Call it the year Knausgaard broke: in 2014 Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard became, if not a nationwide bestseller, a bona fide literary phenomenon in the United States. Following the English translation of the third volume in his six-volume autobiographical novel, My Struggle, 20-somethings circled the block at his New York City bookstore appearances. Rumors flew that My Struggle was so popular in his home country that offices instituted “Knausgaard-free days” to cut off chatter about it. (Nope.) The New York Times Magazine commissioned him to play a modern-day Alexis de Tocqueville and travel across the country—resulting in a cover showing him windblown and pensive, smoking a cigarette, with a no-nonsense cover line (“Knausgaard in America”) that assumed we knew who he was and the importance of his presence.
Never mind that the Knausgaard-ian take on Democracy in America meant his barely being able to leave his hotel or that My Struggle has the unpromising premise of being a plainspoken recollection of his relatively mundane life as a writer, father, and son. My Struggle is engrossing almost in spite of itself: built on smoothly layered, quotidian details, Knausgaard’s storytelling has an undeniable forward thrust that encourages the reader to compulsively explore the writer’s inner consciousness. (As Zadie Smith memorably put it, “I need the next volume like crack.”)Responding to questions via email, Knausgaard says he believes the particular themes of the third book of My Struggle, which covers his late childhood, played a role in inspiring Americans to catch up with what’s made him a celebrity in his homeland.
“I expected that the third book would puncture the hype, make people finally realize that this was mediocre stuff, so I was extremely surprised when I learned that the reviews were good and that it got such broad attention,” he says. “Based on what readers tell me, I guess it has to do with recognition, that the novel somehow evokes the sensation of how it was to be a child. I think being a child is very much the same in Africa as in America, in Maine as in the southern part of Norway. So the experiences I wrote about, which for me were very personal and idiosyncratic, connect with the readers’ experiences in a way that really is only possible in literature.”
The just-published fourth book in the series is a deeper dive into that theme. Here, Knausgaard is 17 and 18 years old, leaving home for the first time to teach in a school at the northern edge of the country. He arrives with romantic notions of escaping his past and using the land’s isolation to stoke his writing. Instead he finds the place punishingly desolate, nosy neighbors and young students cut into his writing time, and he slips into the hard-drinking habits that prompted him to resent his father and plot his escape in the first place.
But despite the dour setting, both interior and exterior, Book 4 is among the funniest of the volumes thus far published in English, in part because it captures the jumbled, absurd mind of the late adolescent man—pretentious, preening, sex-obsessed, fixated on maturity but not quite in possession of it. Though Knausgaard says he didn’t make a conscious decision to make the storytelling funny and ironic, he notes that the style is almost unavoidable given the subject matter. “Whilst the two first books deal with relatively contemporary matters in my life, and the third is about childhood—which of course can be humorous, but in an innocent way, nothing you laugh at, really—this is the first book where the gap between the worldviews and the insight of the protagonist and the writer/reader is so huge that irony and humor are unavoidable,” he says.
“Writing the novel, I tried to keep myself as close to the world of the 17-year-old as possible. The amazing thing was how easy that was, how much of him is still in me. Which is also a bit scary, because being 17 is very much being stupid, there´s no way of escaping that insight—and the irony of course is in the constant collision between how he thinks things are and how they turn out to be. It was absolutely terrible to write about him, heading for disaster after disaster, staying true to his mind and world, but also very fun, in a merciless kind of way.”
Knausgaard infamously wrote My Struggle at high speed as a way to avoid self-censoring, which gives the book not only its candor, but its headlong rush. He attributes much of the book’s style to the genre fiction he’s read: “When you write fast, you take what you have, and in my literary baggage there are a lots of crime novels, spy novels, and thrillers, and no matter how bad the sentences in some of them are, they all have a narrative motor working in them, which I deeply admire, and in a kind of dysfunctional way, I thrive at while writing.” The book also harks back to some of his very earliest prose, as he recalls writing record and concert revi ews for a local paper. But if that experience taught him anything about writing, he says, it did so only in an inverted sort of way. “When I came back after a concert and had, let´s say, two hours to write about it, I had a prepared sheet with ready-made sentences, such as ‘the music crept under my skin,’ ” he says. “My brother discovered that sheet and laughed, saying that this list was exactly what a writer should avoid. They’re called clichés, he said. So no, nothing I wrote then influenced what I wrote later. But the character did; it's him Book 4 is about.”
Though two more volumes of My Struggle remain to be published in English, the series is old news for its author, having wrapped up in 2011. And he has no interest in writing a seventh book. “I’m working as hard as I can to get away from what I did in My Struggle, but if I fail at that, I might get so desperate in the end that I give in and start on Volume 7. Hopefully, this is not going to happen,” he says. He mentions that he recently started reading Philip Roth’s 1988 autobiography The Facts. “I love the way he enters the fictional landscape of his life in that novel, how he restarts it, in a way. That´s what I´m doing at the moment: looking for ways to enter a novel.”
My Struggle is thick with references to Norwegian novelists and the literary culture there, and the success of the book has given him the opportunity to spotlight his contemporaries. Among the writers he’d like to see translated are Kristine Naess, Cathrine Knudsen, and Thure Erik Lund. Of Lund, Knausgaard says, “his literature is wild, megalomanic, dystopic, and breathtakingly original. I once interviewed him, and he revealed his idea of the perfect novel, which should start in the familiar and gradually lead the reader into more and more unfamiliar areas, until the end, which should be in Chinese, in such a way that the reader doesn’t notice that she had learned it during the reading.”
It’s easy to forget given all the attention that My Struggle has received, but Knausgaard launched his career not as an autobiographical novelist but as a novelist, full-stop. His first two novels established his reputation in Norway, but in Book 2 of My Struggle, Knausgaard plotted his escape from conventional fiction, tired of its structures and tropes: “Just the thought of writing fiction, just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me feel nauseous,” he wrote. With a few years’ distance from My Struggle, however, he’s changed course. He’s currently working on a novel, and all past complaints have been set aside. “It’s like coming home,” he says.
Mark Athitakis is a Phoenix-based writer and regular contributor to Kirkus, the Washington Post, Barnes & Noble Review, and other publications.