Category: Karl Ove Knausgaard

‘On Reading “Portrait of the Artist” as a Young Man’

Karl Ove Knausgaard for the New York Times magazine

Adapted from his preface to the centennial edition of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, here’s an excerpt from a piece by Karl Ove Knausgaard (translated by Martin Aitken) on James Joyce’s seminal book for the New York Times magazine:

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” Its genesis was long and tortuous — Joyce began writing his novel in 1904 — and the road to its canonisation as one of the seminal works of Western literature was not short either: The reviews spoke of the author’s “cloacal obsession” and “the slime of foul sewers,” comments that seem strange today, insofar as it is the subjective aspect of the book, the struggle that goes on inside the mind of its young protagonist, that perhaps stands out to us now as its most striking feature. What appeared at the time to be unprecedented about the novel seems more mundane to us today, whereas what then came across as mundane now seems unprecedented. Joyce’s novel remains vital, in contrast to almost all other novels published in 1916, because he forcefully strived toward an idiosyncratic form of expression, a language intrinsic to the story he wanted to tell, about the young protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, and his formative years in Dublin, in which uniqueness was the very point and the question of what constitutes the individual was the issue posed.

The first time I heard about James Joyce, I was 18 years old, working as a substitute teacher in a small community in northern Norway and wanting to be a writer. That ambition had prompted me to subscribe to a literary journal, and in one of the issues that came in the mail there was a series of articles on the masterpieces of modernism — among them Joyce’s novel “Ulysses,” which he published six years after “Portrait,” and which also featured the character of Stephen Dedalus. The word “modernism” evoked in me a vague notion of machines, futuristic and shiny, and when I read about the tower that Stephen inhabits at the beginning of the book, I imagined some sort of medieval world of turreted castles, though with cars of the 1920s and airplanes, a place populated by young men reciting works in Latin and Greek; in other words, something very remote from the world in which I resided, with its quaysides and fishing boats, its steeply rising fells and icy ocean, its fishermen and factory workers, TV programs and pounding car-audio systems. I longed to get away. What I wanted was to write, and I resolved to read this marvelous work and be illuminated by all its radiance. For me, at that time, literature represented somewhere else, and my conception of “Ulysses” was tinged by the books I had read, the boyhood excesses lived out in the French fantasies of Jules Verne, for instance, or swashbuckling classics like “The Count of Monte Christo,” “The Three Musketeers,” “Ivanhoe” or “Treasure Island” — imaginary worlds in which I had lived half my life and which for me were the very essence of literature. Literature was somewhere other than me, so I thought, and related to that was another idea I had, that everything of meaning was to be found at the center, that only there did important things happen, while all that occurred on the periphery — where I felt I was — was without significance and unworthy of being written about. History belonged to others, literature belonged to others, truth belonged to others.


My Saga, Part I

Karl Ove Knausgaard's US travel journal

It turns out Karl Ove Knausgaard’s not really a people person. Anyhow, if you haven’t enough KOK, this (in the NYT) is worth a read: 


At noon the next day I looked out the window of my plane from Toronto, staring down at the outskirts of Cleveland, an endless row of streets with identical houses, beneath the dirty gray light of a misty, freezing sky.

At last I was in the United States. And in my backpack were the documents proving I had a driver’s license, stamped by the Swedish Embassy in Washington. I had agreed to meet the photographer at the airport and travel with him for a day, but then I would attempt to rent a car and continue on my own.

I didn’t really enjoy talking to people that much, at least not to strangers, and the thought of spending the next five days in a car with someone I didn’t know was a bit unsettling. In this case, I also had a hunch that the photographer was in many respects my total opposite. We had exchanged some text messages about where to go and what to see. The first thing he had written to me, was this:

Hey man, it’s Peter the NYT photographer. Texting you so you have my number. Inshallah this message comes through. Safe travels.


Detroit is fascinating. I know this wild and lovely family living there. 14 people living in a house. Smoking a lot of dope. In Wisconsin I know a vet who is a character. Anyhow regardless it’s pretty easy to get into weird and fascinating situations in this country. . . .

What I wanted to see were the woods, the meadows and small towns of Maine and Vermont, and the last thing I wanted was to end up in what he called “weird and fascinating situations.” I had a deep-seated fear of drugs, in any form, they represented a kind of transgression that I found deeply disturbing. Just seeing the word “heroin” shook me to the core, there was something diabolical about it. Being so close to chaos all the time, I feared nothing more than the things that could unleash it, and I knew I would love heroin, as I loved everything that took me away from the present moment. I have based my life upon saying no to all kind of temptations, like taking time off, going on holiday, having a drink in the afternoon, staying up late at night. Was I going to sit in a derelict house with a family of 14 who all smoked marijuana? And what would I say to the poor veteran? How was it in the war? What are you doing now?

Inside the terminal, I stopped at a bookstore to look at travel guides. I still hadn’t decided where to go, the only sure thing was that I would end up in Alexandria on Monday, and a travel guide could suggest routes to follow and provide information about the places we drove through. One of my favorite books about the U.S. is Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” which among many other things is also a kind of road novel. It describes a journey through the small-town world of post-World War II America, where the protagonist, Humbert Humbert, is constantly on the lookout for distractions for his child mistress, and therefore stops at an endless series of attractions, which every single little town seemed to be in possession of. The world’s largest stalagmite, obelisks commemorating battles, a reconstruction of the log cabin where Lincoln was born, the world’s longest cave, the homemade sculptures of a local woman. Humbert’s gaze is European, deeply sophisticated, cultivated and ancient, but also perverted and sick, while the things he observes on the journey across America are superficial, childishly un-self-conscious, ignorant of history, but also innocent and possessed of the freshness of the new.

“Lolita” came out in the U.S. in 1958, one year after another road novel, Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” Oddly enough, the journeys that these two books describe also begin at the same time: Both Humbert and Lolita, and Sal and Dean, hit the American country road in 1947. It would be hard to imagine two more dissimilar fictional landscapes. This is because Kerouac describes it from the inside, with no distance, this is the America he grew up in, and he is so much an integrated part of it that he seems to embody its very soul. It is a young, restless, hungry, open soul. There are no points of contact with that America in Nabokov’s novel, and if you read the two books simultaneously, the reason becomes obvious: In “Lolita,” all is dissembling, there are only signs, everything stands for something else, and the one and perhaps only thing that is authentic, the child’s reality, is desired from an impossible distance, the breaching of which destroys it completely. In “On the Road,” nothing stands in the way of the authentic, except the rules of formal life; when they have been overcome, the glittering night opens to anyone who desires to enter it. The naïveté of this is astounding, but so is the power.

Now, both Nabokov’s book and Kerouac’s were nearly 60 years old, and themselves a part of this country’s history. But the conflict between life and the imitation of life, and the impossible desire for authenticity, was still being explored in American literature, where entire human destinies could be played out in the interiors of historical theme parks and which, time and time again, allowed the perverted psychological language of sincerity and caring to collide with the evasive and unacknowledged emotions of lived life, often in comical ways, sometimes in ways that seemed desperate and claustrophobic.

I couldn’t find any travel guides, and I bought a notebook and a pen instead, paid, and put them in my backpack. Then I walked out into the wide corridor again and headed for the baggage claim.

“Karl Ove?” said a voice behind me.

I turned around. A young man of around 30, dressed in a dark, slightly shabby coat, with curly hair and glasses, stood there looking at me.

“Peter, the photographer,” he said and put out his hand. “I thought you might be somewhere around here.”


Karl Ove Knausgaard on becoming a cultural influence

Interview in Hazlitt

There’s a new English-language interview with Karl Ove Knausgaard in Hazlitt, in which he talks about becoming a cultural influence.

Also, there are so many pictures of him on the internet. He looks like he enjoys author pics.

My Struggle has now earned a certain stature in contemporary world literature, as it did in Norwegian culture upon its original publication. It’s spoken of as a necessary text for people to read, to contend with, in our contemporary moment. Do you think about the fact that you are now an influence? That you are a cultural influence, you’re not just documenting things.

Hmm, no. I don’t think about that. I remember, I didn’t read David Shields until I was done with these books because I knew there were some relations there. He was writing about much of the same things, but I read it afterwards and I liked it very much. I related to his views in many ways. But no, I can’t really think in those terms whatsoever, and it is, you know, it’s just some books. You have to be lucky for them to be translated in the first place, and then someone well-placed has to say, I like them, they are very good, and if you don’t have that then it’s too risky for people to go for the book. But James Woods said, I like it, this is an important book. Then you have some other people, well-placed, saying this is very good. Zadie Smith did. Then it just opens up and it’s established as a good book or an important book. But you could imagine, in a parallel universe, this wouldn’t happen and then it would just be a book, and it wouldn’t have any influence.

So it’s been very interesting to see that process, because it first happened in Norway and then in Scandinavia, and then in England and the U.S. I think maybe it just has something to do with the zeitgeist and being a contemporary, I don’t know. There was a Norwegian writer who said he really hated these books, and he hated the hysteria surrounding them, so he wrote a piece and said, Just wait until they’re translated and you’ll see how provincial they are. And in a way he could have been right, I don’t know. But I think everything this book has exists in other places. I think my books have a few catch lines in their 3,600 pages, and a title, and controversy, and that’s it. That’s the way I explain it, at least.

Fitz Carraldo Editions