Karl Ove Knausgaard


Came to my attention that some HelyTimes readers are not following the book world’s frenzy over Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle.

Some facts:

* Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard has been publishing a six volume book that recounts the minute details of his life, or at least the life of a man named Karl Ove Knausgaard the details of which match the actual details of the author’s life to an almost* exact degree.

* We’re only up to Volume 2 in English.  Here is my copy pictured next to a coffee mug for scale:


* One out of every ten Norwegians has bought at least one of the volumes.

The level of obsession around this literaryGesamtkunstwerk has been so intense that some Norwegian workplaces have reportedly instituted “Knausgaard-free days”, when staff are forbidden to talk about the books.

* Reviews have been rapturous.  Tyler Cowen:

I would put this among the greatest Continental novels of the last fifty years and not at the bottom of that tier.  It is not often that one discovers such books.


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 OK, 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 OK, 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.'”

(Linda with cat, from here, a site of artists and cats)

* The kind of stuff that’s in the book:

A teenage mission to procure beer for a New Year’s Eve party, for example, occupies about 70 pages in book one.

* I’ve only read about 20 pages, at random, which were about Karl going to gymnastics with his kid and being frustrated that the attractive young teacher can only see him as an emasculated dad.

* I flipped to another section, which was musing about “what would it have been like to live in a world where everything was made from the power of your hands, the wind, or water?”  It was pretty engaging.

* The title’s provocative, obviously.  KOK says:

For two years, I worked as a kind of adviser on a team that translated the Bible to Norwegian. It was there I learned to read. The gap between the two languages was a shock, and made it possible to experience, not only to recognize, the gap between language and the world, the arbitrariness everybody talked about in the eighties was all of a sudden visible for me.

Another lesson was that in the Old Testament, everything is concrete, nothing is abstract. God is concrete, the angels are concrete, and everything else has to do with bodies in motion, what they say, what they do, but never what they think. No speculations, no reflections. Even the metaphors are connected to bodies. I became especially interested in the story of Cain and Abel, when Cain’s countenance falls and God says, “Why is your countenance fallen? Lift up!” Cain doesn’t look anyone in the eyes, and no one looks in his. This is to hide from the world and from the other. And that is dangerous.

In the sixth book of Min Kamp, I wrote four hundred pages on Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Hitler was a man who lived a year without seeing anyone, just sitting in his room reading, and when he left that room, never let anyone close, and stayed that way, intransigent, through the rest of his life, and one characteristic thing with his book, is that there is an “I,” and a “we,” but no “you.” And while I was writing about Hitler, a young Norwegian who had stayed some two years all by himself, and written a manifesto with a strong “I” and a “we,” also without a “you,” massacred sixty-nine youths on an island. In other words, his countenance fell.

* I’m told by a Scandinavian friend that the last volume was so long it couldn’t be bound into a book, so Karl took it home and cut it down until it was the EXACT length that could fit into a binding.

* I’d highly recommend reading this short take on it by Sophia Pinkham at n+1, which points out that what might strike an American writer is “how come this guy isn’t worried about money?”

* Karl himself:

“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. Fuck quality, fuck perfection, fuck minimalism. My world isn’t minimalist; my world isn’t perfect, so why on earth should my writing be?”

Or this, from The Guardian:

“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.”

Well, I’m glad it exists I guess.

Is art just the turning of yourself into “art” until you, yourself, are indistinguishable?

Is the cost always that your wife will be crying?

Is it “worth” it?

Should we honor a person like this or figure out what meds he needs?

Is this the logical end of writing?

Is it criminal to do this to your children/relatives?  Or worth it for the art?

How good does the art have to be to justify the cost?

Would we feel differently if Karl Ove did this and almost NO Norwegians bought it?

Do we have to respect his balls at least?

Is his desire for us to respect his balls part of this project?

If part of his motive is our respect, does that change it?

Do I actually have to read this or is it enough that it exists?

Is this admirable, like a kid doing an awesome trick on a playground, or just kind of horrifying or troubled, like a kid taking out his little cork on the playground?

What about this, the very first exchange in KOK’s Paris Review interview?:

Did you keep diaries when you were young?

Yes, I did, but I burned them when I was twenty-five or twenty-six.


I was so embarrassed, I couldn’t stand it. It’s the same with Min Kamp, I can’t stand it. If I could I would burn that, too, but there are too many prints, so it’s impossible.

Life develops, changes, is in motion. The forms of literature are not. So if you want the writing to be as close to life as possible—I do not mean this in any way as an apology for realism—but if you want to write close to life, you have to break the forms you’ve used, which means that you constantly have the feeling of writing the first novel, for the first time, which means that you do not know how to write. All good writers have that in common, they do not know how to write.

Anyway, here’s another picture from the Cultural Cat website:

* behind a paywall, but in her review Sheila Heti finds herself disappointed at a detail Karl admitted to her he made up or at least may not have remembered exactly.  

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