The A-Z

Karl Ove Knausgaard

Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, a dirty laundry-airing cycle of autobiographical novels, has gone ballistic over the last year. Here's an A to Z guide to the man and his career so far...



A is for Angels

Before My Struggle came A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven, Knausgaard's sprawling novel/dissertation on our encounters with angels through history. It's a properly weird read, but perseverance is richly rewarded. Who knew that Noah wore a woolly jumper?

B is for Birth

The birth scene in A Man in Love is one of the most full-on ever written. You're right there in hospital with Knausgaard and his second wife Linda, wincing at every contraction and puffing on every anxious cigarette.

'A sudden shout: "Are we alone?"
"Yes," I said.

It seemed to come from deep inside her, from a place she never went, or for that matter had ever been. I had tears in my eyes.
"I love you," I said, but she didn't hear, another wave was on its way. Time ticked by: eight o'clock, nine o'clock, ten o'clock.'

C is for Crying

Writers tend to be a sensitive bunch, but Knausgaard is way ahead of the competition. His must be the most singular way of turning on the waterworks.

'My whole chest trembled and shook, I couldn't draw breath, deep sobs rolled through me, and my face contorted, I was completely out of control. "Ooooooooh," I said. "Ooooooooh."'

D is for Dad

Knausgaard's dad casts a long shadow throughout My Struggle. He's portrayed as a cruel and unpredictable bully. The impression made on Knausgaard is clear when he mistakenly fears a resurrection in A Death in the Family.

'Was it dad? Was he returning? I was as frightened as I had ever been. Footfalls sounded on the stairs. It was dad, I knew it. Oh shit, shit, shit, here he is. I turned and went into the living room, to the veranda door, ready to step out, run across the lawn and flee the town, never to return.'

E is for Embarrassment

The market for embarrassment, awkwardness and humiliation in literature has been monopolised. Knausgaard stakes his claim in a recent interview with the New Yorker.

'I guess I have a talent for humiliation, a place within me that experience can't reach, which is terrible in real life, but something that comes in handy in writing. It seems as though humiliation has become a career for me.'

F is for Face (Knaus)

The UK proof cover of A Man in Love featured a particularly baleful photograph of Knausgaard's big beardy face cropped in half. This led to many literary types tweeting shots of their faces lined up with the cover to much viral bemusement. #knausface

G is for Geir

Geir is hands down Knausgaard's best mate. They're always out sinking beers, scoffing meatballs and discussing the nature of existence. He's also pretty much the only person in My Struggle who escapes being slagged off at some point.

'We went out some nights, he laughed all the time and had a devil-may-care attitude I liked, and he was genuinely interested in people around him and had something to say about them.'

H is for Hitler

My Struggle in English. Min Kamp in Norwegian. Mein Kampf in German. It's no coincidence that the most infamous novel of recent years shares a title with the most infamous autobiography ever written. Knausgaard is fascinated by Hitler and we're in for a hefty dose of the guy in volume six.

I is for Island

Every man is an island, and none more so than Knausgaard. He also grew up on the Norwegian island of Tromøya, a place described with some wistfulness in Boyhood Island. He and his mates spend their spare time mucking about in the woods and pissing on everything, as young boys are wont to do.

'"I need a piss," Leif Tore said. "Shall we see who can piss the furthest? Over the edge? It'll be one great big long jet!"'

J is for Jif (cleaning product)

The most famous scene in A Death in the Family sees Knausgaard and his brother Yngve cleaning the neglected house where their father drank himself to death. It's long and painstakingly detailed, but strangely compelling.

'I put a bucket of steaming water, a bottle of Klorin and a bottle of Jif down on the floor by the bath. I shook the bin bag I had brought with me to open it, then started clearing everything from the bathroom.'

K is for Knausgaard

You say the Kn in Knausgaard like the gn in gnu, not like the gn in gnaw. Is that clear? Good.

L is for Linda

It must be tough living with Norway's most indiscreet man. That said, you can't doubt Knausgaard's feelings for Linda. This is one of those passages that dispels any accusation that his writing is cold or aloof. Feel the love.

'Then I met Linda and the sun rose. I can't find a better way to express it. The sun rose in my life. At first, as dawn breaking on the horizon, almost as if to say, this is where you have to look. Then came the first rays of sunshine, everything became clearer, lighter, more alive, and I became happier and happier, and then it hung in the sky of my life and shone and shone and shone.'

M is for Music

Like many teenagers, Knausgaard became obsessed with rock 'n' roll and formed a rubbish covers band. Like many teenagers in rubbish covers bands, he swiftly attains Bono-like levels of self-delusion.

'We were utterly hopeless, completely out of our depth, there was not a snowball's chance in hell of anything coming of this, we wouldn't even be good enough to perform at a school party, but although this was the reality we never experienced it as such. On the contrary, this was what gave our lives meaning.'

N is for New Year's Eve

One of the most gruelling sequences in A Death in the Family has young Knausgaard schlep through the snow to a New Year's Eve party laden with illicit booze. At every sight of car headlights, he has to sling it in a ditch. We've all been there.

'Getting drunk required careful planning. Alcohol had to be procured safely in advance, a secure place for storage had to be found, transport there and back had to be arranged, and parents had to be avoided when you got home.'

O is for 'Ooooooooh'

Seriously. Who cries like that?

P is for Proust

The Proust comparison crops up a lot. Yes, Knausgaard takes a page when a paragraph would do. Yes, he's partial to some misty-eyed nostalgia. But that's where the similarities end. Plus, a plastic bag of beers will always trump a soggy cake.

Q is for Queen

Knausgaard is a proper headbanger. Led Zep, Rush, Queen and the rest get him jamming at school. Unsurprisingly, he often finds himself at odds with the more mainstream tastes of his classmates.

'I was conceited, I thought I was the big I am, I always had to like weird things, not what everyone else liked. That wasn't true though, in fact I liked good music and not bad music, surely that wasn't my fault?'

R is for Rhythm Time

In A Man In Love, Knausgaard takes his daughter Vanja to a 'Rhythm Time' sing-along for parents and young children. This seemingly innocuous duty leaves him seething with rage and lustiness.

I wasn't embarrassed, it wasn't embarrassing sitting there, it was humiliating and degrading. Everything was gentle and friendly and nice, all the movements were tiny, and I sat huddled on a cushion droning along with the mothers and children, a song, to cap it all, led by a woman I would have liked to bed.

S is for Swimming cap

One of the most traumatic of the many, many traumatic incidents in Boyhood Island hinges on the purchase of a swimming cap. Catastrophic.

'"But Mum, it's got flowers on!" I said. "I can't wear a cap with flowers on! That's no good! It's a woman's! You bought a woman's bathing cap!"
"Isn't it lovely?" she said.'

T is for Tonje

Tonje Aursland, Knausgaard's first wife, produced a Norwegian radio documentary on involuntarily becoming a subject of My Struggle. It makes conventional break-ups seem rather dull, doesn't it?

U is for Ugly

Like all of us at some point, young Knausgaard is dissatisfied with his looks. Unlike all of us, he ultimately grows into a hirsute literary heart-throb, bestriding the planet in leather trousers, so don't feel too sorry for him.

'My cheeks were red, my hair was a mess, there was some shiny snot under my nose. My teeth stuck out as always. Buck teeth, as people called them.'

V is for Vanja

The product of that full-on birth scene, Vanja is an adorable presence in Knausgaard's life, but she really cramps his style.

'She is already practised in the ways of the world and can be so cheeky that I completely lose my head and sometimes shout at her or shake her until she starts crying. But usually she just laughs.'

W is for Writing

Knausgaard has many vices (booze, fags, rage), but his love of writing eclipses all of them (as well as things like family and sleep).

'At two places in the novel I soared higher than I had thought possible, and those two places alone, which I could not believe I had written, and no one else has noticed or said anything about, made the preceding five years of failed writing worth all the effort.'

X is for X-Rated

Much is made of present-day Knausgaard's bristly allure, but even in his early teens he was a regular lothario. What woman with a pulse could resist this level of game?

'"Shall we time how long we can kiss" I said.
"What!" she said.
"I've got a watch," I said. "Tor managed ten minutes. We can beat that."'

Y is for Yngve

The archetypal big brother. Protector, mentor and occasional tormenter in that unique big-brotherly way. One moment he can be lending comics and records, the next indulging in some excellent fox banter.

'I was so frightened of foxes that Yngve only had to say, "I am a fox, and I am coming to get you" – he was in the upper bunk and I was in the lower one – and I froze in terror. "No, you aren't," I said. "Yes, I am", he said, hanging over the edge and hitting out at me.'

Z is for Zadie Smith

When asked what she was reading on Twitter, the National Treasure answered in no uncertain terms. You and us both, Zadie.

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