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The World Beyond Knausgaard

The author of "My Struggle" on political correctness, the weight of history, and why he named his book after Hitler’s memoir

Photograph by Andrew Testa for The New Republic

On a sweltering day in July, Karl Ove Knausgaard was standing on a London sidewalk, wearing a dark coat, gray jeans, and boots. From a shaded spot across the street, the photographer commissioned for this article directed the author to look this way, then that. Knausgaard was at his ease, staring coolly into the distance, as if he could feel neither the heat nor the camera’s glossy black eye on him. Had he gotten used to all these photo shoots? “I don’t even think about it anymore,” he said, his expression still composed for the camera. Every so often, the photographer asked me to hold a large silver reflector in front of him, angling it to light his face with a soft glow.

Knausgaard has built his reputation on a talent for self-obsession. His own image is a starting point for his six-volume autobiographical novel, My Struggle. In its opening pages, he looks at his reflection in the window, at the lines that time has left across his forehead and cheeks, and asks: “What has engraved itself in my face?” Over the next 3,600 pages, he flees the conventions of the novel—plot, character development, a smooth and accomplished style—to focus purely on the author and his experiences. No moment is too mundane to escape his notice, no memory so distant that it can’t be recalled with the force of naked experience. But his is a radically narrow world, one in which little really exists outside himself.

The novel’s reception focused still more attention on Knausgaard’s personal life. The publication of Book One in Norwegian in 2009 turned into a scandal in the Scandinavian press, as family members and old flames accused him of slander and betrayal. The controversy made him a sensation, a kind of literary Kardashian whose story was fodder for gossip and intrigue in the newspapers. When the books began to be published in the United States in 2012, American critics highlighted the author’s reputation for shamelessly exposing the most intimate details of his life, particularly his frustrations with his then-partner Linda Bostrom. “What kind of person,” Evan Hughes asked in a 2014 profile of Knausgaard, “would publish such a thing about his wife?” At the same time, he was hailed as one of the foremost practitioners of the newly invigorated genre of autofiction and glowing profiles dwelled intently on the details of his daily life: his clothes, his smoking habit, his writing shed in the Swedish countryside.

In Book Six, the newly released, final volume in My Struggle, Knausgaard looks back on these controversies and attempts to understand them. He begins by reflecting on the publication of Book One and its impact on him, Linda, and their children. But this book also stands apart from its predecessors, as it zooms out from Knausgaard’s little domain, situating My Struggle against the backdrops of family, society, and history. At its heart is a 400-page essay on Adolf Hitler titled “The Name and the Number,” which Knausgaard told me was “the only thing that I really thought was fun to write, because it wasn’t about me.”

There’s very little in the previous volumes to prepare the reader for this effort—an intellectual history of Western Europe in a search for the conditions that led to Nazism—other than the book’s ominous title, which it shares with Hitler’s autobiography-cum-manifesto. When an artist as introverted as Knausgaard looks at the wider world, what does he see?

For a writer who has been interrogated by dozens of journalists, it’s striking how little Knausgaard has said about the world. Meeting him in person is an uncanny experience, because he comes off as both an intimate acquaintance and a total stranger. His features are utterly familiar from magazine profiles and book covers (the pale eyes, the wave of silvery-metallic hair) and yet also unexpected (the nicotine stain between his two front teeth). When we met for breakfast this summer, he ordered a bowl of muesli, a beige mound he shoveled into his mouth with several quick scrapes of his spoon. He was drinking so much coffee that morning, he said, partly to compensate for having quit smoking six weeks earlier.

Book Six contains much of the familiar Knausgaard. During the fallout from Book One, he writes, members of his extended family in Norway threatened to take him to court, bitterly rejecting the book’s version of events. In an email with the subject line “Verbal Rape,” his uncle accused him of writing “this despicable, immoral, and self-centered shambles of a book” to “get back at the family” and get rich. The uncle takes his complaints to Knausgaard’s publisher and to the press, resulting in an all-engulfing public ordeal, with journalists waiting to ambush the author in the streets. Later, when Linda reads a draft of Book Two, she learns that Knausgaard attempted to cheat on her and the couple have a flaming row.

Now, he agonizes over the consequences. “This novel has hurt everyone around me,” he writes in Book Six. “It has hurt me, and in a few years, when they are old enough to read it, it will hurt my children.” But when I asked him whether it was worth such a high cost, he gave an unequivocal yes. He defends the writer’s right to be immoral, to be a “terrible person” as he put it, since otherwise he is only abetting the silence that society imposes on our darkest thoughts and feelings, about death, sex, love. “There must be a place where you can be, where you can write, where you can think, without a façade at all,” he said. If anything, he added, his book fell short because he was not callous enough, because he could actually feel the pain he was inflicting on the people he was writing about. “I tried to fight it, I tried to be more immoral.”

He is perhaps at his most terrible in the concluding section of Book Six, which recounts in harrowing detail Linda’s descent into a suicidal depression, possibly triggered by the controversy surrounding My Struggle. This window into his family’s bleakest hour was apparently part of a conscientious push to hold nothing back, to atone for what he sees as the dishonest timidity that pervades Books Three, Four, and Five, which itself was a product of the public backlash that met Books One and Two. That his ex-wife has borne the brunt of his revived appetite for truth-telling—that, besides Knausgaard himself, she is the most brutally exposed of all the characters in My Struggle—is a painful topic for Knausgaard, but also the topic he seems able to talk about most proficiently and fluently. “You try to get as close as you can, like a one-to-one relation to life,” he told me, “and then it doesn’t feel like stealing or taking.”

When the conversation turned to politics, by contrast, he was often at a loss for words, sinking into prolonged silences and squinting into space as if he were seeking an answer written hazily in the distance. The tension that hovers over Book Six isn’t so much the ethical conundrum that comes from revealing his loved ones so nakedly, a conundrum with which he has apparently made his peace. Rather, it is whether the lights that have guided him as a writer—an aversion to morality, a hyper-focus on the self, and an unwavering belief that feelings come closer to the truth than the intellect—can illuminate a less personal theme.

Knausgaard’s politics have long been a subject of speculation, thanks to a handful of cryptic references to current events that are strewn across My Struggle’s thousands of pages: passing observations about immigration or Swedish politics or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict squeezed between loading the dishwasher and taking the kids to daycare. There is also his very public interest in the writers Peter Handke and Knut Hamsun, whose allegiances to Slobodan Milosevic and Hitler, respectively, have earned them notoriety.

In Book Six, which appeared in Norwegian in 2011, a more distinct political viewpoint emerges, complementing the historical analysis in “The Name and the Number,” which offers some prescient insights on the appeal of nativist movements. In its recounting of the events that led to Hitler’s rise, there are unavoidable parallels with the present moment, from a devastating recession that undermined public faith in state institutions and demanded scapegoats, to the widespread hunger for a demagogic leader “who said things the way they were,” as Knausgaard puts it.

Yet many of the defining political events of the late 2000s had little to no effect on his writing, he said. Was the financial crisis and its political repercussions at the back of his mind when he was writing the book? Did he have the sense that ethnonationalism as a force was growing in response to the failures of liberal democracy? “No,” he insisted. “There’s nothing from above or from outside in the book. It just doesn’t exist. It’s all internal, intuitive.”

If politics is present in the book, he suggested, that is only because it has flowed through the channel of his being the way everything else has, the headlines tumbling out of him along with the soiled diapers and the musings about Proust and the majestic fjords. Yet he was aware that some of his opinions might prove controversial, going so far as to discuss with his English-speaking editors whether to “change anything” prior to the publication of Book Six. “But I didn’t in the end,” he said. “I thought that it would give in to something I really didn’t like.”

There are quite a lot of things Knausgaard doesn’t like. He makes his disdain for the political-media establishment in Sweden abundantly clear in the pages of Book Six. He rails against it for being ossified in its political correctness, hypocritical in its brand of cosmopolitan bourgeois liberalism, blind in its inability to recognize how personal identity is deeply rooted in gender, tradition, nationality. He is wary of the flattening effect that globalization—or more precisely Americanization—can have on discrete national traditions. He singles out Japan (like Norway and Sweden, a tightly-knit, homogenous society) as precisely the kind of peculiar place that should remain peculiar—that should remain distinctly Japanese, unadulterated by foreign influences. “In this wide perspective, I was against immigration, against multiculturalism, against notions of sameness of nearly every kind,” he writes.

In the book, he characterizes the Swedish elite’s political correctness as an insane abstraction divorced from reality:

It was this same ideology, hostile to all difference that could not accept categories of male and female, he and she. Since han and hun are denotative of gender, it was suggested a new pronoun, hen, be used to cover both. The ideal human being was a gender-neutral hen whose foremost task in life was to avoid oppressing any religion or culture by preferring their own.

This can (and probably will) be read as reactionary, a holdout against attempts to accommodate the rights of non-binary people. But it can also be understood as part of a suspicion of all political ideologies. “What you want as a writer is complexity,” he told me. “And politics is the opposite.” Ideologies color our perception of the world, determining what is ugly and beautiful, what is moral and immoral. For Knausgaard the problem is this: How can anyone express the truth and not just unwittingly reiterate through every act and word the predominant worldview?

The idea of the artist standing both inside and outside the community is a central theme of “The Name and the Number.” The reason he dropped this enormous essay into the middle of Book Six was, he said, quite simple. “It was because of the title,” he explained, referring to the fact My Struggle (Min Kamp in Norwegian) is the same as Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

Knausgaard explains the origins of his series’ title in Book Six: It came from his best friend Geir, who acts throughout the books as a foil to Knausgaard’s suffering artist; the title is typical of Geir, being both a provocation and a brash joke. (One of Knausgaard’s previous working titles was the decidedly less dramatic Argentina.) “Because I chose the title in the beginning, that led to my reading Hitler’s book,” he said. “And then realizing that that, too, was a book about the self, somehow.” But critics will inevitably suspect that there’s something more at work here than happenstance and blind writerly instinct—that Knausgaard is aiming for transgression, flirting with the ultimate taboo as he lays out his intellectual history of Nazism.

He begins with the Industrial Revolution. As befits a novelist, Knausgaard’s depiction of the alienation produced by this event—a large-scale atrocity that not only led to mass death and mass squalor in Europe’s ever-growing cities, but also helped destroy traditional ties of faith and family—is based on close readings of Kafka, Joyce, Stefan Zweig, and others. While he tries to capture the sweep of history, he’s most interested in its significance for the individual: how the industrialized world produced a conflicted person, who was simultaneously convinced of his supreme individuality and haunted by the intimate knowledge that he was just one of millions, an ant in a mechanized ant farm, all but indistinguishable from everyone else.

It’s this conflict that Knausgaard sees in the young Adolf Hitler. “The Name and the Number” shows us a single-minded, humorless young man who rebelled against his strict, civil-servant father, by vowing never to become a civil servant himself and never to pursue any career common to the petit bourgeoisie; who saw a higher destiny for himself as an artist, as a great painter or a great architect or even a great musician, but who had no patience for the effort and discipline such fields require; and who ultimately could not bear the vast gulf between his grandiose self-image and a world that continually rejected and humiliated him, to the point that he was living homeless on the streets of Vienna, selling shoddy paintings to bars and inns, too proud to return to his hometown in failure.

There is nothing evil, yet, about any of this; it could describe any number of aspiring artists. For Knausgaard, Hitler simply exemplifies an artist’s tendencies turned bad. Despite Hitler’s youthful aspirations and his clear love for certain kinds of art, he was, Knausgaard concludes, the opposite of an artist. The artist attests that the individual—“you”—is everything, that every perspective has some value, that every soul has worth. The fascist offers transcendence through the group, which in his racist ideology entails the eradication of other groups. “You are nothing, your people is everything,” as a Nazi slogan went.

“The Name and the Number” is a showcase for Knausgaard’s erudition, spanning numerous disciplines and containing in-depth analyses of Heidegger, Marx, the Bible, and so much more (it comes with its own bibliography). It feels like Knausgaard’s attempt to break free of his own stifling reputation as a writer of autofiction, to show that he knows a thing or two beyond shopping for groceries and putting the kids to bed. Yet for all its sprawl and ambition, it comes back to the dichotomy of the artist and the anti-artist, the tyrant. These are the two principal actors in history—humanity’s angel and devil, in constant struggle.

At one point toward the end of our conversation Knausgaard leaned over and sheepishly said, “You asked what my politics were and for some reason I couldn’t reply to that.” He went on to insist that he is a bog-standard democratic socialist, that there is nothing to the “rumor” that he is “on the right,” that he is, above all, a committed environmentalist. But he maintained that rigid political ideologies, in Sweden and elsewhere, have made us blind to the humanity of other people.

We talked about a recent visit to the United States, where he was picked up in a car driven by a Donald Trump supporter. When he told the car’s owners, he was shocked by their response: “‘Do you want us to fire him?’ It was like they were so appalled by the fact that he was saying these things. And that was crazy, too, to think that firing him would be legitimate.” For Knausgaard, the spread of nativist populism was less alarming than the idea that the others might reject and distance themselves from these views—an unexpected stance for a writer who has completed a vast study of Nazism. The case of the Trump-supporting driver was, for him, a free speech issue. “I’m very pro-openness when it comes to these things,” he said.

When we discussed Sweden’s forthcoming elections, in which nearly a quarter of voters were expected to vote for the anti-immigration party, Knausgaard said that, despite what the media might suggest, it doesn’t mean that one in four Swedes were racist. (The far-right Sweden Democrats ended up winning 18 percent of the vote, a blow to the establishment parties but not enough to unseat them.) He noted that he himself had been accused by a prominent Swedish academic of being a fascist for daring to challenge Sweden’s culture of political correctness. And he said he knew writers who were ostracized and had lost friends because of their unpopular opinions, which goes against one of his core beliefs: that “people must be able to say whatever they want to say, especially writers.”

It is notable that Knausgaard is drawn to these disparate figures: the would-be artist, the voter who is persecuted for troublesome beliefs, the writer who is silenced. It perhaps exposes the limit of a political outlook that is otherwise so admirably grounded in the world of lived experience, since it is easier to empathize with those who are closest at hand. Ideologies may be limiting, but then again so are our personal perspectives. And in Knausgaard’s case, it is tempting to draw a more specific conclusion: that he can’t look at anyone, even the most terrible figures in history, without seeing himself.