He is standing against the sunny wall outside the Munch Museum and receives the question:
«Do you ever miss the time before 'My Struggle'?»
«No. Not at all. No,» he replies.
«No, there’s just no way. I’m much happier now.»
«You’re happier now?»
«Yes, absolutely more happy. Of course.»
The last time I met Karl Ove Knausgård as a journalist was on a September day in 2009. This was before anyone had read about his premature ejaculations, his alcoholic father, diaper changes and life as a father of young children. He was already a well-known author at that time, but not yet a literary rock star. On this September day, everything was still on its way out into the world: Six volumes about the author himself and the people closest to him. «My Struggle» in its entirety would become the longest novel in Norwegian history and Knausgård was kneeling before the scaffold: Would he be received as the next Hamsun? Would it all drop to the earth like a dead turkey? He came slinking out of a flat in Malmo, located between a clothing store and a Chinese restaurant on Triangelen square. We went to a nearby café.
Fakta: «To the Forest - Knausgaard on Munch»
Exhibition of work by Edvard Munch
Curated by Karl Ove Knausgaard together with Kari Brantzæg.
Opens at the Munch Museum 6th of May - until 8th of October.
Several of the exhibitions 150 works have never before been shown.
In May the author will also publish the book «So much pain on so little surface».
In the book the author interviews artists about their relationship to Munch.
«The closer I get to the present, the more dangerous it becomes,» he said.
Friendly, but also uncomfortable. From time to time he spoke in long tirades, as if his thoughts were flying in all directions. But he then would also suddenly become introverted and silent, as if what he wanted most of all was just to disappear back to where he’d come from: the balcony, chain smoking in solitude.
Afterwards he sent me an email:
«It became a claustrophobic experience, it wasn’t your fault. When I left, I thought that it is almost impossible for me to move in that direction: from the book and out into reality. It was written inside a secluded space, and it is actually only in that space that what I say can be said. I was like an animal trapped in headlights.»
Eight years later, the «My Struggle»-books have made him an international star. He receives accolades all over the world – most recently the Swedish daily Expressen’s Björn Nilsson prize in February. He is interviewed by the major newspapers and he has started his own publishing house (Pelikanen). The American director Alexander Payne is working on a film based on the travelogue he wrote for The New York Times. And now he has been invited by the management of the Munch Museum in his native country Norway to curate a special Munch exhibition, which will open in May.
Black boots. Black trousers. A dark jacket, a grey scarf. Almost a decade has passed since he wrote: «In the window before me, I can vaguely make out the reflection of my face. Apart from one eye, which is glistening, and the area immediately below, which dimly reflects a little light, the whole of the left side is in shadow. Two deep furrows divide my forehead, one deep furrow intersects each cheek, all of them as if filled with darkness, and with the eyes staring and serious, and the corners of my mouth drooping, it is impossible not to consider this face gloomy. What has engraved itself in my face ?»
He will soon be 50 years old. The furrows are deeper, his hair is greyer. Otherwise: He has at least bought himself a bit more expensive clothing. But there is another change that is more conspicuous as he comes strolling into the tiny cinema in the basement of the Munch Museum in Oslo: His face is possibly still mask-like, to use Knausgård’s own words, but that can have just as much to do with the fact that for several years he has been travelling around the world, been interviewed on stages in Berlin, in New York, and acquired a practised manner of being. The point is, here comes also the personality Karl Ove Knausgård. The author, who previously used to stiffen when he entered a room of people, has learned to play this role as himself, as a professional.
«Karl Ove,» he says and greets the others firmly before sitting down.
Along with the Munch Museum’s own curator Kari Brandtzæg, he takes his seat more or less in the middle of the sloping auditorium, where also other representatives from the museum and a team from Snøhetta’s design department are present. They are in the home stretch now: Knausgård will choose the colours for the walls on which the approximately 150 works he has selected will hang. The designer Henrik Haugan from Snøhetta moves to a spot furthest down, on the floor by the screen, where he begins to show the preliminary colour samples from a projector.
«They can tolerate quite a bit of colour, I believe,» Haugan says about Munch’s paintings and explains further:
«Many modernist painters require a little surrounding breathing space in order for the work to function, while Munch is a bit more like the old masters. In a way, the force of the paintings is enclosed within the frames, they can be hung against virtually anything at all,» he says.
For the first of several rooms, the proposal is a shade of blue. It is shown on the screen.
«It’s a little too melancholy,» Knausgård says.
«I believe it can work with blue there, but it has to be a strong shade.»
«Not so bright?» the Snøhetta designer asks.
«More intense, is what I’m thinking,» Knausgård replies.
He calls himself an amateur curator, but there is nonetheless no doubt about who is the focal point around which everything revolves while he is here. It is the last day of a week the author has spent in Oslo. He has gone through these more practical aspects of the exhibition, but he has also taken small journeys in Munch’s footsteps, to both Åsgårdstrand and Jeløya. Parallel to the exhibition the author is working on another book, about Munch, which will be entitled «So much pain on so little surface» (Så mye smerte på så liten flate). In the book, which he estimates will be about 150 pages long, he also reflects about the essence of art in general and interviews Munch experts and a series of artists – among them Vanessa Baird and Anselm Kiefer.
«And then I also have David Hockney on my list,» he states.
«Has he said yes?»
«I sent him an email and asked if he would like to come to the opening, and that I was thinking of doing an interview with him about Munch. Then he said that he was interested in principle, but that he is 80 years old and his hearing is poor and he’s not very fond of travelling and a lot of such things. Then I thought that I would email him and instead ask him to answer questions.»
Together with the director brothers Emil Trier and Joachim Trier, Knausgård is also involved in a new film, this one also about Norway’s most famous artist. The rest is apparently a bit unclear, for the time being:
«A lot of it is Joachim Trier and I walking around and talking,» he explains.
«What kind of film will it be?»
«Nobody knows how it will turn out. We were down in the storeroom filming yesterday. We just film and see what happens,» he says.
After going into a hallway to look at some fabric swatches in the light from a window, Knausgård sits down together with the curator Brandtzæg in the museum café. They are apparently supposed to agree upon some dates for the upcoming time period. They will have lunch – sandwiches and coffee – before I will also receive a little time alone with Knausgård, for an interview.
As Kari Brandtzæg also says:
«Karl Ove is the boss. He is the one who is supposed to shine.»
He has also received assistance. In the past year, these two have together worked their way through all of the Munch works in the cellar, chosen around 150 of them – the majority of which have never been exhibited before.
«We have not placed importance on chronology or biography. There will be neither titles, nor dates. It will be a much freer and more emotionally charged path into Munch’s artistic world,» Brandtzæg says.
«There must also be a reason why many of these paintings have never been exhibited before?»
«No,» she says.
«There has long been a very narrow, tacitly agreed upon, biographic focus on Munch, with these early Frieze of Life paintings that reappear over and over in relation to different themes. With Karl Ove it is a fresh and new narrative that is generated.»
The exhibition has been titled: «Mot skogen« («To the Forest») after one of Munch’s paintings. Few of the artist’s iconic works will be included. In other words, a Japanese tourist looking for «The Scream» will be disappointed.
«I had a pretty clear idea with regard to not showing any of the famous Munch paintings, that it almost shouldn’t even resemble Munch,» Knausgård says.
It is the «dust gatherers», Munch’s lesser-known works, which will dominate.
«The idea is to try to bring these into the spotlight, try to give them meaning, give them relevance.»
The author connects the idea to a collection of books he received when he turned 40, containing photographs of Munch’s entire artistic production.
«It was the first time I began looking at him properly,» he explains.
«I was surprised about how much there was, how different everything was, how distant it was from the image we now have of Munch. Some of the paintings were almost the complete opposite of this, aesthetically speaking.»
«In what way?»
«If you look at 'Vampire' or almost any one of these paintings, they have no relation to place, to the here and now. They are related to an idea he has had, or a perception, of a woman, for example, something that wasn’t there, something he created. Which is very powerful. The paintings we have chosen can be of a barn in a garden, painted right there and then. And that’s it. There’s almost no intensity at all. It is more material, more materialistic, in terms of the technique,» he says.
Knausgård maintains that precisely by removing the icons, one is obliged to address the qualities of the paintings in their own right.
«If we hadn’t known about "Madonna" or any of these other famous paintings, who would Munch be then? I think that this is an important exercise to carry out, because we have such a clear image of Munch. When we see "The Scream", we are unable to see it as a painting. We just see it as an icon. But one must see these paintings as paintings, because one hasn’t seen them before.»
When we see The Scream, we are unable to see it as a painting. We just see it as an icon. But one must see these paintings as paintings, because one hasn’t seen them before.
Karl Ove Knausgård, author
«Do you identify with Munch?»
«I have thought about that quite a bit – while I’ve been writing about him, while looking at the paintings. I see something of what I personally want: To create without thinking about creating a masterpiece, just taking it as it comes, being in that flow. Although it is of course difficult to compare writing with painting, there is an aesthetic in Munch that I am especially fond of.»
«I am also fascinated by his savageness, his rawness, by how he wasn’t concerned about finishing things. There is something of a very rough quality and a powerful intensity in everything he has done.»
«I am also fascinated by his savageness, his rawness, by how he wasn’t concerned about finishing things. There is something of a very rough quality and a powerful intensity in everything he has done.»
«What about the existential sadness? You have said yourself that you scarcely have any joy in your life?»
«That’s true. Yes, he was known for being dreary. But what I identify with is his temperament. I don’t identify with Munch, in other words. I believe he was a very unusual guy. But there are elements there that I can relate to. And then there is something in his art that I can relate to. But that is true for everyone, of course.»
He draws a connection between Munch’s «The Scream» and an exhibition he recently saw in London of the work of the German artist Anselm Kiefer. The German’s apocalyptic sculptures and paintings caused Knausgård to think about how one looks at a painting today.
«Why do we look at pictures? How do we look at pictures? 'The Scream' was a radical painting in its day. At that time there were also realistic paintings that depicted trauma, difficulty, and the speculative. Death, sex, disease, etc. But there was always a space to be found there, which could open up for something else. You could contemplate it, feel compassion, and so on, but there was also a distance there.»
When he saw Kiefer’s exhibition, he also saw an artist who does the opposite of Munch’s «The Scream». While Munch depicted humans at extremely close range, through his images devoid of humans Kiefer creates a distance, a space – and as such, also a contrast to today’s world.
«Munch simply closed up that space. There is no space in 'The Scream'. There is no reconciliation whatsoever. There is an immediate emotional impact. When I saw Kiefer in London, there was only space. There wasn’t one human being there. Then I thought that it is because the distance to our emotions is like that.»
He snaps his fingers above the table top.
«When something happens in the world, we have an emotional reaction right away,» he says.
«We live in Munch’s world. We live in 'The Scream's' world.»
We live in Munch’s world. We live in «The Scream's» world
Karl Ove Knausgård – author
He goes outside to smoke a cigarette, and sits down with his cell phone on one of the chairs at the café tables in the snow outside. Afterwards he and Brandtzæg trudge in through the corridors. She is apparently going to find the calendar; they must meet again before the exhibition is finished. She fetches more coffee. We are shown into a room, he and I, a kind of meeting room. There is a table there surrounded by some chairs. A window faces the park outside, otherwise it’s rather empty. When Brandtzæg shuts the door, Knausgård sits down on the chair at the end, with his back to the window. He remains seated like that, drumming his fingers against the table while I ask him about his new life. He still struggles to find the peace of mind to write, he says. At the same time, it is becoming increasingly important to him.
«There’s also a hype, right. And the air always goes out of a hype. Then you land somewhere else. I’ve just tried not to think about it. Just write and work with what emerges,» he says about his new existence.
He is in the process of getting divorced and a former life is also slowly creeping back: He recently bought himself a turntable, and has started buying vinyl records again.
«I’d completely forgotten the pleasure of it. I was just in London and bought LPs there also. It was incredibly fun,» he says.
«Or not incredibly fun, actually. But it was like a kind of back-to-basics feeling.»
«Before all the soul-baring of 'My Struggle', before it came out, you were very nervous. How has this changed? Do you mind less? Have you acquired a thicker skin?»
«I have acquired thicker skin, yes. Plus, I’ve accepted the consequences of that. I can’t think about how it looks from the outside any longer. I’ve completely stopped doing that. I do what must be done and don’t think about the consequences of it.»
«Do you manage to do that?»
«More or less. But now and then, things will get to me. But it’s a matter of protecting oneself. Now I’m actually just talking about the media and the public sphere, the role there. But I’m very much at home in the tiny village where I live. I don’t see anyone, I’m just with my family, or sitting and writing. That’s what I want and that’s what I must try to protect. More and more, that’s the way I think: that’s what it’s all about.»
«But when you sit and talk about Karl Ove Knausgård in these interviews everywhere, is it like talking about a character, almost?»
«No. It’s like being a character. It’s like going into a character. That’s how it is. But it’s not who I genuinely am. For me it’s only a very unnatural situation, to sit there and talk about myself, particularly on a stage.»
«You’ve become more professional?»
«Yes. But it’s also true that to do it well, I can’t play it safe, either. I just have to talk and take some chances. And then it also becomes exhausting in a way.»
» A few days before, Knausgård was interviewed by the Swedish newspaper Expressen, in conjunction with his being awarded the newspaper’s Björn Nilsson prize. Things worked out as they tend to do, when one has reached a certain level of fame: Other newspapers pick out a few quotes they find to be sensational, and write articles that are based on these. In the newspaper Dagbladet: «Knausgård lashes out at Norway in a new interview: ‘Norwegians lack professionalism, they are a little more childish.'»
I ask him if he has heard about this.
«I heard about it. I haven’t read it. I don’t want to know anything about it,» he says and immediately afterwards asks me:
«I have no idea what they have used, but I assume that it was negative?»
«So you don’t read such things?»
«No, I really don’t. Then I would have in fact been destroyed, I believe. It’s bad enough knowing that it’s out there.»
«Norwegians lack professionalism, they are a little more childish.»
He releases a kind of sigh.
«What did you mean, really?»
«I was speaking about the differences in the cultures. The Swedes have an extremely formal culture, where everyone knows what they are supposed to do and there are roles for everyone. And then I come to Norway, and it’s not like that. Then it seems as if they are unprofessional and a little childish. But that is really a good quality. Unlike the Swedes, who are very stiff and formal. Norway isn’t like that. It wasn’t anything more than that,» he says.
He sits in silence for a while. He looks out the window. He drums on the table top a bit. Then suddenly he starts twisting in his seat.
«Oh,» he says, and:
«What is it?»
«But what does this say about me? Why have they written this? Good God. That isn’t what I think of Norwegians. It goes without saying. In relation to the Swedes everyone is unprofessional.»
He looks up.
«You see? Oh, dear me. That’s how it is.»
He no longer reads interviews of himself, after a writer colleague recommended that he stop.
«It was during a tour with some Norwegian and Swedish authors in connection with my being nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize. The Swedish author Majgull Axelsson noticed how disturbed I was by what was written about me, how much anxiety I had in relation to it. She said: 'Never read it. Never watch yourself on television. Never listen to yourself on the radio. Just be yourself and talk.' I have tried to follow her advice. Sometimes I have a relapse. I read Norwegian newspapers and suddenly something is printed there. I don’t read it, but maybe I see a headline…But I try to stay away completely. It was very good advice,» he says.
There are still members of his family with whom he doesn’t speak, after the publication of «My Struggle». All four of his children have also appeared in several of his books. The eldest are now about to become teenagers. They have Google.
«Are they prepared for what is found there?»
«They know a little bit,» he answers.
«I have always talked about it with them, so they know that it’s there. That I have written about myself and about us. But they don’t understand the consequences of it, as such. They are sheltered.»
Last autumn the news that he and his wife Linda Boström Knausgård (44 years old) had separated became public knowledge. They now live in their respective houses in a small village of 300 residents, on the outskirts of Ystad, in Österlen in southern Sweden.
«How are you doing now?»
«I feel good,» he says and smiles.
«Of course it’s been full of conflict and all that. But it’s very much about the children, how to get them through this without it having any consequences for them. That is something everyone who gets divorced is familiar with. That is the number one priority. It’s also a cliché, but it is what is most important.»
«Do you see them often?»
«It’s a kind of every other week set-up?»
«It’s the best of both worlds,» he replies.
He can still become nervous, but a lot has changed since as a 39-year-old he sat there at the window in Malmo, looking at the shadowy reflection of his face, while he wondered about what had engraved itself there. Little things he shouldn’t care about can still bring him down, things that can «totally dominate your state of mind».
«But I’m no longer afraid,» he says.
«That’s the big difference.»
Before, when he entered the Oktober publishing house, in the time preceding publication of «My Struggle», he didn’t speak.
«I would come into a room and say nothing. I went out for dinner and said nothing. I was completely closed-off,» he explains.
The books based on the four seasons of the year will now be published in England and the USA. In the end of May, «My Struggle VI» will be launched in Germany. He had actually planned to stay home.
«I’d planned to say no since it’s about Hitler, and … yes, everything that entails. But then I found out that that’s not an option. I have to go there and take it. Take the heat.»
Success has never been a goal for him, but even an occasionally tormented man deserves to have his moments.
«And it’s fantastic,» he says about his ongoing success.
«No author can ask for more than this,» he continues.
«I have been given the chance to curate an exhibition at the Munch Museum. I would never have received the chance before. And never had the chance to write for magazines and newspapers. All my books are published. I must enjoy it while it lasts, because it will come to an end one day.»
Once again he sits in silence, drumming with these fingers of his. What is he thinking about now? His next novel?
No. He turns back from the window and asks:
«What do you really think about the colours?»
The excerpt from «My Struggle 1» is from Donald Bartletts translation.