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Karl Ove Knausgaard: ‘I often go to that boundary between life and death’

The controversial Norwegian author has written his first fiction in 15 years. He tells how The Morning Star was inspired by climate change and the pandemic

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Controversial Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard

Controversial Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard

The Morning Star by Karl Ove Knausgaard

The Morning Star by Karl Ove Knausgaard

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Controversial Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard

For five years after his father’s death, Karl Ove Knausgaard lost his faith in fiction. The author of two acclaimed novels in his native Norway by that point, he tried and failed to confront his feelings about the alcoholic, authoritarian figure in fictionalised form. Instead, he wrote a six-volume nonfictional, confessional and novelistic memoir. The series, entitled My Struggle, made his name. Now, more than a decade after the first volume was published, he has returned to fiction.

Morgenstjernen has already found a wide readership across Scandinavia over the past 12 months. An English translation, The Morning Star, was published this week, and he is already working on a sequel.

The experimental novel follows the lives of nine individuals in the Norwegian city of Bergen over the course of two days. The motley crew of characters includes: Egil, a mentally fragile former film-maker with a newfound interest in Christian philosophy; Arne, a teacher finding comfort in booze and cigarettes on his summer vacation to distract himself from his wife’s bipolar disorder; and Kathrine, a Christian pastor who checks into a hotel for the night alone to escape a husband she no longer loves.

The nine narratives occasionally overlap, but what ultimately joins them together is a mysterious celestial body that appears to be either a miracle or a bad omen. Nobody really knows. Is it a distant supernova? Or perhaps a sign from God about the coming apocalypse from global warming?

“[Climate change] was certainly on my mind when I wrote this novel,” says the 52-year-old from his home in Blackheath, south London. “But I didn’t want to confront it directly, as that would feel like preaching a sermon.”

“You’ve got this star outside [as a main focal point in the book] which poses a great threat,” he adds: “But then you also have this mundane life going on in the daily life of the characters too.”

“During the pandemic I was living this close-knit family life inside of my [London] home and then watching so many deaths occurring from the virus in the outside world,” he says “so I drew on that experience.”

Stylistically, The Morning Star sits somewhere between magic realism, Gothic fiction and a high-minded philosophical thesis. It is filled with enigmas, hints, suggestions, metaphors and cryptic codes from theology, mythology, science and philosophy. Its page length runs to 666 — the number of the beast. A coincidence?

But Egil, the novel’s brooding introspective intellectual, also notes that the term ‘Morning Star’ is a reference to Jesus in The Book of Revelation, and a code name for Satan in The Book of Isaiah too. He then concludes the novel with a grandiose navel-gazing theoretical essay that grapples with a wide range of abstract metaphysical questions.

“That boundary between life and death is the place where I often go in my writing,” Knausgaard confesses with a solemnity and seriousness that seems so genuine it avoids artistic pretension.

The Morning Star is the first novel he has written in nearly 15 years. But he has kept busy in the interim. In the past four years he has published a number of non-fiction books, including: the Seasons Quartet and So Much Longing in So Little Space. The former is a four-book series that began with a letter he penned to his unborn daughter. The latter is a critical cultural analysis dissecting the life and ideas of the Norwegian modernist painter Edvard Munch.

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Knausgaard’s first novel, Out of the World, was published in 1998. It landed the then 30-year-old the Norwegian Critics Prize for Literature. A follow up novel, A Time For Everything, was well received by Norwegian and international critics alike. But fiction author was a charade Knausgaard felt he could no longer keep playing in the public sphere.

“For about five years I tried to write about my father’s death in [fictional form] and I didn’t believe in it,” he explains.

“I was always afraid of him,” he adds with compelling honesty and heartfelt emotion. “I thought I hated him, but then I was crying for a week after his funeral and I couldn’t understand why. And that was the reason why I wrote My Struggle.”

The series came out in six volumes in Norway between 2009 and 2011. “I just wrote and wrote and wrote,” he says.

The aim of the project was to express the banality of everyday life with complete honesty while searching for an authentic sense of self. Knausgaard says its roots were sown when thinking about three fundamental questions: how his father’s behaviour shaped his own personality; what it means to be shaped by someone in this negative manner; and what it is to have a father.

“And so I just thought, f**k literature, I have to write about this [experience] exactly as it was,” he says. “I wasn’t worried about what the reaction would be to the book because I thought it was so boring it wasn’t going to be published.”

But it was, and Knausgaard became a global literary sensation. The books caused a storm of controversy almost immediately in his native country though. For a nation that was under Nazi occupation during most of World War II, the series’ title didn’t go down too well — it shares the same name as Adolf Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf. In book six of My Struggle (Min Kamp in Norwegian) Knausgaard even wrote a 400-page essay dissecting Hitler’s teenage years as a failed artist and hopeless lover. It attempted to persuade the reader to think of Hitler as a vulnerable insecure human being, not as Lucifer reincarnated.

“It’s a big question, the nature of evil,” says Knausgaard. “It starts with innocence and then something happens,” he says and pauses. “I don’t know: that’s why I write.”

“I want to explore ideas and see how they look in the inner life: within, say, a setting, or within a family, or within a relation.”

In My Struggle and the Seasons Quartet Knausgaard detailed almost every single aspect of his personal life on the page — from how he makes his coffee in the morning, to the quality and timing of his daily bowel movements.

“These details of everyday life are where existence and the meaning of life lie,” he says enthusiastically. “But I don’t think you can just write about everyone and everything,” he adds.

Yet that’s pretty much what he did in My Struggle. Knausgaard wrote about how the responsibilities of fatherhood partially took away his creative freedom. He wrote about the squalid conditions his father was living in when he drank himself to death. He wrote about how his grandmother stank of urine in that same house, and how it repulsed him. He wrote about his then wife, Linda Boström, who struggled with a bipolar disorder, and about her attempted suicide, and her constant complaining.

“My ex-wife read the manuscript of My Struggle before it was published,” Knausgaard says. “She was certainly critical of some parts that she featured in, but she didn’t say: cut out this, or don’t put this in.”

“But then the relation changed,” he adds, and there is a long silence. “I tried to be decent.”

Other family members didn’t share that view. Fourteen of them wrote a collective protest letter to the Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen, and called My Struggle “Judas literature” — claiming it contained incorrect descriptions of fellow family members, which they said clearly violated Norwegian law. His uncle attempted to take legal action against him.

“My family tried to stop [My Struggle] from getting published, which is completely reasonable,” he says calmly, without any defensiveness. “Especially because of the [style and manner] that I wrote about my father and my grandmother.”

“I get a reward when the books come out and are sold,” Knausgaard says with some reservation, the guilt palpable in his voice. “But those I write about don’t: so that is the dilemma.”

Is he simply using the misfortune and misery of other people in his personal circle and then masquerading it afterwards as highbrow literature?

That’s a view many readers and critics have taken. They say his devil-may-care attitude to other people’s (and his own) personal privacy is deeply shameful. But then again that was the fundamental point of writing My Struggle to begin with, Knausgaard stresses. To free himself indefinitely from the psychological torture of shame.

“Shame is the view of the others inside of you,” he says philosophically. “But shame is also good because it regulates decency.

“But in me [shame] may be way too strong: so I guess that’s why I’m always so interested in writing about it.”

‘The Morning Star’, written by Karl Ove Knausgaard and translated by Martin Aitken


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