Karl Ove Knausgaard on the Power of Brevity

The Norwegian author, known for the multivolume autobiography My Struggle, finds inspiration in the restraint of the tale of Cain and Abel.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

Karl Ove Knausgaard isn’t known for being brief. My Struggle—his celebrated six-volume, 3,600-page autobiographical novel—is an experiment in radical scope, a kind of literary ultra-marathon. How long can a narrator extend a moment?, he seems to ask. How much banality can a story include? How long can a novel digress and still remain compelling?

In our conversation for this series, though, Knausgaard chose to examine the biblical story of Cain and Abel—a text he admires for its extreme compression. We discussed the story’s extraordinary economy, its multivalence, and the eternal appeal of family as a subject. (Cain and Abel’s themes—family, ambition, violence, shame—are Knausgaard’s own.) Finally, he gave insight into the process he used to write My Struggle: a willed naivety, a way of writing without thinking, that he compares to improvising music.

My Struggle is being serially translated into English, and the latest volume—Book Four—comes out Tuesday. This installment focuses on 18-year-old Karl Ove’s first job as a schoolteacher in a Norwegian fishing town. Living alone for the first time, he makes his first stumbling forays into work, writing, self-determination, and sex. It’s a story told with a comic grimace—the mature narrator bears unblinking witness as a young man’s overblown ambitions are cut down, one humiliation at a time.

Knausgaard’s work has been translated into more than 15 languages. In addition to the widely-praised My Struggle series, he is the author of Out of This World and A Time For Everything. He lives in Sweden and spoke to me by phone.

Karl Ove Knausgaard: I first heard the Cain and Abel story at school, when I was seven or eight. My teacher told it to our class, and it very much made an impression on me. I returned to it later when I was writing a novel which is set in the Bible, so to speak, and I re-read all those stories again. I was struck by how extremely small it was, just 12 lines or something. It was almost shocking to see that this little story could have such an impact, and become the big story about killing, violence, jealousy, brothers—so many huge topics within the culture.

I need 300 or 400 pages to say something significant. I need space to express simple, banal truths—I don’t have the ability to express them without that space, and a novel for me is the way of building that space. But Cain and Abel always surprises me in the way it manages to be both extremely powerful and extremely short.

In some ways, this concision is typical of the Old Testament. If you look at other very important texts—say, The Odyssey—it’s often different. The Odyssey is very loose and very long, and it’s a completely different way of storytelling. You have that looser, longer form in the Bible, too, but not in this story. In the Bible, if it’s very important, it’s very short. If it’s not important, it’s very long. That’s a rule in almost all texts.

I was invited to be a consultant for the New Norwegian Bible translation of this story. They made lots of different bibles available to us—the King James, of course, but also Swedish bibles, Danish bibles, old Norwegian bibles. The fun and most interesting thing for me was that we had a bible-translation computer program that made all these different editions available. We could click on a single word and get a translation of it. This helped me get closer to the Hebraic original, which was extremely useful during the work with the text.

The Hebrew text is very raw and very direct—almost impossible to translate. I tried to keep as much of that intact. That version has tremendous power because it’s so simple, with the same words coming over and over again in this short passage: earth, blood, faith. The language is so archaic and interesting. Though I haven’t shown this to anyone who’s mastered the language, so I may get everything wrong, this is my sense of the Hebrew original, when Cain has seen his sacrifice rejected by God:

It burned in Cain and his face fell.

Jehovah said to Cain: “Why do you burn, and why does your face fall?”

The simplicity, and the complexity in the simplicity: It’s bottomless. These are texts people have written about for thousands of years, and keep having different kinds of understandings about. The text is so rich and complex that you can take out one element and look at it, and find it expresses something deeply true. It can support all kinds of different interpretations depending on the way you live, or when you live, or who you are.

For instance, I became very interested in the way looking is described in the text. Jehovah looks down at Abel instead of Cain, and that’s when the jealousy begins. As a result, Cain’s face falls—another way of looking down. Jehovah then tells him, “Look up, because if you don’t look up evil will creep at your door.” I interpret this as being about the obligation of looking up at others, of facing the other. To look down is to not face your community—to be alone, to exist outside of society—and, as we see in this story, that is dangerous. I wrote about this when I wrote about the killing in Olso and Utoya three years ago. He [the mass-murderer Anders Behring Breivik] looked down. And if he planned this massacre with someone else, it would have stopped him. It would have been impossible. He could only do it because he was alone.

All those kinds of relevancies exist in this text. You may say that you reduce it when you use it as a psycho-sociological thing, but I don’t see it like that. I see it as the opposite. You can take one element out and look at it, and let it express something deeply true—without diminishing other potential interpretations, or the text’s overall richness and complexity.

This piece could also be about a basic moment in human history: the first murder, and its connection with sacrifice. The story shows us that sacrifice is meant to take the place of violence. The sacrifice Jehovah wants to see is the sacrifice of Abel’s sheep, which is blood—not the vegetables Cain grew. The next thing you know, Cain’s killed his brother—which is not just blood, but his own blood, spilled on the earth. This brings us in a direct circle back to the sacrifice. When he wrote about this story, the French philosopher Rene Girard wrote that sacrifice—symbolic violence—is an act meant to replace transgression against life. It unites us as a “we.” Without it, there is no “we”—and Cain turns against Abel, brother turns against brother. Symbolic blood becomes real blood. Inside a society, that’s a very dangerous thing.

Of course, it’s a story about family, too. And though I don’t reflect on themes when I’m writing, it’s obvious to me that I’ve always been writing about family. I think it’s because I’m interested in identity—and the family is the first group of people who form your identity and sense of self.

When my last daughter was born, I saw what happened when she was lifted up in the first seconds of her life. She was just by herself. She hadn’t met anyone. But she was lifted, held onto by the neck, and looked at by my wife, and by myself. Those kinds of bonds are the first you have, and you’ll always define yourself in relation to those few people. Later, you’ve got your larger community. You’ve got your nation, and your profession. But it’s all layered on top of this core. The core is the same, no matter what.

I wrote my own version of the Cain and Abel story because I wanted to write about brothers. There’s a lot of me and my brother in that retelling of the story. I’ve always been interested in writing about all those mixed feelings brothers have: your jealousy, and hatred, but always a kind of unremitting love. My brother could do anything he wants—but no matter what kind of horrible thing he does, he would still be my brother. And I think it’s the same way with him.

Part of it is because it’s always been us against our parents—the bond there of coming from the same place, but still being very, very different. When so many qualities are the same, but so much is different, it allows for the kind of compression you see in the Cain and Abel story. It’s a very good place to write from. It’s also a story about losing complete control. Because losing control is the worst thing you can do, and no one wants to do it—I’m sure about that. What is it to lose control so completely?

In a completely different sense, writing My Struggle has been an exercise in giving up control. Every morning now, I write one page. I get up early and write one page in two hours. I start with a word. It could be “apple” or “sun” or “tooth,” anything—it doesn’t matter. It’s just a starting point—a word, an association—and the restriction that I write about that. It can’t be about anything else. Then I just start, without knowing what it’s going to be about. And it’s like the text produces itself.

I’m not talking about quality. For God’s sake, no. It’s not like this text ever looks good or anything. It’s just sitting there writing. Not thinking, and writing. I think it’s a state of mind, one I usually compare with music. When you watch musicians, they’re not thinking about what they’re doing, they’re just playing. Well, the same thing can be with writing. It’s just writing.

When you are not aware of yourself, you start to write things you have never thought about before. Your thoughts do not take the path they would normally have followed, and the thinking is different from your own. The language is in you, but it’s out of you, and it doesn’t belong to you. That’s what literature can do—when you throw something in, something else comes back.

This approach was something I discovered very early on, when I first started to write with ambition. I was 17, 18. I just wrote. I didn’t think. It wasn’t hard, because I was so naive and innocent. But what I mostly did was spit out clichés.

Later, I had many years when I couldn’t write because I felt I knew too much—suddenly, I had a notion of quality.  But when I was 27 or 28, I had a new experience for the first time: I just disappeared somewhere. I just wrote and followed the text. It was like reading, basically. I knew I was onto something because I couldn’t predict what was coming and I couldn’t identify it with myself when I read it—it was outside my normal reach, in a way. Not that it was better. But it was different.

This is what makes my work so difficult for me to read and see again. The first thing I think is—oh Jesus, it’s naïve. But in that naivety there is something that’s very direct and true, in a sense.

There’s a difference between writing naively now and when I was 20. When you’ve been writing for 20 years, you know something about writing. You don’t have that knowledge present as you work, but it is still there somewhere and kind of directs you.

For My Struggle, the revision process developed during the process of writing those six novels. I edited the first novel with my editor—we did it like a classical novel, more or less. It wasn’t hard. There were some bridges made, and then it looked like a novel.  But the second book we hardly edited at all. Much of the editing I’m doing while I’m writing, so when I reached the end—we just kept it, basically. We took out some pages, of course, but it was mostly there. The other books were written in a similar way, with the exception of Book Six—that was so long we needed to take out 150 pages. The others are more or less left alone.

But now I have to learn to write differently. I can’t repeat what I did in My Struggle. It’s become a kind of technique: I write a little bit about how I feel about something, a little bit about failure or shame for something, and then there is a reflection of a more essayistic kind, and then there is a description of something ordinary, and so on. I can’t write that way for the rest of my life. I would be less and less satisfying for myself because there’s nothing new in it. Or, the subjects can be new, but the insights are exactly the same.

What I’d really like to do is think differently, but that’s impossible.

Starting to write differently will be very difficult. Maybe it will create a kind a vacuum where it will be impossible to write. That has happened before. It will happen again. And it will pass again.

The privilege of a novelist is that you’re able to sit for three years by yourself, and no one’s interfering with anything if you don’t want them to. If you have faith in your writing, it’s easy. It’s when you remove that faith that things become difficult—when you start to think, this is stupid, this is idiotic, this is worthless, and so on. That’s the real fight: to overcome those kinds of thoughts. When you start a novel—well, 99 out of 100 novels start in a stupid way, I’m sure. You need to go on so that it can become something. Maybe it will take 50 pages, or 100 pages, but it will be okay.

When I go to bed, I look forward to the next morning because I know I have these two hours to write. It’s a magical place. And I know it’s going to happen. I can trust it.