I met Karl Ove Knausgaard once in person. It was by accident. He was in New York for the release of My Struggle: Book 3, and I went to listen to him in conversation with Zadie Smith at McNally Jackson. The line for the event had been long, wrapping around blocks, so that people, when walking by, asked who we were waiting for. These pedestrians didn’t know his name when we said it, but it was exciting to have so many non-writers curious about what we were doing.
Inside I got a free beer and snaked through the crowd until finding a spot on the floor. During the conversation, Knausgaard said something about writers often having difficult fathers. He suggested that writers with difficult fathers become so accustomed, in childhood, to studying another person and awaiting that other person’s reactions that they develop, very early, a trait similar to empathy. I had grown up with a difficult father and this added to the feeling of the event.
The next morning, still affected by the night before, I went to my waitressing job at a hotel in Williamsburg. I approached a table a man had just joined. I stood behind him and asked if he would like something to drink. The man turned around and he was Knausgaard. It was the surprise of him turning around like that, and the recognition of him, and the presence he had in person—which was sizeable. I was so overcome that I forgot his order.
I returned to the table with coffee, and his companions were talking about the McNally Jackson event, telling him that it had been moving. Holding the coffee carafe, I said that I had also found it moving. Everyone looked at me. I told Knausgaard that I would let him be, but that I had one question that had gotten cut off at the end of the Q and A. I asked for the title of a book that he had referred to, and gave him my server’s notepad so he could write it down. After that I served quietly, though each time I returned to the table I experienced a strong pull of feeling. This may have been left over from the night before, it may have been a response to the surprise and the celebrity of it all, or I may have been genuinely moved by his presence in that moment in the hotel restaurant—by the connection between us.
I got into trouble at work that day, for being so excited and for telling the kitchen that they had an important customer, and the manager spoke to me about VIP-ing a customer who was not officially a VIP. I never lie, but I lied and went along with my coworkers when they assumed that I had read his books. Only after serving Knausgaard in the restaurant did I start to read My Struggle, feeling lucky that I had that moment of him to think back to while I read. Reading his books made me feel that I understood him and cared for him and if we were to meet again that the empathy would be shared.
A little later, the first installment of a series of New York Times Magazine travel essays by Knausgaard came out and some of my feeling of connection to him went away. In this nonfiction piece about traveling the U.S., Knausgaard wrote about himself and didn’t seem that interested in the people he met. But he did sometimes write about his servers, and I became convinced, reading the first installment, that Knausgaard would write about me in the second. I understood then that our brief meeting, from his point of view, would have little—if anything—to do with me. His version would be mostly about himself, and I argued with this new Knausgaard in my mind. Then the second installment came out, he didn’t write about me or about New York, and it stopped mattering to me what he would have said.
I was no longer awestruck when I attended my second Knausgaard discussion, this one between him and Ben Lerner to promote My Struggle: Book 4. No magic this time, no long lines. I had purchased a ticket, I had a seat, I was not drinking, I did not enter a magical space that would ensure—as if in a dream—that the man who turned around the next morning would be Knausgaard. I took notes, most of them intelligible to me later.
Not long ago, I realized that whenever I picked out books to teach my freshman composition students, I often picked ones where the narrator could be confused with the writer: Lerner’s 10:04, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, Amy Hempel’s Reasons to Live. I couldn’t say why I was doing it, only that these books felt more immediate to me. When discussing the books in class, we weren’t discussing well-crafted plots or narrative or character. Instead we talked about a real human being, this writer/narrator, and how they might have come to this strange work of theirs. I would guess my attraction to those books has something to do with an alleviation of loneliness that comes from that proximity to a real person, though that may not be it. It’s hard to say why this work means so much to me. You sense the cost of it. It is vulnerable. It feels necessary.
It can also make for an easy target. Recently I was listening to an author interview on NPR and the author kept making the point that he was the kind of writer who didn’t write about himself, that he was the kind of writer more interested in the world. His tone made it clear he was complimenting his kind of writer, and what he thought of the other kind was also clear. But—I argued to the radio—that is too simplistic, too easy. It seems a contradiction, but sometimes when writers focus on themselves, on their own horrors and frailties—Walser, Sebald—it becomes a deep and profound invitation.
I had the same discussion with myself when reading a recent New York Times review of Garth Greenwell’s new novel, What Belongs to You. The reviewer placed Greenwell in the company of Lerner and Knausgaard, but suggested that Greenwell avoided the cliché and banality the others were at times guilty of. I was happy for Greenwell but bristled at the slight to the other authors mentioned, and also bristled at the moment when the reviewer guessed at why this style of fiction was popular, saying “its recent resurgence feels born out of a new and different impulse, perhaps an eerie echo of the relentless, formless ‘I, I, I’ of social media.” When I read these books, that echo is not what I feel. Perhaps, instead, the flimsy “I” of social media, of this faster paced life, is forcing a need for a deeper investigation of the actual I. But even as I say this I stop myself, because that’s not really what I mean, or not really that interesting, or because I never want that form of writing to be explained in terms of social media.
I recently picked up Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book 1 again to try to better explain my feeling about his work, but I immediately understood the challenge in it: that to talk about Knausgaard you can’t pull out one great line. There aren’t many great lines in the books. They are instead about accumulation, and his directness, the way he keeps at something. I found myself flipping through my favorite section of Book 1, a section during which the narrator goes to clean the house that his father, recently deceased, shared with his grandmother. It is a horrific and beautiful section, and I couldn’t find one line that makes that horror and beauty clear. I finally considered that what carried much of the weight in the section was that it was all true, or seemed to be all true, and that Knausgaard wasn’t looking away from it—this father, that house, that grandmother. He writes, “Grandma still smelled of pee, her dress was still covered in grease and food stains, she was still frighteningly thin, she had still lived the last few months in a rat’s nest with her son, our father, who had still died here of alcohol abuse and was still barely cold.” And if it was obviously fiction—if it was clear he was making it all up—one might wonder why his sentences didn’t do more, why the reveal wasn’t made in a different way.
I think Karl Ove Knausgaard did have this grandmother, but whether she was real or not doesn’t matter to me. I read under the spell that she was real, and because of this, I can’t get the grandmother out of my mind. That life could have allowed for this, rather than simply the imagination of a writer allowing for it. The simple sentences he chose are the only ones that would work.
Only a little of this ground was covered in the dialogue between Knausgaard and Lerner I attended. Lerner asked Knausgaard about his process, asked if translating lived experience into art was intuitive for him, and Knausgaard said: “If something comes, I trust it.” Lerner also asked Knausgaard if he would change facts from his real life in order to achieve an effect. Knausgaard said that he didn’t want effects, that his priority was the “presence in life of a character, which is me.” He described his past spent writing fiction as a process of escaping into another world, and with My Struggle he wanted to stay within his own life, to represent that instead. But now that he had finished My Struggle, he said he planned to return to writing fiction, in the sense of making things up. “Are you scared to write after the success of this?” Lerner asked. “Yes,” Knausgaard said. “I am.”
Lerner acted as the interviewer throughout and didn’t share his thoughts on the subject. A true discussion between them, a lengthy one away from the crowd, might have told me more. Why was using their lives necessary? Why did it make their work more alive? If you are able to write about anything, why the need for this? And why, if you write it instead as straightforward nonfiction, as Knausgaard did in his New York Times Magazine piece, does it sometimes lose so much?
One idea I consider is that of imaginary selves. If we can guess that fiction writers were imaginative when young—imaginative and lonely—it seems natural that they may have created versions of themselves. In adult life, a version that was close to them but not quite them could act in the real world, and these events could be written up, all with a sort of imaginative playacting—which I don’t mean so literally as, say, method acting. It’s a messy slope, where we start and where we end. For me, much of the trick of fiction writing is that blurriness of the self, that true confusion about what is real and what is not, and my hunch is that I’m not drawn to writers such as Lerner and Knausgaard because they self-consciously want to play with this line, but instead because they are deep in that confusion themselves.