Actually, He’s Doing Pretty O.K.: Karl Ove Knausgaard Arrives in New York

Karl Ove Knausgaard and Zadie Smith.

Karl Ove Knausgaard and Zadie Smith.

Last week, an hour and a half before the discussion between Zadie Smith and Karl Ove Knausgaard regarding My Struggle, the latter’s six-book novel, book three of which was published in America on May 27, the line outside McNally Jackson bookstore went around the corner, about half a block down Mulberry Street. Passersby occasionally asked about the anomaly. An elderly, hunchbacked woman, rolling a luggage-like container behind her on the sidewalk, produced a pen and scrap paper—on which were scrawled little notes—and asked how to spell the author’s last name. She copied “Knausgaard” from the cover of book one, which someone in line was reading, onto her paper before situating herself and meandering across the street in a jaywalk.

The six volumes of My Struggle total 3,600 pages, all of which are being translated sequentially from Mr. Knausgaard’s native Norwegian. The books have appeared in 22 different languages. Book three is currently on the New York Times bestseller list.

“We only met, like, ten minutes ago—so we’re both very nervous,” said Ms. Smith, seated on a stool beside Mr. Knausgaard in the bookstore’s downstairs area. (Upstairs, they were projected on a large screen.) Reading book one’s first pages, in which she recognized a certain kind of theory related to late 20th century materialism, Ms. Smith said she had expected a brutal tale—“something along the lines of Houellebecq or even Bret Easton Ellis”—but then “suddenly it loops from this beautiful extraordinary paragraph about a dead body into this very personal subjective account of a boy watching television, this boat disaster he sees, and then this almost mystic suggestion of a face in the water. And it happened seamlessly. And I remember gasping at that movement, which seemed so simple but I had never seen anybody do it from the theoretical to the personal so simply and so beautifully.”

Mr. Knausgaard appeared intensely focused, blinking almost once a second without seeming fidgety or nervous. He sometimes nodded in a sensitive, rushed way—rushed to fit into Ms. Smith’s quick cadence—in moments someone else might say “right” or “yes” or make little noises as sub-acknowledgements.

After Ms. Smith completed her question, Mr. Knausgaard said, “Yeah.” His voice sounded soothing and calm, a little resigned but also arguably containing a trace amount of wonderment. I could imagine his moderately deep-pitched voice “booming” but suspected it rarely got that loud. The audience laughed.

“Sorry it’s a long question,” said Ms. Smith.

“Yeah, it’s”—small cough—“It’s like the opening part of the book is the only part of the book that I really put all my effort in, you know? I…”

The audience laughed loudly.

“Yeah,” said Mr. Knausgaard, who blinked less while speaking, once or twice every ten seconds. “I think I worked eight-nine weeks on those. I wanted them to be perfect. And my editor wanted to take them out. Because of the change of tone, after that.”

Mr. Knausgaard said he wanted to write from “a perspective outside humanity.” He defined the sublime as “the perspective outside of humanity” and said,  “It’s impossible to get there by language, because language is humanity—that’s inside, so how can you get outside? And in the book I want to get outside, all the time, and it’s impossible.”

Answering another question, Mr. Knausgaard said he used empathy as a social mechanism. “It’s when I want to please everybody, I want everyone to be happy. That’s the way children of addicted people behave. But as soon as I get home by myself, I don’t really care. I think I have a line in the book: I’ll be at the party and I care for everybody, but when I’m home this place can burn down, I wouldn’t really care. And that’s autistic. That’s autistic.”

“In the book they’re not pleasing everybody. A people-pleasing novel doesn’t look like this book.”

“No,” agreed Mr. Knausgaard. “And that’s why I wrote it. Because I was so tired of pleasing. And for me in literature ‘pleasing’ is, you know, being clever, doing what you should do—‘look at me, how good I am.’ This was a way of saying no, I won’t behave, and for the first time in my life I will say exactly what I mean.”

During the audience Q&A Mr. Knausgaard said writing for him was not cathartic. “It’s just doing something, creating something, basically disappearing from yourself. And that kind of selflessness is the best part of writing. And when it stops—I’m miserable, I’m the same basically.” He said he would rather be miserable and write than be happy and not write. Could he embrace praise? “I’m a person—who doesn’t really like myself,” said Mr. Knausgaard, a little sheepishly. “And if you feel like that, it’s impossible to understand a reaction like this, it’s impossible to make it part of yourself. I can’t really embrace it, it’s impossible.” On living in Sweden as a Norwegian, Mr. Knausgaard said the first thing that goes away in a foreign country are the jokes—“it’s very difficult to joke in another language”—then the topic returned to misery: Had Mr. Knausgaard been joking, to some degree, regarding misery?

“That could be so, yeah, for a cheap laugh,” said Mr. Knausgaard with an earnest, almost solemn expression, and the audience laughed. “Yeah, but at the same time it is true! But it is very difficult to talk about. Because if you talk about it, it’s like you’re doing a pose, you know, ‘look, I’m a miserable writer,’ so what can I say, I truly am.” The audience’s laughter reached a climax as Mr. Knausgaard said “truly am.” Mr. Knausgaard continued: “But it doesn’t help, it’s the same thing.” He added: “But in writing you can go for the complexity of this.”

After the Q&A, Mr. Knausgaard went upstairs and moved energetically through the crowd, like a football player that was a thin strong elf with silvery hair, toward the signing area. I estimate he was 6’3”. An audience member who’d read books one to three of My Struggle as well as a previous, 612-page novel by Mr. Knausgaard set in biblical times and about angels, noticed Mr. Knausgaard “used a lot of product in his hair.”

To be human—to exist in concrete reality and the imagination, to be material and immaterial—is to be paradoxical. And to transcend humanity—or, if that’s impossible, to go to where one can touch the wall, which bodies can’t cross, separating the human from the sublime—one first needs to be human, and embody paradox.

I imagine Mr. Knausgaard feeling on some level charged by his own existence, aware he’s closer to, or at least now positioned adjacent, the sublime as a result of the amount and scale of paradox he has accumulated in his life and, as a kind of side effect, generated in the world.