As the grandson of two rabbis, I knew some of my family would worry when I told them I was flying to Beirut to interview the author of Mein Kampf. But if chasing the exotic isn’t a little bit dangerous, then what’s the point of being a writer? And my invitation to the Hay Festival in Beirut was back in 2013, before the arrival of vast numbers of Syrian refugees from the war next door, and during a quiet interval, when it was perfectly safe – well, relatively safe – to stroll past the yacht clubs along the Corniche and go rooftop dancing impromptu with Saudis and Palestinians desperate for the promised R&R of the lotus land of the Levant.
Five years ago, when Festival Director Cristina Fuentes invited me to interview the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard at the Hay Festival in Beirut, I had never heard his name. Knausgaard’s six-volume autobiographical novel Min Kamp, translated into English as My Struggle, had sold 500,000 copies in Norway, a country with a population of five million, but hadn’t yet been published in the United States.
“You’re going to love it,” Cristina wrote and attached a pdf of the first volume, A Death in the Family.
“For the heart, life is simple: it beats as long as it can.”
That first line hooked me. Far from a romantic come-on, it had that mix of existential pretension and noir dread that sucked me into the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead to watch Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Through a Glass Darkly when I was a student in the early 1970s.
Even the Bergman of The Seventh Seal knew that there had to be more to his heaven and earth than philosophy, and the bulk of Knausgaard’s first volume quickly moves from meditation on anatomy to “cigarette smoke, coffee drinking, listening to the radio, eating breakfast and car engines warming up outside in the dark”. The central death in the family is the death of Knausgaard’s father. But the central character is the young Karl Ove, easily drawn to tears, wanting nothing more than to please people – his drunken, tyrannical father in particular.
Of course I knew that Bergman was Swedish and Knausgaard Norwegian. But my direct knowledge of Norway was limited to a family drive through the fjords when I was ten, ending up at the seaside town of Fevik, where we swam in what my own father, bravely quoting James Joyce, called “the scrotum-tightening sea”.
Knausgaard spent his early years not far from Fevik. Reading his life, like reading anyone’s life, is travelling to a foreign country. We read because we crave the exotic. In a Europe H&M-ed and Accessorized into an homogeneous pulp, the exotic is increasingly difficult to find.
Yet we navigate best with signposts in a language we understand. Throughout the five volumes of My Struggle that I have read (the final volume is due out in English this year) Knausgaard’s 1990s childhood is set to a soundtrack of Elvis Costello and Echo and the Bunnymen, and yet throws enough foreign names at us – Scandinavian authors such as Aksel Sandemose and Kjartan Fløgstad – that we know we’re not in Kansas anymore.
When I met Karl Ove in Beirut, I felt either that I knew him, or that he reckoned I knew him because I’d read what he had written about himself and he owed it to both of us to stick to the script. He was tall and shaggy. He was painfully shy. There were cigarettes. Lots of cigarettes. But in our interview – in front of only twenty people – he was charming and forthcoming and generous. This from a man who now appears around the world to crowds of thousands. Yet when I tried to persuade him to join me and the Welsh poet Owen Sheers on a day trip up to the Phoenician port of Byblos, he begged off: he had to meet a deadline for an essay on the occasion of Soren Kierkegaard’s bicentennial. Right.
While I was still in Beirut, The New Yorker published an excerpt from the second volume of My Struggle. By this point in the saga, Karl Ove is living in Sweden with his second wife and has two young daughters. The excerpt was a set piece – a birthday party for a school friend of Vanja’s, the older of the girls – a painful episode. Three-year-old Vanja doesn’t want to go; thirty-year-old Karl Ove doesn’t want to go. And yet the feeling that one must go, in the most Beckettian sense, leads to a scene of banal, childish cruelty, and banal, adult mediocrity. I remembered a phone conversation with a writer friend in Edinburgh who thought that Knausgaard was more overrated than Elena Ferrante – and this was back in 2013.
“And yet we read it,” I argued back to him. “We read it all. Right up till the end.”
“Maybe you do,” he said. “I struggle no more.”
I lay in my Beirut hotel room, reading about this disastrous birthday party with a mixture of embarrassment and boredom, when suddenly Karl Ove and Vanja escape from the party – his wife and younger daughter have long since gone – and walk out into the Malmö night:
“It was cold and clear outside, but all the light in the town, from street lamps, shop windows and car lights, seeped upwards and lay like a shimmering dome above the rooftops, through which no starry lustre could penetrate. Of all the heavenly bodies only the moon, hanging almost full above the Hilton Hotel, was visible.”
I’ve never been to Malmö, and there’s nothing particularly exotic about a Hilton Hotel anywhere, in my experience. And yet, drinking through my mini-bar just a mile or two away from Sabra and Shatila, I felt that Knausgaard had written something exquisite.
In recent years, waiting for the next installment of My Struggle, I’ve read several of Knausgaard’s essays in the New York Times and most recently his book of short thoughts, Autumn. Sadly, they don’t grab me in the same way as My Struggle. Maybe they’re less rooted in the pain and joy of remembered experience. Maybe the philosophy, the analysis, is more banal. Maybe the base observations are just plain ordinary. Maybe the writing just isn’t as good.
But this passage at the end of the birthday party made me think of Joyce, of Gabriel Conroy at the end of The Dead watching the snow fall over Ireland and his own arrogance. And it made me think, well hell, when you get down to it The Dead is just a story about a party. Maybe I was just trying to be as much of a people-pleaser as Karl Ove. But maybe it was true. That, at least in the five volumes I’ve read of My Struggle, Knausgaard knows how to turn on the lyrical tap at just the right moment and make his music, his writing, his cigarettes, his booze, his childish craps and cries, his family and friends, his scrotum-tightening struggle, into our struggle. At least for a little while.
I walked out of the hotel and took a taxi to another Beirut rooftop party. I hoped Karl Ove would be there and I could please him with my Joycean epiphany. But of course he wasn’t.
By Jonathan Levi
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s first novel, Out of the World, was the first ever debut novel to win the Norwegian Critics’ Prize and his second, A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven, was widely acclaimed. A Death in the Family, the first of the My Struggle cycle of novels, was awarded the prestigious Brage Prize. The My Struggle cycle has been heralded as a masterpiece. His latest work, Autumn begins a new cycle of books based on the seasons.
US-born Jonathan Levi is the author of the novels Septimania and A Guide for the Perplexed. A founding editor of Granta, he currently lives and teaches in Rome.
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