Planet Knausgaard
New York magazine|August 30 - September 12, 2021
Norway’s most famous self-exile debarks for a new frontier: genre fiction.
Torrey Peters

KARL OVE KNAUSGAARD is one of my literary heroes. This distresses many of my female, queer, and trans friends: Torrey, you have every woman writer in the world available to admire, but you won’t shut up about a tall, handsome Nordic-dad dude who spends five pages explaining how to turn on a stove? Guilty. The stereotype of the Knausgaard fan is of a thwarted literary man eager to tell you about his own idea for a systems novel, but there are many of us out there who don’t fit that description and are obsessed— to the exasperation of our loved ones—with a writer best known for an epic six-volume work called My Struggle (yes, the same title as Hitler’s memoir; yes, it’s intentional).

Knausgaard has become a byword for a certain kind of autofiction, a putatively fictional style in which the author details the self and the people in their orbit, occasionally resulting in scandal—as was the case for Knausgaard himself after he wrote bracingly and perhaps invasively about his father’s death, his then-wife’s bipolar diagnosis, and his crush on a student. For me, a trans writer, Knausgaard taught me about writing shame as liberation from it—a literary version of the kind of emotional breakthrough one normally experiences in therapy. Knausgaard, who is Norwegian and lives in London, famously edits very little, doesn’t plan his books in advance, and doesn’t even believe in “craft,” that ubiquitous dogma of the American M.F.A. program. Instead, he just types and seeks presence, writing about anything and everything in that pursuit, like a soccer player who spends most of the game passing the ball around midfield, awaiting a moment of transcendent athleticism that makes all the tedium seem like a prelude to brilliance.

On September 28, The Morning Star, Knausgaard’s first new novel since My Struggle, will be published in the U.S., translated from Norwegian by Martin Aitken. The book is the author doing a 700-page Stephen King impression—in the sense that Bill Hader does an Al Pacino impression, where the point isn’t to look or sound exactly like Pacino, but rather for Hader to have fun. The Morning Star alternates points of view among nine Norwegians who find the mundanities of their lives interrupted by the appearance of an eerie new star that casts a twilight over the earth. Animals start behaving strangely; people known to be dead walk briefly among the living—and yet, for the characters in the book, everyday life must go on. Despite the emphasis on plot, this book is still Knausgaard being Knausgaard. It’s just that this time, he's enjoying himself.

Did the pandemic influence how you wrote this novel?

I wrote most of it during the pandemic, but I wasn’t aware of any connection at all. After the book was done, I began to understand that, yes, of course, it was influenced by the pandemic—not in any conscious way, but I had the very strong feeling during the pandemic that there was something out there, you know? Death, ambulances, masks, and gloves— something horrific, terrible. Early in the pandemic, you couldn’t leave the house, so that looming threat was external and unseen. Meanwhile, inside the home was just the ongoing domestic life of my family: the children making lunch, going to school online. That inside-outside contrast is part of the novel.

I heard gossip about this novel before you finished it: that it would be your take on Stephen King’s The Stand—many points of view on an apocalyptic event. That, like Stephen King, it would be fun. And it was fun, but even more, I felt like you were having fun writing it. Were you?

Yeah, I definitely had fun. My favorite novel for many years was Dracula, by Bram Stoker. I read and reread it when I was 14, and that kind of fiction I do really like, but it was … previously it was forbidden for me. I had forbidden myself to go there—where, if there is something problematic in a novel, you can just put in a demon or whatever.

Why did you forbid yourself from writing those kinds of novels before?

In those books, everything that happens in the world becomes a story, and something is lost when the world becomes purely story. In My Struggle, I wanted very much to be in the moment of presence, where there are no stories, before the narratives and stories take shape.

But then I have always loved fantastic literature: García Márquez, Borges, Calvino, Cortázar … I just thought I could never do it myself. I’ve always written about things very close to myself—one has one’s own rules and ways and restrictions. It’s like that in life, too; you can’t see your own restrictions because those restrictions are you. So this time, at first, I really tried to get out of myself. Then I realized, Okay, all the characters are still writing like me, thinking like me, so I tried to use them as vessels to take me to places I wouldn’t normally go.

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