Advertisement

A day with famed Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard, master of the mundane

A day with famed Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard, master of the mundane
Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard views the artwork in an upcoming exhibit at the Smart Museum in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. (Alyssa Pointer/Chicago Tribune)

The other day Karl Ove Knausgaard, famed Norwegian novelist and master chronicler of banality, came through town and said very little. He was here to begin a short tour of the United States — or rather, Chicago and a handful of East Coast cities. He doesn't like to leave his children back in Norway for too long, but he has a new book: "Autumn," a kind of letter/encyclopedia written for his then-unborn daughter. If "My Struggle," the six-book cycle that made him an international literary sensation, focuses inward on the mundanities of Knausgaard's daily existence, "Autumn," the first of a four-book seasonal series, looks out into the world and finds epiphany in the taken-for-granted: There are chapters on jellyfish and plastic bags, buttons and toilet bowls, limes and chewing gum.

On the first day of his tour, Knausgaard wore a blue work shirt and leather jacket with a stain on the back and a rip in the left shoulder. His pupils were bright blue and the whites were quite white. He never seemed to blink. He stuffed his hands deep into his front pockets. He was tall, and his hair was a cresting wave of silver. His face was deeply lined and, though smiling, he appeared haunted. He also looked famous. In Norway, he said, "people are always coming at me, so I live in the countryside," but in the U.S., "it's a bit easier. The nice thing is I get invitations and people often want to show me things."

Advertisement

In Chicago, this meant the Smart Museum of Art in Hyde Park, which is closed on Mondays, but not for Knausgaard. As he arrived, a small contingent of curators and museum staff awaited him in the lobby. If it were not for his permanently weathered appearance and jeans, you might have mistaken him for a visiting dignitary; indeed, to celebrate his book reading later that night, flyers pasted across Hyde Park heralded:

"Summer is Ove."

Advertisement

He put out his cigarette and stepped inside the glass doors. Robert Bird, a curator of the museum's new exhibition on the everyday life of Soviet citizens after the Russian Revolution, reached for the author's hand. He said the show that they were previewing was "novelistic," and partly inspired by Knausgaard and his narratives of everyday life.

Knausgaard said, "Hmmmm."

"These images, for instance," Bird said, pointing to a row of Soviet propaganda posters, "these give a sense of how people lived with slogans and exaltations — 'Do this! Go here!' (Soviets) were often concerned about minutia, so posters were often meant to inform the daily existence of the Soviet people. But, of course, things get complicated."

Knausgaard said, "Hmmmm."

Advertisement

Bird, and co-curators Christina Kiaer and Zachary Cahill, led the writer to a small trove of Soviet calendars, beautiful and dizzyingly complex objects, dense assemblages of symbols that, Bird noted, "intended to reorganize time." Knausgaard leaned ever so slightly toward the pieces. There was a moment of suspense: What did he ... think ...?

He liked it!

His eyes widened, which translates roughly to WOW!

Since "My Struggle" started appearing in English in 2012, we have learned a great deal about Karl Ove Knausgaard, both formative and ephemeral. In "My Struggle," across 3,600 pages and six volumes, we have learned he once got drunk and slashed open his face with broken glass; we have learned how he makes waffles; we have learned about his determination to become a writer; we have watched him get more comfortable with fatherhood. In "Autumn" we learn that his favorite novel is "Madame Bovary," and that he has had problems with head lice, and that he was a bedwetter. We have learned that his late father, abusive and alcoholic, stirs beneath all of it. We have learned these things somewhat by design — "somewhat" because, as Knausgaard, 48, has often said, when he began "My Struggle," he simply wrote and didn't slow to ask if it was good or cliched. He wrote for the exhilaration of committing his thoughts. For "Autumn" he spent an hour daily picking a subject "then two writing, but when I picked (a subject) there was no going back — I had to finish each (chapter) in a single sitting."

Today, in his native Norway, Knausgaard is so woven into the cultural woodwork that, when new Knausgaard novels arrive, some companies stake off (tongue-in-cheek) Knausgaard-free workspaces. Internationally he is often called the 21st century's Proust, our finest contemporary writer on the subject of time and memory, so compulsively readable despite (or because of) his focus on the minutiae of our lives that, as the New Yorker's James Wood put it, "even when I was bored, I was interested."

But Knausgaard himself?

From the man, we learn little. We learn the third book in the new cycle will be "a classic narrative about nothing." We learn that when the Guardian newspaper's review of "Autumn" was reprinted recently in Norway, the headline translated to "This Book is a Pile of (Expletive)." His famed ability to understand the prosaic: We learn "it came out of this feeling that trying to write a great novel, and contribute to great literature, was killing me," that he is "not normally interested in minutiae. I don't notice things myself, not really. I am in a bubble. I am a self-obsessed person, not good at taking in the world. So I do it in writing." We also learn that Knausgaard is polite and doesn't ask questions.

"Here you see the most Stalinist film in the show," Bird said, pointing to a flickering image on a gallery wall, an eerie hymn to Soviet motherhood.

Advertisement

The Norwegian said, "Hmmmm."

Kiaer stopped before another film, of a woman at a parade putting on gloves, arranging her belongings, seemingly unaware of the parade, or the camera watching her. Knausgaard was transfixed. He stared a long minute at the woman on the wall. Watching him watch is like watching Sherlock Holmes: You're waiting for a flash of thought to explode behind his eyes. Except, Knausgaard is not a ham, and not effusive.

He said, "Hmmmm."

Cahill stepped in. He noted the way the sound flowed between the areas of the exhibit, the way the sound of one voice overlapped with the sound of another and created a — "To use one of those Norwegian words," Bird said, interrupting, "a bit of a maelstrom."

Knausgaard almost showed a flash of teeth and settled on his heels.

He said, "Hmmmm."

They drove to lunch, headed west across Washington Park. Kiaer narrated: "We are leaving the University of Chicago campus area and crossing the park and generally the area on the other side of park is ..."

"Dodgy," Bird said. "This is a very segregated city."

Kiaer: "You've heard of the high murder rate in Chicago?"

Advertisement

Knausgaard: "Hmmmm."

Kiaer: "Murders are concentrated on South and West sides. We live on the North."

Bird: "There was a shooting ..."

Kiaer: "One car chasing another, shooting. Robert and I (who are married) were standing in the kitchen. We are not familiar with the sound of gunshots and we realized those were gunshots, and we have big glass windows and we dropped to the floor."

Bird: "Total exception."

Kiaer: "Yes. This street we're on (Garfield) — I shouldn't say this street is called 'Murder Row,' considering we have our esteemed guest here …."

Knausgaard looked out the window at the street and didn't respond.

Lunch was long silences, three curators keeping up a friendly chatter, doing their best. Bird, a dead ringer for actor Gerard Butler, asked Knausgaard, who looks born to play a veteran fisherman or lighthouse keeper: "Did you notice the colors of the exhibition walls?" Knausgaard stared at him blankly. "What do you think of the color of ..." Bird asked again. Knausgaard nodded and smiled. Kiaer said: "Robert! What's he going to say?"

Cahill: "Do you write when you travel?"

Knausgaard said, "If I have time..." then trailed off.

Kiaer: "Are you a morning or evening writer?"

Knausgaard: "Morning."

Cahill: "Ah …. Karl, do you know anything about our local history?"

When it was time to leave, Knausgaard thanked them warmly, stepped onto the sidewalk and lit a cigarette. He was headed to the North Side, to visit Wilco's rehearsal space; he's friends with drummer Glenn Kotche. And then it was off to shoot a segment for WTTW's "Chicago Tonight." He took a deep drag on his cigarette. He looked uncertain, awkward.

"Everything is awkward today," he said.

cborrelli@chicagotribune.com



Watch the latest movie trailers.

Chicago Tribune

Advertisement
Advertisement