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.
SR: I found myself laughing again and again as I was reading the book, and then feeling like I wouldn’t know if you had wanted me to laugh.
KOK: What do you think?
SR: [Laughs] Well, so, would you be willing to read a section?
KOK: Yeah, of course.
SR: The section about mouths. There’s a very direct description of a mouth.
KOK: So, I should just read something of it?
SR: Maybe just the description of what an actual mouth is, I think it’s toward the beginning.
KOK: Yeah. [Reading] The mouth is one of the five body orifices and thus a site of exchange between the body and the world. The outermost part of the mouth is made up of the lips, two relatively long and narrow pads, which lie horizontally against each other on the forward facing side of the head, on the lower part of the face, below the nose. These pads are distinguished from all other visible parts of the body by being reddish, in contrast to the white, yellowish-white, brown, or black skin stretched over the rest of the face, and by being moist. Both the moistness and the color are characteristic of the interior of the body. This is so because the lips belong at once to the interior and to the interior: they form the orifice. And so on…
SR: Yes, so, I loved that, but when I read a description of the lips as being two horizontal pads on top of each other toward the front of the face, you know, underneath the nose, I wasn’t learning anything new; I was just amused. The book is full of these kinds of descriptions of things we all already know. Were you amusing yourself when you wrote that?
KOK: Of course I was. To describe something everybody knows as it has never been seen makes a distance, and that’s what makes it funny. You also have this scientifical approach to it, which also creates that distance, which is ironic. It is an ironic text. But it starts there and it goes somewhere else, almost all the time.
To gaze at the world, as if you had never seen the world and have no idea what it is, and just describe it—then maybe you could see it. Because you don’t really see the lips, or the mouth. I at least don’t. I don’t think of it. If you do that, it comes up. Even though it is very well known.
SR: There’s a kind of parody of objectivity, but also it felt like—to use a kind of literary geek term—a defamiliarization of the everyday. This happens again and again in the book. Here we’re being made to feel the wonder and the mystery of lips, which are deeply part of the poetic tradition: describing one’s mistress’s eyes, etc… To feel humor in that moment was exciting to me. But you use the same approach to describe things that oftentimes are considered quite ugly, like plastic bags. There’s a section called “Plastic Bags.” I think there’s a section called “Oil Tankers.” So why did you bring this to bear on things like plastic bags or petroleum spills in this work?
KOK: There is a book I read when I was twenty, by a French poet called Francis Ponge. He writes about the material world and he does it beautifully. And I was completely blown aback by it when I read it. It was so great. And I didn’t know that could exist, a book without people, only things. I tried then, to write like that. And I couldn’t. Then when I tried later on, I could. But I didn’t want only the natural world. I didn’t only want the beautiful part of it. I wanted the more realistic part of it, and the more everyday-life part of it, which is our world. Things that are very much a part of our world, but not often written about in that way.
I think it was fifteen years ago, I was writing on an island off the coast of Norway, by the sea, and I was alone there. And there was snow, and it was an exceptionally beautiful place. And the water was green—I was in a bay—and deep down in the water, maybe three meters down, there was a plastic bag. It didn’t move at all, it was just hanging there, suspended. And I think it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I don’t know why, but it was completely magical. And I want to write about that. And then I have all the other aspects of plastic bags, you know. But I really just wanted to write about that site, and the feeling of being you have, to exist, when you see something like that. You don’t understand it, but it is sublime. And I found that interesting, that a plastic bag could be sublime. But I mean, of course it could be sublime.
SR: Would you read that section?
KOK: That section? After calling it sublime?
SR: Yeah, maybe not. Fair enough. Let’s skip over it—you guys will read it later.
The thing about the plastic bag was, to me it was terrifying also. Because whenever we hear the words “plastic bag” the footnote for that is “evil, horrible, destruction-of-the-planet” bag. And so you are looking at it in this scene, in this memory, just under the surface of the water. It’s not floating up into a tree, it’s there. And you have a section later in the sequence about jellyfish. You’re imagining the life-world of a jellyfish, and I kept thinking about the plastic bag when I was reading about the jellyfish, and it made me feel like there was a kind of undernote of dread.
KOK: Yeah, but the plastic bag text ends there, with exactly that. When it’s in earth, in soil, at the end there. What it is. What it represents. But it is also beautiful. It is both.
Q: In Autumn, there is often a decentering of the human world by a sudden intrusion of cosmic time, or of geological time, or of nature. But in Kamp—the My Struggle series—maybe the most startling and uncanny intrusion in the entire book is your encounter with your father’s journals, which, if anything, seems like a transmission from another planet, suddenly. So, just an invitation to respond to that.
KOK: Yeah, that’s true. It is a part about loneliness, I think, and about what it is to be alone. That’s what it is. I didn’t intend to write about him, but I did start with just how good it is to be alone, to shut the door and be alone. And then I just remembered his diaries that I had gotten hold of, and I started to write about him. After writing six novels that are all about him, in this [new] form—one page, one subject—I made a completely different thing about him. He is very different in that text. It is an extremely frightening text. I am discovering something about him, about his relationship to others, when I am writing the text, and you can see that when you read it. It’s like I am thinking about it and realize that that’s how it is. I can’t say more than that.
SR: There is one moment from Autumn where you mention that the two things you’ve kept of your father’s are his boots and his binoculars.
KOK: Yeah, people think that’s symbolic: binoculars and Wellingtons. Because those were the two things that I got from him when he died, and I used the Wellingtons, but it never occurred to me that I’m walking, you know, in his boots…
SR: Or looking through his eyes…
KOK: …I didn’t think of it. I just wrote it because it’s true and it’s there and they’re things, you know.
Q: I have a question that has to do with your relationship with Marcel Proust in the retrospective project of My Struggle. How much do you feel your shift from a retrospective to a prospective project reflects his influence? So much of both projects, both in this seasonal form and in the retrospective project of My Struggle, has to do with an immediacy … that is so much of what went into the early volumes of Proust. So I’m wondering what your relationship is to these same sorts of Proustian projects.
KOK: When I was in my twenties, I wanted very much to write. I wanted to be a writer. And I just couldn’t. I didn’t have the language, or the form—nothing. It was like I had this inner life and what I was writing was just… little non-representative things that looked like literature.
Then, in this phase I read a lot of books, and they were all very influential: Michel Foucault, as I was saying, was one of them. Then when I was 26, I read Marcel Proust. It had just been translated into Norwegian and I read it intensely. And then I stopped reading it. And then two years later, I could write, and I published a novel. It took me many years to see the connection.
I get so much from Proust, so much from that book, so much of his way of thinking of literature and thinking of literary form—I just took it. But I thought it was myself. I completely integrated it into my own writing. The way he uses metaphors, for example, where he opens up the world through a metaphor, so many parallel worlds at the same time—I just took that. And his concept of memory and time—I just took that too.
But when I started to write My Struggle I was aware of this, and I was writing about my own life and I couldn’t do it the way he did. I had to do it differently. So it is very different, but it is also related to him, because it is a kind of anti-Proust book. He is there all the time. He’s in my blood, so to speak.
In this new project I don’t know what the relation is. But I think what I want to do when I’m writing is to make things or episodes or people present. That’s what I try to do. When it comes to reflections or digression I always want to get back to that presence in the world. I don’t know if that’s… an answer to your question. I hope so.
Q: You’ve talked about how with My Struggle you wrote very quickly, an amazing volume of pages per day. Could you talk about the process with the more recent books? Was there more self-editing?
KOK: The concept for the new books was, as I said, one text, about one thing, in one sitting. And I did that. I wrote one text every morning. And I kept every one. I didn’t really edit them—some a little—but the whole point was that it should be in one go. That means that there are some very good texts and some not very good texts. But I just wanted to capture the process. I could have taken out many of the weaker texts, but I think the number of them has a function too.
But I’m not sure if that worked. … I never read reviews, but there was a review in the Guardian and it was so horrible that it was … translated into Norwegian newspapers, so I accidentally saw the headline. It was: “This Book Is a Pile of Shit.” I hope no one from my publishing house is present—I shouldn’t say this. [Laughter] But it is something that interests me a lot. Just the question of quality—what a good text is.
For me, the notion of quality is… I don’t care for it. There is always something else that I hope for, that I want, in a text. And that makes it possible for me to write, and it makes it possible for me to find things. … Naïveté, if you don’t go there, there are so many things that would disappear. And I’m not saying that to defend myself. I’m saying it because I believe it.
It’s the same thing with music, or with paintings. When I did that Munch exhibition in Oslo, I chose many of his paintings that had never been shown, and they haven’t been shown, maybe, because they weren’t that good. They weren’t masterpieces. But if you have many of these paintings side by side, something happens. And you can see something that you can’t see in the masterpieces.
Q: I teach creative nonfiction and the essay. Many of my students are engaged in memoir projects or personal essays, and I wonder if you could talk a little bit about if you think there’s a particular proclivity for autobiographical work in the last thirty or fifty years, and certainly going back to Proust.
KOK: I don’t really know. When I started the project, My Struggle—my editor recently reminded me of this—I didn’t want to do it. I was very against it, because it was so of the time. At the time, everyone was doing this. I didn’t want to go there. I remember we had this discussion about it, but then I had to do it anyway.
I read a book—it is, maybe, a different literary climate in the U.S. than it is in Scandinavia—but I remember reading a book in the Nineties by a writer called Stig Larsson (not the crime writer but another one), a collection of poetry. It is about him, obviously, and his friends. It had a huge impact on me, it was so powerful. I think the thing was that there was no God, there was nothing in front: you just had access to him and his thoughts directly. And that’s what I love in literature. That’s why I read diaries and other stuff that isn’t fiction but isn’t nonfiction either. But I didn’t write [My Struggle] because I wanted to tell a story about my life; I did it to make literature. Somehow, I wanted that. It was not a memoir to me. It was a longing for authenticity, and I don’t mean that in any other way than that I wanted to explore the things that are underneath the concepts we use to hold ourselves together, underneath the concept of difference, underneath the memories and what makes us.
Q: I noticed that from [Knausgaard’s second novel] A Time for Everything (2004) to these texts there’s a sense of innocence when you look at the world. This wonder that comes not from seeing things naively but from a sense of openness and freshness, and then, when you’re confronted with the violence in Cain and Abel, or your father, or vomit, or things like that, the world becomes open and universal. I picture the painting The Fall of Icarus when I read your work sometimes. Because it’s all regular life happening, and then this little tragedy in the corner. Do you think about innocence when you write it?
KOK: Yeah, that’s a very good question. No, I don’t. [Laughter] Because I see it almost as a personal weakness, the naïveté, that I don’t understand things that are going on around me. I don’t understand people’s motives, because I don’t even know that they exist, you know. And that is a weakness. It is also a weakness for a writer, because I can’t write Macbeth or anything—that’s out of the question. I can describe things, and I can write about myself.
But I do think about it, because when I read my work, that’s what I see, that it is innocent. It is also a matter of having no God, but I think you can get the innocence away, somehow.
When I started to write my first novel, I gave it to my editor. The things I was most ashamed of, and that I thought he would never work with me because of—those were the things he liked about it, the things that were so extremely naïve but that open something up.
It’s hard to talk about yourself in this way. Book 3 in this series, which is called On Spring, is a novel. It is about very dark things, because dark things happened around the birth of this child. That’s why I couldn’t publish more than several parts of the diary, because things happened. And in that book I deal with it, I confront it, and it is not innocent. But then the opposite thing arose: I wanted it to be about life. Because it is for my daughter and it is about spring, so it has both elements. It’s very, very simple. So I think the way of wanting to get away from the innocence, somehow, made it even more innocent. I’m not sure what I’m saying—this was a very difficult question to answer. This can’t be the last, can it? Can we end there… innocence?