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How Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Relatives Felt About Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Book

“Your f—ing struggle.”

Side-by-side photos of Karl Ove Knausgaard and his book My Struggle Book 6
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Asbjørn Jensen and Archipelago Books.

Excerpted from My Struggle: Book 6 by Karl Ove Knausgaard, out now from Archipelago Books.

My novel, which had been given the title My Struggle 1, had been written in solitude. Apart from my publisher Geir Gulliksen and best friend Geir Angell, no one had read any of it along the way. A select few had been aware of what I was writ­ing about, among them my brother Yngve, but they knew none of the detail. After a year like that, where the only perspective that existed was my own, the manuscript was ready to be published. Four hundred and fifty pages, a story about my life centered around two events, the first being my mother and father splitting up, the second being my father’s death. The first three days after he was found. Names, places, events were all authentic. It wasn’t until I was about to send the manuscript to the people mentioned in it that I began to understand the consequences of what I had done. I sent it out in late June. Yngve had to be first. There were things I had written about him that I had thought and felt but never articulated. As I sat down at the computer and attached the document to the email I had written to him, I felt like dropping the whole thing, calling the publishers and telling them there would be no novel this year either.

I sat there for half an hour. Then eventually I clicked send and it was done.

The morning after next, his reply was in my inbox.

Your fucking struggle, said the subject line.

After Yngve had read it I put off sending it to the others I had writ­ten about. I was dreading it all summer, until eventually at the beginning of August, only a month before publication, I mustered up the courage.

Finally, I sent the manuscript to my uncle Gunnar. He was 10 years younger than my father, which meant he had been lit­tle more than a boy when his elder brother had married and his first child came along. From growing up I remember him as a young man in his 20s, very different from Dad. Gunnar had long hair, he could play the guitar, and he had a boat fitted with a 20-horsepower Mercury motor. Gunnar was a person Yngve and I looked up to, someone we always hoped would be there whenever we went to visit Grandma and Grandad in Kristiansand, or be with them when they came to visit us. By the time I was in my teens, he was married and had his own fam­ily, lived in a neat row house, and spent his free time in summer out at the cabin Grandma and Grandad had bought in the ’50s and which he gradually took on.

As Dad began to let go of me and everything else, Gunnar’s role in my life changed. Presumably he remained the same, but my attitude toward him changed. In my mind he had sussed me out. At that point I’d started writing for local papers and had become visible in a way I sensed he disliked, and at the same time I’d become wayward, ditching school, drinking, occasionally smoking pot, an outrageous transgression I for some reason believed Gunnar to be aware of, unlike everyone else around me, and this rubbed off on the way I related to him. In the years after I left home, at the age of 18, I didn’t have much contact with him, but the few times I visited him it was obvious to me that his children had complete trust in him, there was no sign of terror in their eyes when they looked at him, and I respected him for that. When I came into my 20s, with Dad becoming increasingly alcoholic, Gunnar became the representative of all that was orderly and proper, to which I, unlike my father, aspired, and as such I made Gunnar a kind of father figure, as well as a kind of superego. If the kitchen was lit­tered with empties, I would think, What would Gunnar say if he came in now and saw this?

So that was the situation when I had to send him the new novel. I knew he wasn’t going to like it, and the thought of him reading it scared me. But there was no way round it. So on the last day of July 2009, a month and a half before the novel was due to be published, I sat down in front of the computer and wrote him a note.

Dear Gunnar,

It’s been a long time. Hope everything’s good with you and the family…. The reason I’m writing to you now though is a different one. The fact is I’ve written six autobiographical novels—three coming out this autumn, three in the spring—all deal­ing with different parts of my life, and basically all names and events included in them are authentic, meaning they de­scribe actual occurrences, though not in any great detail. The first of the books will be published at the end of September and comprises two parts—the first part takes place in Tveit in the winter and spring of 1985, which is to say the time Mom and Dad split up and Dad began his new life with Unni, and the sec­ond deals with the days in Kristiansand following his death.

You appear briefly in the first part, giving me a lift down to a friend’s house on New Year’s Eve, and briefly in the second, when you and Tove come to the house and lend a hand clean­ing the place up. As such, it’s a positive portrayal, obviously, because that’s the way I think of you, so that’s not the difficult or painful part of it—this lies in the fact that I am laying bare the private life of our family, something neither you nor anyone else in the book has asked for. On the other hand, this is a book about me and my Dad, that’s what it deals with, my endeavour to understand him and what happened to him. To do that I have to go to the core, the inferno he made right at the end, in which he destroyed not only himself and the house but also Grandma’s final years, besides harming every­one else close to him. Why did he do that? What made him do it? Was it something he had inside him all the time when we were growing up? I don’t know if you realize this, but my father has had me gripped in a vise all my life, even after he died, and if I am to tell my story, that’s where I have to delve. The fact that this story also involves other people, among them—and perhaps especially—you, torments me severely, but at the same time I’ve been unable to see any way around it. The rot and repugnance the book describes all comes down to Dad, no one else was to blame, but I can’t describe any of it without reference to the context in which it took place. That’s the way it is. Right now I’m sending the manuscript to every­one who plays a part in it. Yngve has read it, and Mom as well. Now I’m sending it to you, attached to this e-mail. If you would like your name to be changed, and your background made anonymous, I am of course willing to do that. It wouldn’t be difficult, but the real problem lies elsewhere: that something you would prefer left alone, out of sight, is now going to be held up on display. Again, I’m sorry about that, but he was my father, the story I tell is my own, and unfortunately it looks like this.

All the best,

Karl Ove

During the next couple of days I checked my email several times an hour. Whenever the phone rang I felt stabs of anxiety. But noth­ing was forthcoming. I took this to be a good sign, he was reading the novel and thinking about what to say and how to react. Either that or he was away at the cabin.

It wasn’t until the fifth day that I heard from him. As soon as I saw his name in my inbox I stood up and went out onto the bal­cony, sat there for a while, smoking and gathering courage. The children were at the nursery, the sounds of the city rose toward me. The worst that could happen, I thought to myself, was that he would be angry with me for writing about the things I’d written about. But that would pass. All I had to do was take it, and it would pass.

I couldn’t undo what I’d already done. Not only had I made the decision that it was what I wanted, but I’d also worked un­der the banner of that decision for more than a year. The will of one person couldn’t change that.

That was what I thought. But it wasn’t what I felt. I felt like I did when I was a little boy and had done something wrong. I was afraid Dad was going to come and be angry with me. There was nothing worse in all the world. After I left home and became an adult, the fear remained, it was with me all the time, and I did everything I could to keep it from breaking out. Dad was no longer around, and my fear of his rage had been transferred onto others … Even as a 40-year-old, sitting on the balcony on a morning in August 2009, I was scared of someone being angry with me. Whenever I gave anyone reason to be, I became so ter­rified and despairing and so full of anguish, I never knew quite how I would ever get over it.

I stood up and went into the bedroom where the computer with the internet connection was. I opened the email.

Hi Karl Ove.

Would you please send me an email address for your contact(s) at your publishing house.

Gunnar

I read it through a few times, trying to make out what lay be­hind the words. He hadn’t started with “Dear,” as I had done, but if he was fuming about something then surely he wouldn’t have written, “Hi Karl Ove.” The fact there was a period after my name indicated a lack of enthusiasm, otherwise there would have been either an exclamation mark—which I didn’t think was in his nature—or a comma, or else nothing. A comma or nothing would have been neutral and objective, a period was making a point, stern and unpermissive. His use of “please” pointed in the same direction. “Please” was formal, more formal than the uncle-nephew relationship warranted, so my understanding was that he didn’t care for the manuscript. At the same time, it was a marker of politeness, which might indicate that he wasn’t fuming at all, I thought, otherwise wouldn’t he just have dispensed with the courtesy altogether? The fact that he hadn’t put anything be­fore his name, either “Best regards” or “Yours” or something equally friendly, indicated the same thing as the opening, that this was a formal, matter-of-fact kind of inquiry on the computer screen in front of me. I knew he’d never cared for me, that he saw me as an attention seeker, someone who wanted to be different for the sake of being different, who believed himself to be more than he was, and moreover without any sense of responsibility or order, and I took the content of his brief email to be more indicative of that than of what he thought about the novel.

I typed the email addresses and phone numbers of the direc­tor of publishing Geir Berdahl and commissioning editor Geir Gulliksen, and sent them off to him.

A few days later, there was an email from Gunnar.

The subject line said “Verbal rape.”

I thought about going for a walk somewhere and leaving it for a bit, sitting in a park maybe, or looking in the shops. But I knew the thought of what the email might contain wouldn’t let go of me, that I wouldn’t be able to relax whatever I did.

I read it through as fast as I could, as if the dread consisted in the encounter between my eyes and his words on the screen, rather than in what they said.

I’d imagined all kinds of things, but not this.

It was as if he were standing there screaming. It was my mother who was behind the novel, he wrote. She hated the Knausgaards, and always had done. For all those years, she had indoctrinated me with her hatred, brainwashed me, until eventually I had lost con­tact with the real world completely and written this despicable, immoral and self-centred shambles of a book so I could get back at the family and line my pockets. It was an act far worse than anything I believed my father had ever done to me when I was growing up. The source of all my books was my mother, all of them carried the mark of her hidden revenge motives. They were riddled with untruths, mean-spirited depictions, and an outlook on human nature he found completely alien to the family. I needed therapy.

He wrote that he was holding the publishing director personally responsible and would be taking action for damages if the manu­script came out. He left his email unsigned.

My Struggle: Book 6 by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Archipelago Books.

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