Famed author Karl Ove Knausgård speaks about his yearning to write

Photo of Karl Ove Knausgárd
Karl Ove Knausgård spoke on the topic "Why I Write" at the Windham Campbell Prize Ceremony on Sept. 13. (Photo by Beowulf Sheehan)

The response that now world-renowned author Karl Ove Knausgård received to his written work when he was in his 20s — at the start of his career — was far out of alignment with his intense yearning to be a writer.

He shared a manuscript with a friend he admired, who recommended that Knausgård shelve the piece and begin anew, he told a full house in Sprague Memorial Hall on Sept. 13, when giving the annual keynote address at a prize ceremony honoring the eight recipients of this year’s Windham-Campbell Prizes. In a creative writing program in his native Norway — in which he was one of only 10 individuals chosen to take part — he said, “all my hopes were crushed,” as “what I wrote was trash.”

Despite this, “I continued to write,” said Knausgård,” whose six-volume series of autobiographical novels,  “Min Kamp” (“My Struggle”), written later in his life, has been hailed as a masterpiece, sold nearly a half-million copies worldwide, and won numerous literary prizes. His first novel, “Out of the World,” was the first-ever debut novel to win the Norwegian Critics Prize for Literature, and his second, “A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven,” was widely acclaimed. He has also written a collection of essays and the first book of a new quartet, “Autumn,” (reflections about the world addressed to his then-unborn daughter), was published this summer.

Finding his own authentic voice and learning to disregard the voices of others about his writing have been part of his literary journey, the author said in his Windham-Campbell Lecture, titled “Why I Write.”

The friend who told him his early piece of writing had no value, Knausgård recalled, was a poet, which the Norwegian author considered at the time to be the highest literary achievement. “He was the real thing,” Knausgård said. “He played chess. The mere fact that he knew what he liked impressed me.” So enchanted was Knausgård by his friend that, during a visit to a church in Prague, he was convinced that the man — with his eyes closed and head bowed — was having an ecstatic religious experience. He asked him, “as casually” as he could, if his friend was meditating, only to discover that the person he held in such high regard was simply taking a snooze.

But at the time, the still-impressionable Knausgård hadn’t yet blocked other voices from influencing him. “I was discovering myself,” the author says of that time in his life. “Nothing about me was genuine.” He went on to describe how, as much as he had the will to write, his work “had no connection” to himself. “What mattered was that it look like literature,” he recalled.

Soon after, the author began to read books as feverishly as he did as a child, when his “sole object was to get away from the reality I was living in — in other words, escapism, pure and simple,” he said. He even revisited some childhood books, and said he discovered that some of them “felt closer than any family member or friend.”

I was paralyzed by shame and low self-esteem,” he said of these early adult years. “I hardly spoke and hardly anyone spoke to me.” The books he was reading, however, introduced new worlds to the aspiring writer, who said that in the novels he was reading “nothing was forbidden” and “everything opened emotions that had been dormant” in him. “I wanted to be there … in that space of utter absorption when everything vanished out of the world.”

It is no mistake, Knausgård said, that his first book was titled “Out of the World.”

[T]hat out-of-the-world place, which in childhood was merely a refuge, has now become a place where I can gain insights … To be able to look in, you have to be on the outside,” he told his audience.

Art, literature, and religion, he said, are the only avenues that allow such an “outside” experience.

Knausgård described literature as the space between “what one imagines” and “the world as it is” — and a “space where something can be said” and where “truths can unfold.”

That is why I write: to erode my own notions of the world to allow what I have kept down to rise the surface,” he said, adding that “writing must be open and accessible,” without regard to how it will be received.

If one is thinking about how something would seem to others; if one thinks about whether something is important or good enough, or if one to begins to calculate or to pretend, then [the written work] is no longer accessible as itself, but only as what we have made it into,” he said.

He compared the act of writing to watching hedgehogs in his garden, where, if he sits quietly and unnoticed, he is capable of seeing the animals just “being present in the world,” while also allowing himself to create a new connection to reality simply by virtue of observing and being there with them.

Whatever it is that shows itself” in [my] work, it has to show itself unguardedly, with a kind of trust,” he said.

His first attempts at writing, he said, were to work through his emotions regarding his troubled relationship with his domineering father, which became the subject of the first book in the “My Struggle” series. He sent copies of his writings to everyone he knew, and waited eagerly for their response.

I wanted to be seen,” Knausgård acknowledged. “I wanted the recognition that comes with being a writer, and that by becoming a writer, I would show that I was special, that I was remarkable, that my work had special significance.” He said this yearning was no different than his younger self’s dreams of becoming a soccer player or a pop star.

Today, he said, meaningful or moving experiences in his own life create in him a yearning to write. One recent example of this was seeing a flock of hundreds of jackdaws flying in a group formation as he waited to pick up his children from school.

The sight “gave shocked joy at the simple fact I was here now, joy that I exist together with everything else in existence,” he explained. “When I see this, or when I look at a painting, I feel an urge to write, as if I have to find an opening for it, find a form in which to express not the feeling itself but the longing to be in the world it gives rise to, or to open the world. Yes, I write because I want to open the world.”

Knausgård acknowledged that he still also writes for more “selfish” reasons — success, ambition, wanting to be seen, and “wanting to be someone.” But he also shared an excerpt from Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” — a book the author said he “loves above all others” — to illustrate another function of literature. It depicts a scene in which Prince Andrei watches as Natasha sings to clavichord music. Andrei weeps in the moment, recalling his past disillusionments as well as his unbounded hope in the future.

The contradiction that exists between the feeling of [being] illimitable and our own limitations as earthbound [beings] is the driving force between all literature and all art,” says Knausgård. “The longing to equalize the difference, suspend the contradiction, and simply exist in the world … is also an important part of religious practice.”

Likewise, he described his reaction to a painting by Van Gogh of a green field surrounded by dark sky: “I feel a joy in existing and being a part of this world, as if the soul is lifted and I am no longer myself.” Such an experience, he said, is akin to his own writing: “Language carries its own meaning, form carries its own meaning, and that which seems so evident and so near to me changes as soon as I start to write. It is no longer near to me. It is no longer mine — the language turns it into something else.”

The winners of the Windham Campbell Prize on stage at the ceremony.
The Windham Campbell Prize-winners were honored at the ceremony for their literary contributions. They are (left to right) André Alexis, Erna Brodber, Marina Carr, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Carolyn Forché, Ike Holter, Maya Jasanoff, and Ashleigh Young. (Photo by Beowulf Sheehan)

The freedom to write without worry

Following his address, this year’s Windham Campbell Prize-winners were introduced to the audience. Each of the recipients of the honor is given $165,000 for the year to have the freedom to write without having to be concerned about their means of support. President Peter Salovey read citations for each of this year’s winners: Marina Carr and Ike Holter in drama; André Alexis and Erna Brodber in fiction; Maya Jasanoff and Ashleigh Young in nonfiction; and Ali Cobby Eckermann and Carolyn Forché in poetry. This is the first year prizes in poetry were presented.

The prizewinners spend several days on campus reading from their own works and participating in talks and other events.

This year marks the fifth anniversary of the Windham Campbell Prizes at Yale. According to Michael Kelleher, the director of the program, the winners were selected by a nine-member committee in a process that involved 60 nominators. In 2010, novelist Donald Windham left the bulk of his estate to Yale to establish the literary prize in honor of his lifelong partner, Sandy M. Campbell. For more information, visit the Windham Campbell Prize website at http:/windhamcampbell.org.

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