Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard to talk about his life laid bare in controversial autobiography
10:43 21 May 2014
His controversial six-volume autobiography has sparked outrage and made author Karl Ove Knausgaard a literary sensation in his native Norway. Now his fame is spreading to the UK and he counts authors such as Zadie Smith among his fans.
Arts correspondent Emma Knights talked to him about his My Struggle series and how he is looking forward to making his second visit to Norwich.
“I lived in Norwich for half a year in the 1990s, I think it must have been 1993,” said author Karl Ove Knausgaard.
“I had a friend who lived in Norwich and I rented a house in Beaconsfield Road and used to write there. This was many years before my first novel. I enjoyed it very much. I had no expectation when I went there and I found it to be a really lovely city.”
As Karl prepares to return to Norwich for the Norfolk and Norwich Festival two decades on, it is fair to say a lot has changed in the city but perhaps even more has changed in the Norwegian author’s life as his books have taken first Norway, and then other countries, by storm.
His first novel, Out of the World, was the first ever debut novel to win The Norwegian Critics’ Prize and his second novel, A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven, was also widely acclaimed.
Then came his epic and brutally honest autobiography series about his everyday life, My Struggle (Min Kamp in Norwegian), which controversially shares its title with Adolf Hitler’s autobiographical manifesto. Karl’s editor took some convincing, but Karl said he picked the name because it was provocative, because he was writing about a struggle, and because his work was the opposite of what Hitler wrote.
Among the raw details of his life he shares with readers are descriptions of his marriages, his father’s alcoholism and death, and his second wife’s bipolar disorder. In one of the novels he writes about a drunken episode of self-cutting after he was rejected by a woman he loved. At the other end of the spectrum Karl describes in great detail everyday occurrences like cooking dinner or making tea.
He has previously been quoted as saying he wrote the series because he found fiction “made me nauseous.”
When asked about this, Karl said: “I was wanting to tell this story about my father. My two previous books were novels, fiction, and I tried to write this story as fiction but I couldn’t, I just did not believe in the fictional elements.
“At the same time I stopped reading novels and started watching documentaries. I wanted to get a way out of the fiction.
“Everything is stories. I wanted to do something completely different and more or less by accident I tried out this style of saying it how it was.”
His first volume was printed in 2009, and by 2011 he had published six volumes in Norway.
His series is said to have briefly outsold the Bible in the Scandinavian country, with half a million copies sold in a land that has a population of about five million.
To date the first three books have been translated by Norwich-based Don Bartlett and published in the UK.
“I should summarise my story as like being bathed in a sea of banality and triviality, and then you have the big moments like death and then love and then child birth,” said Karl.
The latest of his books to hit UK bookshelves is Boyhood Island.
“That’s the most classic book in the series because it is a childhood novel,” he said.
“It’s centred around the father and the fear for the father who controls everything.”
His books have been described as a phenomenon and some have likened him to French writer Marcel Proust, but at the same time there has also been outrage as well as a fall-out with some of his family due to the detail he has published in his books.
“I have had all kinds of reactions,” he said.
“I lost touch with half of my family...I write about my father and his family and they did not appreciate that at all.”
And just how does Karl himself deal with having his whole life laid bare for all to read?
“It’s been very, very surreal because I started out on this all by myself in a room with no-one there,” he said.
“It was very personal and intimate, and then this intimacy is blown up with many thousands of people reading the books.
“Many people know so much about me and I don’t know them at all. It’s a very vulnerable position to be in.
“I live in the countryside now. I want to get away from everything.”
He added: “I do not regret it (the book series). I am happy that they exist and that I have written them, but I cannot read them. I have never been able to read anything I have written.”
He said he was amazed by how the popularity of his Mr Struggle series has spread.
“First of all I thought this book would be of interest to no-one except my friends. Then it was a big success in Norway and things started to happen in other countries.
“It (the book series) is very small and local and private and it shouldn’t be working but it is, so there has to be something in there that people connect to.”
The event with Karl Ove Knausgaard is part of the festival’s City of Literature programme presented in association Writers’ Centre Norwich.
• Karl Ove Knausgaard is at Norwich Playhouse on Saturday, May 24 at 5pm. Tickets £8.
For more information and to book visit www.nnfestival.org.uk or call 01603 766400.