The following is an edited transcript of a conversation between Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard and poet and scholar Srikanth Reddy that was hosted by the Seminary Co-op Bookstores and took place at the Logan Center for the Arts at UChicago on September 11, 2017. Knausgaard and Reddy discussed Knausgaard’s new book, Autumn, followed by a Q&A, which is also included here.
Srikanth Reddy: Autumn is strongly framed by the second person. And that must have felt like a big change for you after writing the My Struggle novels, which are so bound to first-person narration. How did that feel? Was it weird?
Karl Ove Knausgaard: It was very much a relief. And the reason to do it was exactly that, that My Struggle is six novels, and it’s very much introspection, and it’s very much my interior life, and it’s very much psychology. It’s very much emotions, and it very much analyzes. And these books are the opposite.
This is a book about objects and things and the material world, the things that are around me. I go maybe ten meters away from where I am, and write about that world. But it still is a huge, huge difference. And there’s a logic to it. It is a kind of encyclopedia of things. I love encyclopedias. I think it’s a great concept: you have the whole world in writing.
But if you try to write your own encyclopedia something else shows up in the text and it changes, it isn’t objective anymore. It is a kind of personal thing, and then it looks different. Who’s talking, who’s seeing?
SR: It’s interesting that you were describing that as a question of who’s talking, because to me, throughout the book, I kept asking myself who was the listener. It’s framed as an address to an unborn daughter, but the daughter kept disappearing into a second-person plural. A “you” that was more than just the unborn child, but rather, the future. Did you find that to be a technical challenge as you were writing the book, or something that was exhilarating?
KOK: Well, this book—first of all, it’s four books. So this is the first. And the first two books are texts about objects, and then the third book is a novel, and it is directed to “you,” my daughter, who is unborn.
And then there is a fourth book, which is more texts and stuff, but the thing is that it is two different modes of writing: one, directly to her, and then those texts. And the book to her was something I did privately; we were expecting a baby, and I thought I should—for some reason, I don’t know why—write to her, about who we were, about the world that she was coming into and it was partly a letter and partly a diary. And it’s about a hundred and fifty pages. But it was all meant for her. I thought I should give it to her when she turned eighteen as a present, but then I started to write those short texts as a different project. And then somehow they merged. So I took some of the pieces written to her, put it into this. And it changed the book completely, and made it into a book, somehow.
SR: I’m surprised to hear that there’s a novel in there somewhere. A second-person novel.
KOK: Yeah, it is a day in the life of her. And she is three months. And me, from the sunrise ’til the sun sets. So it’s a classic narrative about nothing, basically.
SR: Great, so we’ll talk about that, sometime. But the encyclopedia aspect of the book I found very interesting, and I kept thinking about it as an encyclopedia, or a dictionary, for a future person. How do we organize a dictionary, or encyclopedia? Alphabetically. And because my Norwegian is a little rusty, I was wondering if the entries that I was reading were alphabetical in Norwegian but not in English. Or how did you put this book of lots of moveable parts together?
KOK: [Laughs] I was curating an exhibition in Oslo earlier this year, but I’d been working on it for two years. And that was the question, you know. There were like a hundred and fifty paintings. How do you set them together? How do you structure something like that? And I went for a very intuitive way of [doing it]. What belonged to each other and what could add something to each other. And the book follows that logic: just, what works.
One of my favorite books is called The Order of Things, by the French philosopher Michel Foucault. It’s about how the organization of all elements in the world creates the world. But you don’t see the organizing principle behind it. So he uses an example in the foreword, a short story by Borges, and it is about an encyclopedia, where the words are organized by a completely, completely different system, which has nothing to do with rationality at all, and when you read that, you see the world is completely changed—it’s not even our world anymore.
Something I discovered by writing this book is that the hierarchy we have of things. We organize them in a hierarchy, and that hierarchy we don’t challenge. We challenge social hierarchy, we challenge all sorts of hierarchies, but we don’t challenge the way the things in the world are organized. And when you do something like this, you see that. It wasn’t intentional. It was just kind of a side effect of the project. But it was very interesting. If you focused as much on, you know, vomit—if you give it as much attention, and care, and intensity as you do, for instance, to something like war or love—then something happens in the relationship between things.
SR: So, for example, there’s a section called “Lightning” that’s about the sublime, terrifying experience of lightning that kills cows and flashes on you in the middle of the night. And that’s followed by a section on chewing gum. And there’s a section called “Silence” that’s followed by a section called “Drums.” And then my favorite one was a section on Madame Bovary, followed by a section on vomit.
Each of those sequences gave me a different feeling—and maybe you can do that in narrative, but I’m convinced that you were exploring poetry in this book. Was there any one principle that was guiding you as you were putting it together?
KOK: No, it was basically an emotional composition. But it also has the subject of the season. It goes more and more towards winter in the book. And the winter is much, much darker and has much less life in it. And it’s more of a speculation, much more like the texts of Borges, Calvino, and then summaries, just bristling with lots and lots of different things. So there wasn’t any principle guiding it. But it is poetry, you were saying? I was thinking… paintings.
KOK: Yeah, but also in the writing. I had rules for myself when I was writing it. It should be one word, one text, in one sitting. And as soon as I picked a word, I couldn’t escape it. I had to do it. I had to force myself, even if it was the most uninteresting word in the world, to do it.
SR: Like “Thermos…”
KOK: Yeah, for instance. Or “toothbrush.” And the thing is that if you do that, then things start to come. I mean, I start every day thinking I have nothing to say. I don’t know anything. And I don’t think much. But then if I just start to say, no, I’ll write a page about one thing, something just turns up. And that is writing for me. That’s why I’m writing. Because it opens up the world.
It isn’t my thoughts, because if I just look at something and should try to say something about it, I wouldn’t be able to say anything at all. But if I write about it, it’s different. And that is very interesting.
But I think the form of literature and the language are outside of us and if you pour yourself into it, something else comes back. You can plunge into what is collective, what is between us, which you can’t do alone. So all of these texts are about connecting to the world, somehow, for me. It is magical to write when you lose yourself. That’s what writing is, for me.