No Confession Is Too Personal for Norwegian Winner of 2017 Jerusalem Prize for Literature

Karl Ove Knausgaard, who succeeds in his massive autobiography to make the ordinary extraordinary, talks to Haaretz about the Bible, being in Israel's capital and the fallibility of human nature

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Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, left, and the winner of the 2017 Jerusalem Prize for literature, Karl Ove Knausgaard, at the Jerusalem International Book Festival, June 11, 2017.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, left, and the winner of the 2017 Jerusalem Prize for literature, Karl Ove Knausgaard. Honored “for his artful craft." Credit: David Saad
David Green
David B. Green

I asked Karl Ove Knausgaard if he had ever been in psychotherapy. A presumptuous question, to be sure, but less so when you consider that the Norwegian novelist has already shared the most intimate details of his life with millions of readers.

In his six-volume, autobiographical novel, “My Struggle,” Knausgaard wrote candidly about his discovery of masturbation – at age 20; a long bout with premature ejaculation; and his history of cutting himself when an excess of self-pity was combined with an excess of alcohol. The theme running through it all, as both critics and Knausgaard himself have noted, is shame.

Sometimes, therefore, the writing in “My Struggle” resembles the free association that is essential to talk therapy. Knausgaard, however, said that he’s never been on the couch.

“I used to say,” he told me in our public conversation in Jerusalem earlier this month, that “I’d rather shoot myself than go into therapy.” That left me wondering: Has he simply stopped using the line, or has he actually begun to reconsider his firm resistance to getting help?

Knausgaard, 48, was in Israel to pick up the Jerusalem Prize for literature, a prestigious award presented at the capital’s biennial international book fair.

Previous recipients of the prize, which is meant to honor a writer whose work promotes “the freedom of the individual in society,” have included V. S. Naipaul, J. M. Coetzee and Mario Vargas Llosa – just some of those who went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. (In his acceptance speech, Knausgaard talked about what he had learned as a reader from some of those earlier laureates.)

According to this year’s jury, Knausgaard was being honored “for his artful craft, for his challenge to accepted notions private and public, and above all for his elevation of the ordinary lives of ordinary people.”

What it is to be human

Knausgaard. Faces seen and unseen, and the threat of being “erased,” are recurring themes in his six-part autobiography,Credit: Thomas Waagstroem

Even an ordinary life can become extraordinary if it is subjected to the intense scrutiny Knausgaard has brought to bear on his existence. The writer burst into international consciousness in 2012, when “A Death in the Family,” the first volume of “My Struggle,” was translated into English by Don Bartlett. In Norway, Knausgaard’s work sold so well that one in every 10 households is said to possess a copy of the book.

The cover of each volume in the English paperback version has a photograph of the author, whose long hair and unruly beard suggest a soldier newly emerged from the forest, having only just heard that the war is over. (Today, Knausgaard’s hair and beard are both neatly trimmed, and in person he is gentle and soft-spoken – and nearly 2 meters tall.)

No confession is too personal for Knausgaard. His goal, however, is not to titillate, but rather to describe honestly what it is to be human. He accomplishes this by sharing his fears, anxieties and humiliations, as well as moments of exhilaration, joy and triumph, all unaccompanied by either false humility or attempts at self-justification. He allows us to get into his head as it was at the time, with no retrospective commentary.

The catalyst for all that shame was the author’s father. Although he was a respected and admired teacher in the community, at home, Kai Age Knausgaard was distant, harshly critical and both emotionally and physically abusive to his two sons.

After his divorce from Karl Ove’s mother and the failure of a second marriage, Kai Age began drinking heavily; when he died, in 1998, he was only 55 years old. It was his death, and the trip back to Kristansand, in the country’s south, to arrange his funeral, that spurred Knausgaard to begin writing “My Struggle.”

“I had kept him out of my life for many years,” Knausgaard said in Jerusalem, when I interviewed him at the book fair. “And my uncle called us [Karl Ove and his brother, Yngve] and said: You have to come down and save your father. He’s going to die. And we said, no. We can’t do that.

“And then he died, and we went there. And I started to cry. And I didn’t know why I was crying, because I thought I hated him.” He decided that he needed to write about his father.

A face in the water

For most of the next decade, Knausgaard tried to do just that. But it wasn’t until 2008, as he explained in a long essay in The Guardian last year, that “I sat down one day and wrote a few pages about something I felt so ashamed about I had never mentioned it to a living soul, and did so using my own name, I had no idea why I went there, nor did I to begin with connect it in any way to the novel I wanted to write.”

That something was Karl Ove’s belief at age 8 that he had seen a face in the water as he watched a news report about a fishing boat that had disappeared with its crew of seven off of northern Norway. When he tried telling his father about his vision, the older man told him to stop talking nonsense. Later that same evening, spying on his parents as they watched another report about the accident on the late news, he saw his father bursting into laughter.

“The shame that suffused my body was so strong that I was unable to think,” he recalled. That shame “was the sole feeling from my childhood that could measure in intensity against that of terror, next to sudden fury, of course, and common to all three was the sense that I myself was being erased.”

Faces seen and unseen, and the threat of being “erased,” are recurring themes with Knausgaard, who is convinced that someone who feels invisible can be very dangerous. He felt that way often as a child, and it is a leitmotif that for him links Cain from the Book of Genesis with Anders Breivik, the white supremacist who in 2011 killed 77 people in Norway in an attempt to gain readers for his online anti-Muslim and anti-feminist manifesto.

At the Israel Prize ceremony, from left, author Knausgaard, Jerusalem Mayor Barkat, German publisher Stefan von Holtzbrinck, and Norwegian Ambassador Jon Hanssen-Bauer.Credit: David Saad

Knausgaard spoke about that link and how he felt to be in the land of Bible stories in his brief address at the award ceremony. He described how, while growing up in Norway in the 1970s, the stories of the Bible “were as important as the stories that belong to our own history.” (“We were as intimately familiar with Mount Sinai, Canaan, Jericho, the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea as we were with the names of the landscape that surrounded us,” he told the audience.)

Breivik’s massacre left many Norwegians bewildered and searching for an explanation for his behavior. Knausgaard, for his part, says he “turned to the Old Testament, more specifically to the story of Cain and Abel. To me, that is a story about forces which exist within humanity and about how those forces, which can be devastating, must be subjugated.

The killer in Norway was surrounded by an empty space where no correction could occur. I saw an expression of a similar space in the story of Cain and Abel. The Lord looks approvingly upon Abel. Cain’s face falls. Yahweh warns him: If he doesn’t lift up his face, sin will crouch at the door. He disobeys, he kills his brother, and from then on he will be hidden from the face of Yahweh.”

For Knausgaard, “smallness, an emotion that suddenly fills a human being entirely and is woven into his fabric,” is the core of the story of Cain and Abel, “not greatness, not sacrifice, not God or the divine.” That smallness “burned in Cain, and his face fell.”

'Enormous banality'

Even after writing about the face in the sea, however, it took additional time for Knausgaard to work up the ability to write about his father. First, he found himself writing a 100-page section – a very funny episode – about his attempt at age 16 to wrangle an invitation to a New Year’s Eve party, and to show up with cold beer that he hid from his parents for some days in the snow outside, only to be turned away at the door.

“While at the time I had no idea what I was writing or why, it is abundantly clear to me now,” he recounted in The Guardian. “I was writing about life the way it appears to an uninformed 16-year-old, in all its enormous banality, and only when I had done so was it possible for me to write about my father’s demise, about death in all its enormous banality. I was no longer looking at Death, but at death. The person who died wasn’t my Father, but dad. And Yngve was Yngve, not my Brother, not Abel.”

Knausgaard spoke at the prize ceremony about having served as literary advisor to the small team of scholars who were working on a new translation into Norwegian of the Hebrew Bible. I asked him how that had come about.

“They called me and they asked me. And I knew that they had called about 10 people before me, and they all had said no.” He said yes. “It was the most interesting thing I have done,” he said of the experience. He and his colleagues “worked intensely, and we discussed each sentence for a day. And these were such competent people. They knew so much, but they are not in the public eye. It was a kind of silent knowledge that they have. It was amazing for me to be part of all that knowledge.”

The new translation was published in 2011, and the following year was Norway’s best-selling book.

Last year, on assignment for The New York Times Magazine, Knausgaard observed the British neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, author of the bestselling memoir “Do No Harm,” doing brain surgery in Albania.

That article demonstrated beautifully Knausgaard’s facility for describing nature and its wonders, combined with his acute sensitivity to human pain (both Marsh’s and his patients’) and his preoccupation with consciousness itself. His reporting from a still-recovering bastion of old-school communism gave the article an added dimension of irony.

Knausgaard explained that he was amazed at how “there were so many levels that met in that [operating] room. There’s the existential level, the biological level, there’s a human level, because the patient is suffering and may well die. And there’s the medical side of it. And then there’s the country,” Albania, which he said Norwegian socialists in the 1970s had naively seen as “a lighthouse, a utopian society,” although in actuality it was one of the world’s most isolated and authoritarian states, and today remains impoverished.

When Knausgaard was invited to look through the surgeon’s microscope into the brain of the person awake on the operating table, what he saw, he said in our interview, “was like looking into a valley with red rivers, and then it was a white glacier, and red blood was pumping over it in huge waves.”

Which led him back to the eternal, unanswerable mind-body question: Is our consciousness – our sense of self – something separate from the physical brain and the nervous system, or is it “just” an artifact manufactured by neurotransmitters and synapses?

“I had always considered my thoughts as something abstract, but they weren’t,” Knausgaard wrote in the Times. In reality, though, “They were as material as the heart beating in my chest. The same was true of the mind, the soul, the personality; all of it was fixed in the cells and originated as a result of the various ways in which these cells reacted with one another. All of our systems, too — communism, capitalism, religion, science — they also originated in electrochemical currents flowing through this three-pound lump of flesh encased in the skull.”

Withstanding pressure

The writer volunteered that in Jerusalem, he felt a similar level of stimulation as he did in Albania, “because of the intensity of the number of things going on. You have the history and politics in a small space. Those things attract me.”

I couldn’t resist asking Knausgaard if he had thought twice before agreeing to accept the Jerusalem Prize, and if, once the award was announced, he had been pressured to reverse his decision to come to Israel for the prize ceremony.

“It never occurred to me not to accept the prize,” declared Knausgaard. He was aware there might be protests and pressure, and says he even looked forward to it, “because I think it’s a very important thing to talk about.”

“Literature doesn’t direct itself to a state or to a government. It directs itself to people,” he said. A cultural boycott “is against everything I stand for as a writer.”

Knausgaard claims that writing “My Struggle,” which in a non-linear fashion covers his life from early childhood up through his two marriages and the birth of three of his four children, the publication of the series’ early volumes and the Breivik murders, brought him no catharsis of the type we might expect in psychotherapy. But it may be that catharsis is too much to expect; after all, Freud himself said that the goal of psychoanalysis was “to transform neurotic misery into common unhappiness.”

In any event, Knausgaard overcame a longstanding problem with writer’s block: “My Struggle” was followed (in Norwegian) by four volumes of essays, named for the seasons of the year, that he has described as a “personal encyclopedia of our close surroundings.” The first part, “Autumn,” is due out in English this summer. (Volume 6 of “My Struggle” is scheduled for publication in English only in 2018.)

Knausgaard also founded a publishing house, Pelikanen, that publishes original and translated literature in Norwegian. And despite earlier declarations that he would not be writing any more fiction, he says he is at work on a novel.

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