By Conor White-Andrews
It’s late August, almost September, and over London the sky is a silently shifting collage of whites and grey. It’s still the summer, technically, but the weather outside his window—heavy grey, gentle rain, harsh yellow lights of offices and red tips of cranes burning against the gloom—suggests a changing of the seasons, perhaps a damp fading back into the autumn dark.
Buttoning up his plain white shirt, the man watches the rain. The hotel he’s staying in is in a nice part of town. He could see that when he arrived, having lived in the city before—in neighbourhoods bearing little resemblance to the one he’s in now—but the room is still dingy, basic nonetheless. There’s still a need for both the lamp beside the bed and lamp on the desk, where a plastic white kettle sits alongside red sachets of instant coffee and tea with two white mugs, to be constantly switched on in order to sufficiently light the room.
Adjoining the suite is a small balcony, shielded from the rain by the small identical balcony above, and now he collects the blue carton of cigarettes from the bedside table, the table with the lamp, and lets himself outside. On the balcony it’s warmer than he’d expected—the air thick, humid, heavy—and the man is reminded, again, of the strange turning of the seasons, the gradual then sudden retreat to darkness. But it doesn’t bother him, this fading, as he smokes a cigarette on the small balcony adjoining the room. That’s because it’s merely part of the cycle—an essential element; something he has addressed in his latest book, which he will be discussing later, in a bookshop somewhere in the city. He observes the rain as he would the dust, the grass, and the sun on a dry summer's day.
On the street directly below, a line of traffic—black cabs, red buses, everyday vehicles functioning as Ubers—shuffles forward at a pace too slow to properly distinguish, a series of red brake lights stretching on out of sight. Exhaling, the man drops the cigarette butt from his fingers. Inside, he makes another coffee, his third already that morning, and then checks his phone; his wife, Linda, has not called back. He will call her again soon. His watch shows 9:45, not even 10 o’clock, and he has hours to kill.
In a dingy hotel room lit by two yellow lamps, he has hours to kill. He fingers the metal lighter in his pocket, thinks about smoking another cigarette. He doesn’t though, and instead sits down at the desk. He drinks the last of his coffee—soon, he will want another—before pushing back the screen of his laptop and turning it on. He yawns as the machine blinks into life. His latest project—what it is, precisely, he isn’t quite sure—is saved as a folder on his desktop. He taps at it quickly, twice. The words that appear before him, black against white, form sentences, might even make sense, but the man doesn’t yet know what they mean. That will come later. But in his hotel room, the one in the nice part of town, he has hours to kill, and now it’s important to work. He clicks at the white plastic kettle, and in seconds it begins to scream.
I don’t know Karl Ove Knausgård, and it alarms me that I think I might. As anybody who has even partially read his epic series My Struggle will appreciate, the idea—the mental image—one forms of Knausgård is uncomfortably strong, and arrives in unflinchingly graphic detail. What makes it all the more interesting, however, is that, despite the project being almost directly autobiographical—and heavily marketed as such—as the confession of the century, its autobiographical nature is perhaps its least interesting facet.
Because of a misguided attempt at marginally cutting costs, I was late to the conversation Knausgård was having at the Waterstones on Tottenham Court Road, London, with an American literary agent. The event started at 7 p.m., and I didn’t arrive until 7:40. I took a seat at the very back, sweating and struggling to control my breathing after sprinting wildly from the station. I looked around and there was Knausgård, sitting on a stool at the front. He was smaller than I’d imagined, maybe, but still fundamentally the man I had watched in YouTube videos and speaking in the same thoughtful, considered voice. He was talking about Madame Bovary, gesturing with his hands. He said that Madame Bovary is the definitive novel, that in it Flaubert had captured the very essence of our reality, its textures, and offered it back in the form of words. He said that he had read Flaubert’s letters, and that what fascinated him was how Flaubert engaged equally in every aspect of his existence, how he did not discriminate. Knausgård spoke a little more about eating, shitting, shaving, and the multitudes of everyday life. He did not discriminate.
The talk ended 10 minutes after I arrived. At that point, there were to be questions from the audience, and I was able to ask the second question. There was a pause as the microphone was brought over. Stuttering, I asked Knausgård about structure. I asked him about how he deals with structure, when the books feel so much like an outpouring of strong, visceral emotion. I felt my skin burn as he grappled with my words, possibly wondering how to deal with a stupid question. Then Knausgård, looking at me from his stool at the front, said, hesitantly, that it’s not something he particularly worries about. He said that, as younger writer, he was crushingly aware of writing as a type of performance. He said that for years he wrote with painstaking intent, with a pose, until, one day, it became something else. He likened to it to rehearsing, and told me to keep writing, furiously, until the transition from the internal to the external becomes second nature. In A Death in the Family, he writes, “Writing is about drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows. That is what writing is about.”
After the event had finished, Knausgård was signing copies of his latest book, translated into English, Autumn. I bought a beer, a Brooklyn Lager, and waited in line. Standing there, I watched as the various people went up and had their books signed. A number of them took photos and selfies with Knausgård, and I thought that he looked uncomfortable; though I am not sure whether this is because I have read his books and feel like I might know him, or because he actually looked uncomfortable. We chatted briefly when my turn came. He was friendly, and wrote, “Keep going!” at the front of my copy. It was surreal, standing before a stranger about whom you know intimate, personal details. I wondered about Linda, his wife, and about how the kids are. I wanted to ask about life on the farm.
But, again, I don’t know Knausgård, and to approach it in this way, I think, is to fundamentally miss the point. He’s a writer’s writer, and his is an oeuvre that engages constantly with the idea, the notion of literature, of writing itself. It’s imperative, it suggests, to look not at the artist, but at the art; at that which cannot be expressed in words being expressed in words. It’s adding form to something amorphous in the shape of sentences, capturing an essence, something magnified by the fact that most of us read his work as translation. His books, through their very creation, subvert our notions of what the form is, and how we engage with it. They are a testament to the power of literature—to its perpetual evolution—and to language as a whole. As Knausgård says, we must keep going.