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Karl’s Struggle, Our Narcissism

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I first awaited The Author in a claustrophobically tight crowd of people packed inside of a Brooklyn bookstore. The reading wasn’t to begin for another hour, but the store’s staff was forced to close the doors before too many more guests depleted the room’s oxygen levels. Two young men kept comparing the event to a rock concert and complaining that they should have brought 40s. “He’s going to feel like Lil B when he comes out,” one said.

When The Author arrived the crowd parted down the middle and he was ushered down the aisle like a confused bride, a spotlight trained on his gray curls and dark eyes. The Author wore a gray jacket, dark pants, and an expression of intense thought, just like he does on his latest book covers (though he was missing a signature leather jacket that makes him look like a retired greaser). Once seated at the front of the store, out of sight of most of the crowd, he was interviewed by a fellow author. “Form is, in a way, death,” he told her.

The next afternoon, I stood in a two-block-long line strung across SoHo, Manhattan, three hours early for The Author’s next appearance at another fashionable bookstore. As the line grew and the afternoon wore on, the supplicants near the front swapped spots to dash off for coffee without losing their places in the queue. Passersby inquired as to why we were standing there and then looked surprised when we informed them it was for Literature. Many in the line carried copies of The Author’s books and thumbed idly through their bulk. A novelist suggested that the number of the books one had read should determine one’s place in line. She had read all three.

When we were finally allowed into the basement of the bookstore, those chairs not already reserved were snapped up first by VIP journalists and critics, and then by rabid fans. Those who couldn’t fit were left upstairs to experience a digital facsimile of The Author’s presence. When he finally arrived the room broke out in applause. He wore a soft, dark shirt with the sleeves rolled tight around his elbows and black jeans, his hair less baroquely curled than the day before, but eyes still wide. He was interviewed by another famous author, with whom he shared a particular brand of angst over their respective fame. “I didn’t want to think about the reader,” The Author said. “I was very surprised when this was read at all.”

The Author is forty-five-year-old Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard, and insofar as literature allows, Knausgaard has become a rock star. He was touring New York to promote his six-volume autobiographical novel My Struggle, the third installment of which has just been published in English. Last week he was interviewed in sold-out events first by Nicole Krauss, then by Zadie Smith, and finally by Jeffrey Eugenides, all iconic novelists who have instantly been made his peers simply on the strength of his recent books. Before My Struggle, Knausgaard was an obscurist Nordic scribe who once wrote a novel about the historiography of angels. Now, he’s the world’s most successful narcissist.

My Struggle dramatizes the details of Knausgaard’s daily life, if anything about the books can be called dramatic. He comes to grips as closely with making a cup of coffee or bringing his children to preschool as he does with the aftermath of his abusive, alcoholic father’s slow death. Descriptions of the natural landscape of Sweden have the same heartfelt grandeur and intimacy as depictions of the shit-stained, bottle-strewn house his father lived in before he died—a place Knausgaard and his older brother laboriously scour clean right under the reader’s nose.

The thousands of pages are filled with descriptions of minutiae suited perfectly for the age of social media. A Knausgaardian Tumblr would precisely match the negative stereotype of the platform: an onslaught of breakfast photos, lit cigarettes, soft-focus shots of friends and family members, sunrises and sunsets. And yet his relentless self-disclosure manages to be immersive rather than boring. It’s a kind of self-negating narcissism that gives us license to explore our own lives in a similar level of detail.

In a culture of omnipresent selfies, Knausgaard’s literary self-portrait is a tool to communicate the individual to the outside world. Particularly in New York City, where the cliché of glancing into a storefront window to check on your outfit is alive and well, we enjoy seeing people look at themselves almost as much as we love staring at our own reflections. If we’re obsessed with Knausgaard, it’s because we’re ultimately obsessed with ourselves—he gives us an excuse for navel-gazing, and we worship him for it.

Not that Knausgaard was ready for the hysteria that would greet his books. During his talk with Zadie Smith, Knausgaard gestured with both hands outstretched like a man trying to justify why he broke open the last remaining vial of the Black Plague. When he returned to Norway after the first My Struggle book was published, he immediately “realized everything had changed,” he said. “I didn’t think of what was going to happen when I did it.” In his homeland of 5 million people, the series sold over 450,000 copies. Knausgaard became a public figure. His wife relapsed into depression from the exposure (the couple’s arguments are dissected in the books). His own family sued him. “With a shock I realized, what have I done? I have given away myself, my family,” he said.

What happened in Norway is now repeating itself on a global scale. Knausgaard took a risk in exposing his interior life in writing that, as effective as it is, isn’t traditionally beautiful, and it paid off. “If you let go of the notion of quality, then people can laugh at you, and that’s the most threatening thing of all,” he said. And yet instead of laughter he is greeted with resounding applause. Knausgaard’s writing, which he uses to hide from life even as he confronts it, has given him the most public life of all. He might not be happy with the consequences, but that’s not unexpected. “Being miserable is a part of being a writer,” he said. “I would rather be miserable than be happy and not write.”

Knausgaard’s fame has taken on a life of its own. The human seated in New York seemed to trail behind the self he has created through his books, like someone who has fallen out of a hot air balloon but still dangles in the air by a rope. After all, it’s the books, not the man, which plunged New York briefly into a literary Beatlemania. Knausgaard the man, so unglamorous in contrast to his hardcovers, now lives isolated with his family in rural Sweden, a place, he explained, where no one cares about literature. Perhaps his distance is for the best—it maintains the books’ mythological aura, like a friend whose life we only see on their Instagram profile, as well as protects Knausgaard’s sanity.

“I just live in a state of denial. I can’t think of it, the fact that not only 10,000 people have read about my life, but 100,000,” The Author said. “If you think of this, it’s impossible to live.” Yet what Knausgaard has done is to allow his readers to live. My Struggle reminds us of the intoxicating possibility that ordinary life can be turned into art—although in the case of our filtered snapshots of half-full coffee mugs, the transformation is rarely as successful.