pretty cool guy. And since the personality of the writer is so bound up with the work, spending time in his actual presence could theoretically yield some insight into the numinous attractions of this deeply moving novel. Perhaps he would say something interesting, something beyond the celebrity performance of which Gaddis spoke, the fuel that drives the grotesque hype-making machine of the modern publishing industry. Knausgaard himself is acutely aware of "the flattery that mediocre writers thrive on," writing in the second volume:
If I have learned one thing over these years, which seems to me immensely important, particularly in an era such as ours, overflowing with such mediocrity, it is the following:
Don't believe you are anybody.
Do not fucking believe you are somebody.
Because you are not. You're just a smug, mediocre little shit.
Suffice it to say that Knausgaard in person does not come off as a mediocre little anything. In a sweltering space so packed that I could not even see the man himself, he answered Nicole Krauss' questions with grace, a probing sincerity, and an eloquence that should shame all of us who can only speak a single language. If it is possible to be on stage, metaphorically speaking, without performing, then Knausgaard came as close to it as possible, speaking with zero pretentiousness and vanity, simply and straightforwardly. I only saw him once, before the Q&A began, as he swept through the crowd without looking at anyone, a tall, slightly stooped figure whose cool eyes appeared to be intensely focused on some point directly ahead of him. The rest of the time I listened with head bowed to his disembodied voice on the speakers, as he talked about his "normal book about a normal life." At one point he professed his admiration for a posthumous, thousands-page-long diary by some Swedish writer I had never heard of, saying that the private nature of diary, when the self is so shamelessly exposed, will bring you as close to another self as you will ever get, and that this closeness is the great consolation of literature.
Truly, I walked away from the bookstore with a greater regard for this writer than when I walked in, and somewhat rattled by the budding realization that I had just been in the presence of genius. But it would be a mistake to say I had gained any insight into the real Knausgaard, whomever that might be. This was a persona, one facet of a multitudinous human being, unless he usually spends his days in an interview format.
We shouldn't look for Knausgaard's self in My Struggle either. Despite Knausgaard's almost superhuman honesty, despite his self-lacerating ability to shame himself before the world, the narrator of My Struggle is also a persona, created from the tools at Knausgaard's disposal. As William Gass once said of Proust's In Search of Lost Time, Knausgaard's principal inspiration, "it is only the suggestion of completeness that is given, not its reality," for "no description possesses as much 'this or that' as a camera might catch in the flicker of a finger." Knausgaard is very much a "this or that" writer, spending as much time on drinking a Coca Cola as losing his virginity, but he has necessarily been selective in the shaping of his character, no matter how artless it may seem.
This is a finer distinction than the one between the man and the artist, torn between mundane reality and the consolatory meaningfulness of art, which is the main conflict that lies behind the title My Struggle. It is the distinction between the man and the work of art itself, for while no one will ever know Karl Ove Knausgaard, thousands will know "Karl Ove Knausgaard" very well. The face we see in the dark window is not a face, but an image. And while Knausgaard will one day die like the rest of us, "Knausgaard" will live forever, a timeless testament to what Gaddis told The Paris Review: "What's any artist but the dregs of his work?"