A Night with Knausgaard

by: Michael Shields

A revelatory evening with an international literary star… 


Writing can be demanding. It can be a gut-wrenching experience, as you attempt to extract your often complex thoughts and lay them out in an easily understood and poignant way. It, too, leaves you vulnerable to the world, as your words, thoughts, and ideas are all but etched in stone and resonating about for all to see. When a writer is so lucky as to get published, their words, essays, and stories persist in the ether, exposed to all the scrutinizing and judging eyes about. Defenseless, they endure, far from the womb, yet the writer who birthed them remains culpable for their impact forevermore. And in this way, writing can also be scary as all hell, a fact that was distinctly evident during an appearance by Karl Ove Knausgaard this past weekend in New York City.

As part of the promotional tour for the stateside release of book four of his series of six autobiographical books entitled My Struggle (Min Kamp, in Norwegian), Karl Ove Knausgaard stopped by the 92nd Street Y on the Upper East Side for a “short” reading and a chat. Introduced and moderated with finesse by Rivka Galchen, the award-winning author of Atmospheric Disturbances and American Innovations, Karl Ove Knausgaard opened up about the struggles of writing and then releasing his prolonged and controversial autobiography. If writing while trying to be a father to three children wasn’t challenging enough, writing about his life while trying to live it was positively exacting, as the backlash from his family and his friends who were discussed in inexhaustible detail was beyond what he could have ever imagined.

Knausgaard has admitted in the past to a feeling that he may have made a “Faustian bargain,” a deal with the devil that led directly to his abounding success. In order to tell the story of his life, one he was so passionately set on sharing, he had to come to grips with the fact that there would be collateral damage. His ex wife, whom he once described his life with as “that uncontrollable, unproductive, often degrading, and ultimately destructive space where I lived for so many years” railed against the book’s release, as did his uncle who is represented as Gunnar in the books. At the 92nd Street Y, in a room full of loyal disciples hanging on his every word, Knausgaard described this inner turmoil that accompanied the release of his greatest achievement. He was forced to make a choice, and for his family, rather than in spite of them, he forged ahead, hoping that those who felt scorned would ultimately, understand.

In a shocking – and wholly unthinkable – revelation, Knausgaard declared to Rivka Galchen and the scholarly crowd assembled, that he had “a bad memory.” Once the disbelieving chuckles abided, Knausgaard went on to describe his process. Envisioning himself in the rooms and the landscapes of his youth, he would let go – as much as he was able – and “look” around. Soon, the room or the spaces around him filled with objects, and not too far behind that would come the people. It was then that the story came to life. It was then that the events of his past came roaring back, to the shock of even himself. Never did Knausgaard imagine that his autobiography would manifest itself so expansively but alas, the stories took the reins and led the way.

The daily constraints of time came into play during the writing of My Struggle, and Knausgaard spent a great deal of effort explaining how this limitation actually enhanced his abilities. With only a few hours each day to focus in on his craft, he was forced to not only be efficient, but to allow himself to lose his inhibitions, and anxieties, and just write. Fixating on intricate sentence structures and descriptive language choices also allowed him to free himself of the reservations of dwelling on the particulars of the story – and their impact to the outside world – and to just write. Like any writer, Knausgaard is rife with insecurities, and  it was in these ways where he scrupulously constructed a means to thwart their crippling hold.

On multiple occasions Knausgaard talked about drinking. He explained how a big night of drinking is much like writing. Knausgaard readily admits to enjoying the effects of alcohol and how invigorating it can be to lose those inhibitions that shackle us to behaviors we’ve been led to believe are appropriate. Alcohol allows a person the opportunity to “say the things they really want to say, and act the way they want to act.” But unfortunately, there are ramifications to that high, and there are consequences in the form of a crippling guilt forged from the insecurity of not knowing how your behavior, and words, were received the blissful evening before. In an amusing comparison, Knausgaard spoke of finding a similar guilt in writing. Getting lost in the writing was, to Knausgaard, akin to that purging night out on the town. In between the lines while writing, he was who he wanted to be, and doing what he wanted to do. He told his stories without reserve. But when complete, and in review of his creation, the guilt came crashing down. That morning-after feeling dampened his satisfactions, and much like many writers that I know, he doubted the merit of his work and wondered if it was any good at all. But as he looked out unto the plentitude of adoring fans packed into the Kaufmann Concert Hall that evening, I imagined that at that moment the feeling of ineptitude was just a fleeting memory. But if that was indeed the case, you sure wouldn’t know it, as Knausgaard remained pastoral and wholly poised throughout the evening, even as he took a final bow and walked off stage in a shower of thunderous applause and cheers.

Karl Ove Knausgaard is an international literary star. His current press tour for My Struggle: Book Four amounts to a victory lap and an opportunity for him to behold the fruit of his labor. His legend has found passage across the Atlantic and he is appropriately being treated as a literary rock god at each stop along the way. In My Struggle: Book Four, which was published in April, Knausgaard looks back at his high school years, his job as an eighteen year old teacher in a fishing village, his parents’ separation, his first love, and the beginning of his life as an artist. And the artist he has become appeared in full bloom on this beautiful Spring evening in New York, a virtuosic wordsmith who in a brevity that is remarkable considering his exhaustive autobiography, answered multiple questions simply with a drawn out, “Yeeaah.” Terseness isn’t something that you would expect from a man who penned a 3,600 page, six-part autobiographical book, but as I learned at the 92nd Street Y this past weekend, there is sanctity that can be found when writers lose themselves in writing. There is a catharsis that can be summoned upon when it is just you, your thoughts, and your words – an asylum that doesn’t exist in the real world. And it may be this sanctuary where writers preferably dwell, but it will always be interesting to see, to hear, and to interact with esteemed writers who share their anecdotes and methods, far removed from the places they write and the tales they weave, and to be given a chance to applaud their exquisite efforts.

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