My Conversation with Karl Ove Knausgaard

Here is the audio and transcript, this was one of my favorite Conversations. Here is the CWTeam summary:

Knausgård’s literary freedom paves the way for this conversation with Tyler, which starts with a discussion of mimesis and ends with an explanation of why we live in the world of Munch’s The Scream. Along the way there is much more, including what he learned from reading Ingmar Bergman’s workbooks, the worst thing about living in London, how having children increased his productivity, whether he sees himself in a pietistic tradition, thoughts on Bible stories, angels, Knut Hamsun, Elena Ferrante, the best short story (“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”), the best poet (Paul Celan), the best movie (Scenes from a Marriage), and what his punctual arrival says about his attachment to bourgeois values.

Here is one excerpt:

KNAUSGÅRD: You have this almost archetypical artist putting his art before his children, before his family, before everything. You have also Doris Lessing who did the same — abandoned her children to move to London to write.

I’ve been kind of confronted with that as a writer, and I think everyone does because writing is so time consuming and so demanding. When I got children, I had this idea that writing was a solitary thing. I could go out to small islands in the sea. I could go to lighthouses, live there, try to write in complete . . . be completely solitary and alone. When I got children, that was an obstruction for my writing, I thought.

But it wasn’t. It was the other way around. I’ve never written as much as I have after I got the children, after I started to write at home, after I kind of established writing in the middle of life. It was crawling with life everywhere. And what happened was that writing became less important. It became less precious. It became more ordinary. It became less religious or less sacred.

It became something ordinary, and that was incredibly important for me because that was eventually where I wanted to go — into the ordinary and mundane, even, and try to connect to what was going on in life. Life isn’t sacred. Life isn’t uplifted. It is ordinary and boring and all the things, we know.


COWEN: So many great Norwegian writers — Ibsen, Sigrid Undset, Knut Hamsun — there’s nationalism in their work. Yet today, liberals tend to think of nationalism as an unspeakable evil of sorts. How do we square this with the evolution of Norwegian writing?

And if one thinks of your own career, arguably it’s your extreme popularity in Norway at first that drove your later fame. What’s the connection of your own work to Norwegian nationalism? Are you the first non-nationalist great Norwegian writer? Is that plausible? Or is there some deeper connection?

KNAUSGÅRD: I think so much writing is done out of a feeling of not belonging. If you read Knut Hamsun, he was a Nazi. I mean, he was a full-blooded Nazi. We have to be honest about that.

COWEN: His best book might be his Nazi book, right? He wrote it when he was what, 90?


COWEN: On Overgrown Paths?


COWEN: To me, it’s much more interesting than the novels, which are a kind of artifice that hasn’t aged so well.


COWEN: But you read On Overgrown Paths, you feel like you’re there. It’s about self-deception.

KNAUSGÅRD: It’s true, it’s a wonderful book. But I think Hamsun’s theme, his subject, is rootlessness. In a very rooted society, in a rural society, in a family-orientated society like Norway has been — a small society — he was a very rootless, very urban writer.

He went to America, and he hated America, but he was America. He had that in him. He was there in the late 19th century, and he wrote a book about it, which is a terrible book, but still, he was there, and he had that modernity in him.

He never wrote about his parents. Never wrote about where he came from. All his characters just appear, and then something happens with them, but there’s no past. I found that incredibly intriguing just because he became the Nazi. He became the farmer. He became the one who sang the song about the growth. What do you call it? Markens Grøde.

COWEN: Growth of the Soil.


COWEN: Arnold Weinstein has a book on Nordic culture, and he argues that the sacrifice of the child is a recurring theme. It’s in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. It’s in a number of Ibsen plays, Bergman movies. Has that influenced you? Or are you a rejection of that? Are you like Edvard Munch, but with children, and that’s the big difference between you and Munch, the painter?

I told you we ask different questions.

KNAUSGÅRD: Yeah, yeah. You just said different. You didn’t say difficult.

Knausgaard showed up for the taping carrying a package of black bread, which he forgot to take with him when leaving.  So for the rest of the day, I enjoyed his black bread…


Excellent as always, and I love that you always provide a transcript for those of us who prefer reading.

One of the best interviews ever (and there are many). And the transcript is perfect, I nearly always prefer reading.

I usually prefer reading, but Knausgaard has a great voice. Lovely accent and he half-starts so many sentences you almost feel like you can feel his thinking through it.

I, the son of a polish soldier/rebel, who was on the first train to Auschwitz in June 1940, #245, have of course no sympathies at all for Nazism.
But that an over 80 years old hard of hearing Hamsun expressed sympathies for Hitler does not take away one iota of my impression that “Hunger”, written 1890, is one of the most impressive and interesting works I have read.

I happened on it, late, while trying to understand what hunger could mean in Venezuela.

And I will now read “Growth of the Soil” as I have an inkling I will identify a lot with it, having been so against the risk aversion regulators have introduced into the allocation of bank credit.

Asking for a friend: is being on time a display of bourgeois culture?

Thank you, I have the same question. Did I miss a thread here somewhere where that explained bourgeois punctuality? My watch is a Swatch!

The only reference to bourgeois values/culture in the interview is Mr. Knausgård mentioning that owning art from Munch is soooo bourgeois in Norway.

From my perspective, being on time is a must bus/train drivers, factory workers, the army people, for short: blue collar workers. For white collars is a matter of courtesy and showing respect to others.

There may be another difference between car Vs public transport. When you drive you car you plan to arrive at the precise time. When there's traffic you arrive late, but never before. As a regular user of public transport I'm always 10-20 min before any meeting. Not because of bourgeois values but the simple fact that due to frequency of buses/trains you're either 10 min before or 10 min late.

There may be another perspective, the definition of bourgeois in America: no sex before marriage, be patriotic, go to college, etc. For example, in this definition of bourgeois material things such as home floor space or price paid is more important for bragging than any aesthetic/historical value of a house. Knausgård is an artist, he cares about aesthetics, he said he can't afford another painting, so he's not bourgeois =)

Anecdotally, speaking from one of the lands of punctuality, Germany, punctuality is most rigidly adhered to by the working class, not academics, students, or even overly by business people.

Only around 30% of the way through -- saving the rest for later -- but inspired choice of guest.

Tyler, his name is "Karl Ove" not "Karl".

Really? What would the name of Norwegian GM and #1 player in the world Magnus Carlsen be?

Sven Magnus Øen Carlsen.

Like the Nazis outing family, Knausgard has outed his family - even driving his then, now former, wife to a nervous breakdown. Is that why Cowen emphasized Nazis in this blog post about his conversation with Knausgard? Of course, Cowen prefers greatness to the alternative, and appreciates the great men who make history. Liberal democracy produces a bourgeois culture, certainly not greatness. Trump has promised to make America great again, even promising to go to the moon to prepare for a mission to Mars. His inspiration to Americans: nationalism. As Cowen asks, what's wrong with nationalism? It produces greatness, including great writers in Norway.

Certainly an interesting, special, Straussian reading of this interview. Interesting but also stupid.

Re The Scream, that "rawness," his affection for "his" Munch, despite its ownership now reflecting bourgeois rather than avant-garde taste, so that he could look at it every day: I can relate to that. Cartman singing "Come Sail Away" does something similar for me.

Knausgaard carrying a loaf of black bread and forgetting it seems like a minor anecdote from book 4

David Mamet came to my university one day to give a talk (half lecture, half Q&A/conversation). He was up there on stage with a loaf of bread and he would occasionally tear a piece off to eat. I still don't know if this was because he'd missed lunch or if it was part of his performance.

One of the students commented about it, in a way which could be interpreted as sarcastic or as genuinely curious; Mamet got angry and for a second I thought he might get up and leave but he remained and finished the Q&A.

But we never did find out what was up with the bread.

It looked like white bread, not black bread.

This is a great anecdote. Gave me a good chuckle. David Mamet is an interesting character and would be a good guest for Tyler. In fact, he ought to have on more guests from the world of film and theater.

Mamet does indeed seem like a good candidate for a Conversation with Tyler. His writing in recent years has become crotchety and to use Tyler's phrase ruled by mood affiliation IMO. But I think there's a good chance he would be genuinely interested in a conversation with Tyler and would engage in that conversation in a serious and thoughtful way.

And Mamet has a lot of thoughts, and tries to take a principled, philosophical approach to thinking about what's going on and how individuals ought to act. So a long form conversation might be an ideal setting.

A rainy day! My first podcast?

Having to listen and read, because his voice is pleasantly earnest and his command of English good but perhaps not good enough to extemporaneously riff as far as he might, and I can't understand every word.

Also, is the black bread a clue? Is it the black bread of nationalism? All I can think of is Orwell's noticing wholesome brown bread supplanted by "white bread-and-marg" among urbanites uprooted and disconnected from their customs ... which leads me to this of Orwell:

"At the worst moments you were expected to lock yourself up in a constipating little cage of lies; at the best a sort of voluntary censorship (‘Ought I to say this? Is it pro-Fascist?’) was at work in nearly everyone’s mind. … Good novels are not written by orthodoxy-sniffers, nor by people who are conscience-stricken about their own unorthodoxy."

No one, I think, can accuse Knausgard of inhabiting a "constipating cage of lies."

KOK: "He [Hamsun] went to America, and he hated America, but he was America. He had that in him. He was there in the late 19th century, and he wrote a book about it, which is a terrible book, but still, he was there, and he had that modernity in him.

"He never wrote about his parents. Never wrote about where he came from. All his characters just appear, and then something happens with them, but there’s no past. I found that incredibly intriguing just because he became the Nazi. He became the farmer. He became the one who sang the song about the growth. What do you call it? Markens Grøde. [Cowen: 'Growth of the Soil.'] Yeah. Exactly. It’s like he’s fistfighting himself, doing that. So he’s not your nationalist. He’s incredibly complex, and the interesting thing is that you can see that struggle in his writing. He drove a tram in Chicago, did a lot of things, and it’s an exciting story, really.

"But anyway, the thing with writing in his case is that he’s getting so close to the world and to the people in his writing. It’s so complex that he is not a Nazi in his writing. But in his essays and in his speeches, there’s a big dissonance. There, he’s a Nazi.

"And that’s what a teacher can do, is to get you so close to these things that nationalism just disappears because they don’t exist on that particular level."

This is a bold stance, that ideology might be untethered from people's actual lives, or at least that there's a level at which it does not operate, because it's too crude or broad: and the corollary that tradition - the actual "blood," the actual "soil," versus the slogan - might be less culpable for the Nazism of someone like Hamsun, than is some shock of modernity. As though it were an infection that spread unusually well in the modern global world, so that intellectuals came down with it.

Knausgard would not make it in America with that kind of attitude, unless it could be marketed as "nuanced."

Anyway, I'm slightly intrigued by Hamsun, if just as a cautionary figure, but can't decide about reading him (or the first few chapters, is all it would amount to, before the library book needed to go back). Life is short, I am slow, and there are so many not-Nazis unread.

/\ so that *even* intellectuals

The black bread is pumpernickel, favored by Germans. It's the wrong kind of nationalism.

Maybe Tyler was just adding a little color: "All day long I had food for thought, and food."

Note there were pastries too, which I took for myself!

I doubt I read the transcript or listen to the audio, as I'm not into fictional writing, but CNTRL + F + "Proust" yielded a few hits, which shows that Knausgard is being honest, and whether Proust was an influence was my suggested question for TC.

Including "patents" did not yield any further hits, but you can't have it all.

"When I, for instance, read Marcel Proust for the first time, I absolutely loved it, and I read it like I was drinking water or something"

I wanted more on Borges. That story -- 'Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius' -- changed my life. Agree that what he does is 'magic'.

Borges was a big fan of George MacDonald.

Try Lilith or Phantastes: preferably audio, but read the book if you cannot find audio.

really good writers write 10 minutes worth of eternal prose in 10 minutes a day

see, e.g., Salieri on Mozart "it was as if he were taking dictation from God> Replace one note and there would be diminishment, replace one phrase and the structure would fall"

10 minutes.
A day.

That is more than ten hours worth of prose a year.


with lots of days off.

no need to be cheap towards your family with respect to time

because seriously nobody reads more than 10 hours of any writer and thinks hey I need to start on the next 10 hours RIGHT NOW

have your family, spend time with them
spend time with your dogs
and cats

even with respect to Dickens and Hugo

nobody is saying hey we wish they had written more
spent more time away from their loved ones

Interesting remarks about black poverty in London. I’m sure Norwegians like Knausgaard who don’t have class differences and are color blind and are definitely not Nazis or anything scary like that would quickly solve that problem.

Often I am impressed by what Tyler Cowen knows about literature, movies, arts etc. But now and then he makes completely stupid statements like (on Celan): "Best poet of the 20th century, perhaps." WTF? Is writing poems now an Olympic discipline? How do you measure the quality of Celan's poetry against, say, Benn's? I even doubt that he knows German that well to form a profound opinion on any German poet (and if there is any field, where translations are useless, it is poetry).

That was a big statement. I think he's spoken elsewhere that Rilke might also be in consideration for best of the century. I think these distinctions are silly too, but I don't think TC or his guests ever take them that seriously. They're just here to elevate certain writers, which I think is great. I had never heard of Celan before and now will definitely check him out.

Tyler, how come you don't play the "overrated or underrated" game with people who are serious and literary and straightforward?

Nice article, but i already seen it there

I've read the book and really enjoyed Google it.

Comments for this post are closed