This article appears in the August Issue of VICE Magazine
Karl Ove Knausgaard was smoking in the alleyway. It was a bright May afternoon in New York, and the Norwegian author was wearing mirrored aviator sunglasses and dressed in a tan blazer and blue jeans—a kind of summer literary casual. Knausgaard was back in the US, making the publicity rounds for the fourth and newest English installment of My Struggle, his six-volume autobiographical novel turned international sensation (an excerpt from which was published on VICE.com). Our meeting had been slotted between an interview he'd just finished with Leonard Lopate, on NPR, and another he'd be giving for VICE Meets—which would be followed three hours later by a conversation with the writer Rivka Galchen in front of more than 800 fans at the 92nd Street Y. It's like this every time he comes to New York.
We were taking a break from a fancy lunch—smoked trout and mussels—at a fancy restaurant on the Lower East Side, a meal that the uncommonly polite and gracious Knausgaard thanked me for three times over the course of his visit. It was a warm gesture, and a useful one, something to minimize the awkwardness. After all, without this lunch, what would we actually have in common? Despite all I'd read—roughly 1,000 pages of his deeply personal writing, which is, I'm ashamed to admit, only roughly half of his output available so far in English—the two of us were strangers. And yet, like his other readers, I was privy to so many uncomfortable details about his most intimate moments (or what we believe to be details about his most intimate moments—the books are, after all, described as fiction): how he sliced up his own face drunkenly one night after being spurned by Linda, the Swedish poet who would later become his wife (Book Two); how he had been unable to stop crying after his father died (Book One); how at 18 he had still never once masturbated—"never beat off"—a fact that led to frequent "heavy nocturnal emissions," his underpants "soaked with semen" (Book Four).
There, in the alleyway, I asked Knausgaard if I might take a few photos of him, and he answered yes, of course. As if intuiting my preference, he removed his sunglasses. Facing the camera, he has a naturally dramatic look—jagged face, thick, sweeping gray hair, and a penetrating blue-eyed stare. Instead of posing with the cigarette between his lips, as he does in so many of his portraits—like a musician or an actor—he held it angled downward in a way that felt vaguely apologetic, as if to say, "Sorry for the smoke."
"Do you think you'll ever quit?" I asked, after the photos were done.
"I once quit for a year," he replied, stamping out the butt. "Then I started again. But I must eventually quit. It's important for me to live as long as I can, for my children."
Over the past year I've spent following Knausgaard-mania, the question I keep getting asked is, "Why do you think he's so popular?" The question comes particularly often from curious Norwegians living in New York, who have been astonished to see one of their own receive so much cultural attention. Outside of the work—which I think is fantastic: moving, insightful, and vigorous, as well as bizarrely engrossing—part of the reason may have something to do with Knausgaard's simultaneous embrace of and distaste for the limelight. Onstage, he's remarkably good at public speaking—serving up self-deprecating remarks at a regular clip—while also maintaining an appealing air of discomfort with the whole thing, a certain pained awareness. It appears as though he's both grateful and embarrassed, a feeling that is conveyed in his smile, which Knausgaard has described alternately in his books as a "strained but courteous smile," an "apologetic smile," and a smile that is "squeezed"—a tired, slightly dutiful look that's more of a sigh, or even a grimace.
After one event in Brooklyn, I spoke with a woman in her 30s named Danielle, a self-professed "superfan," whom I remembered talking to the year before at a packed Knausgaard event with Zadie Smith. We stood near the signing table and the line of fans, many of them with four or five tomes cradled in their arms, like freshmen at the student bookstore. I asked if she was going to get him to sign something.
"I don't want to do it," said Danielle, who claimed she had read not only all four volumes available in English but the first book three separate times, along with his 22,000-word, two-part New York Times essay about America twice—roughly 3,000 pages of the guy's writing. "It would be like stealing something from him," she explained, visibly horrified by the idea. "He's given me so much. Do you want to meet Emma Bovary? Do you really want to meet your favorite character?
"I mean, look at him," she continued, pointing to Knausgaard as he sat patiently at a table, dutifully signing books and receiving his audience. "Do you think he really enjoys this?"
Two weeks later, at the end of May, Knausgaard was once again in New York and once again onstage, at another large former-warehouse space. This time it was in a vastly different capacity—as the drummer for his college band Lemen, which had been invited to perform as part of something called the Norwegian-American Literary Festival. The rangy author was no Keith Moon behind the set—at one point he dislodged one of the cymbals—but the overall performance was far less embarrassing than I had imagined it would be. The band played a kind of not-so-hip roots-rock style that recalled Natalie Merchant or Melissa Etheridge. As they performed, people—mostly women in their 20s and 30s—danced at the front of the stage while pulling out their cameras to capture the best angle of the novelist cum drummer.
"He's so good-looking," gushed a female editor I know, and when I looked back I saw the literary titans Lydia Davis and Dag Solstad, who were also in town for the festival, swaying to the music. They didn't look displeased.
After Lemen's performance, which was followed by James Wood drumming with a Norwegian rocker supergroup, including Knut Schreiner on loan from punk rockers Turbonegro (it was a weird night), a large group of us left the club for a pub down the street. Karl Ove and Yngve Knausgaard, who plays guitar in Lemen and bears more than a passing resemblance to his younger brother, sat at the head of a long communal table, like a pair of modern Nordic kings. On the booth side I found myself next to Ane Farsethås, the culture editor at Morgenbladet, one of Norway's oldest newspapers. Farsethås had served as Solstad's interpreter for the event.
"I'd never seen anything like it in my lifetime," she recalled of Knausgaard-mania in their home country. "It was an immediate thing. Everywhere people were like, 'This reminds me of a scene in My Struggle.' But nobody ever expected that to exceed the boundaries of our country. To see it in the US, it's exactly the same."
I asked Farsethås about what happened after the sixth book. "Novel six is eleven hundred pages," she explained. "It was just too much. After that, it kind of calmed down. That's my prediction of what will happen here, too."
Later that night, I stood outside with Knausgaard as he had a smoke. A dark-haired white man in his 30s came up to us, speaking Norwegian to Knausgaard. When he realized that I didn't understand, he immediately apologized. He explained, in English, that he was asking Knausgaard how he thought the festival was going. He had never heard him play the drums before.
I turned to Knausgaard and asked, "Has anyone in the US heard you play before?" He answered no and gave me his patient, faintly exhausted smile. "Now, let's talk about something else," he laughed, hurrying back inside.
Follow James Yeh on Twitter.