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Karl Ove Knausgård

at Edinburgh International Book Festival

In conversation about life writing and confronting the Man in the Mirror.

Image of Karl Ove Knausgård

Today marks Karl Ove Knausgård’s fourth appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, promoting the English language translation of The End, the sixth and final instalment of his My Struggle opus. While the final volume was published in his native Norway back in 2011, his English language readers have had to eagerly await the translation of each lengthy tome by award-winning translator Don Bartlett. Perhaps due to both size and theme, with this instalment Bartlett has had some help from another translator, Martin Aitken.

Knausgård enthusiasts have been aware for some time that in The End he gets rather meta, referencing the impact of his sudden fame on himself and his family and veering off into lengthy musings on poet Paul Celan, Hitler, and the Norwegian far right terrorist Anders Brevik. Today he says that although the sixth volume seems more experimental that the previous five, his aim was actually to make it “more real” than before.

After being introduced by chair Roland Gulliver, Associate Director of the festival, he begins with a reading from The End depicting his anxiety as he awaits the reaction of his family to the first book, A Death in the Family, which describes his father’s alcoholism and premature demise in painful, unflinching detail. In the extract, he smokes and panics as he checks his emails frantically for a response – we are in reassuringly familiar Knausgård territory. His brother eventually responds with an email titled “Your Fucking Struggle” – oh dear. Today he comments that “The worst thing you can have in a family is a writer,” and says he felt like a criminal, stealing pieces from other people’s lives for his own gain.

He will still insist that the character Karl Ove is not actually him, resisting any attempts Gulliver makes in referring to “you”. Knaugård’s distancing in this way is not often questioned but it’s an interesting conceit and in some ways, though convenient and perhaps essential for him, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Intellectually, he may posit that it is not him, only a character he chooses to explore life through. Today he will say the endeavour of his enterprise has not been memoir, but a conduit to explore history, philosophy, and existential ideas of purpose and existence. However, the extract that he does read is an unfussy account of his brothers reaction to his writing, and he follows this by speaking openly about the pain he felt when his Uncle Gunnar denied his version of events and stopped speaking to him.

The vast majority of Knaugård’s output is the description of mundane everyday events, and the five volumes published so far explore family, loyalty, and memory. Trauma, shame, addiction, and self-loathing run through his writing like a stick of rock. The Guardian’s review of The End observed that he had “named shame”. If Knausgård were a woman, the emotional and intimate nature of his work and his writing on relationships, sex, and family trauma would surely be the sole focus when discussing it. Indeed, in a 2016 lecture at the PEN World Voices Festival, the academic, author, and cultural commentator Roxane Gay commented that while a writer like Knausgård is thought of as a creative genius, a women using her own life as inspiration for her art, such as Beyonce with Lemonade, is deemed “indulgent”. Women are often denied distance from their art, which is characterised instead as personal and autobiographical.

During this event, Knausgård and his work are conversely presented in an almost sanitised fashion, as though he were an elderly gentleman of letters rather than a man prone to writing about misanthropy and nihilism, who writes “novels” with detailed descriptions of premature ejaculation, drinking obscene amounts and attempting to pull women, cutting his face up with a glass bottle, and later endlessly moaning about how much he despises looking after his children. This is not to trivialise the work – the minutiae and honesty is what makes his work so unique and appealing to fans. Gulliver observes that Knausgård wrote that his father was not able to hold his son’s gaze, but that this is a perfect description of what he has tried to do with the My Struggle series – hold the gaze.