“Many writers are very bad communicators in life, but they are great writers. The writers I know are fucked, wrecked, destroyed: Not all of them are aware of it themselves,” Karl Ove Knausgaard says, over a mid-afternoon glass of water at an Auckland hotel. Not just Scandinavian writers? “No, there’s a lot of fucked up people all around the world.” Despite the unrelenting detail of his 3,600 page “indiscreet” memoir My Struggle, Knausgaard has a rep for being less than forthcoming in conversation. The “existential loner hero with four children,” Zadie Smith said, has “many contradictions.” “I tried desperately to think of something to say. We had to have something in common,” Knausgaard recalled his awkward lunch at Jeffrey Eugenides’s home. “But no, I couldn’t come up with a single topic of conversation.” Knausgaard is jaggedly handsome and sharply dressed, six feet, four inches tall and firm of handshake. Scandinavia’s leading literary figure of the last decade has things to say, seasoned with gesture and glance. He can be minimalist with his responses, though: Some questions and observations elicit “Yeah” or “Yeah. That’s true,” accompanied by a nod, a raised eyebrow, or─most tellingly—an affirming smile or laugh. Knausgaard is a fine exemplar of Scandinavia’s dry, deadpan humor. In My Struggle, he can be very funny. He writes about being a teenager doing a creative writing course, surreptitiously looking at Peter Paul Rubens and Eugène Delacroix nudes in a library art book. The comedy of trying to get laid for the first time, and dealing with premature ejaculation. And writing graffiti like “U2 stops rock.” Knausgaard is attracted to New Zealand (and the Auckland Writers Festival) by the remoteness and the similarities with his native Norway. “The fjords look the same.” His frankness writing about everyday challenges through My Struggle’s six volumes and the Seasons Quartet─someone close to you being seriously depressed or an alcoholic─resonates with many readers worldwide. “The loving care she sought was bottomless,” he writes of his Swedish ex-wife’s depression in Spring. Spring, and its lyrical descriptions of nature─“the smell of wet snow in winter,” “the beauty of the world means nothing if you stand alone it”─aims to inspire. “The great and terrifying beauty does not abandon us, it is there all the time,” Knausgaard concludes, “in the sun and the stars, in the bonfire and the darkness.” He is passionate when asked to elaborate about Spring’s message. “Life can be incredibly hard, life can be incredibly difficult, but it’s always worth living. That’s the book essence ... Writing a novel is nothing other than making a place where it’s possible to say something simple and true. That message is such a true thing, it’s very banal too, you need a novel to say it so then it becomes true, you understand what it is.” The 49-year-old father of four says Spring is especially for his youngest daughter, who was in utero when her mother attempted suicide. “It was such a fantastic, idyllic summer. The sun was shining everyday. The children were laughing and swimming. My then-wife was so depressed that she was in bed all the time, and drew all the energy in there. It was so hard to understand, how is this possible to be so disconnected from the world? To not see that happiness and joy, that it just does not mean anything. I have had friends and people I know been depressed and kill themselves. If you just stay there for three more weeks it would be OK. Your life would have been better.” Knausgaard confides that he himself can still find life a profound struggle. “Life is so hard that you think, ‘what’s the use? Why should it be so fucking difficult, everything?’ I want my daughter to know that life is always worth living.” Humor is one of the things that can make life worth living, the drummer and soccer enthusiast agrees. “Books Four and Five are especially funny to me, tragic but in a funny way. It’s a deadpan humor. I have friends who think Book Four is the most terrible thing they ever read because they identify so much with it they don’t see the humor. My editor always says to me: In life and in writing, take one step aside and everything looks differently. And humor is that step. When you are there, it’s not funny at all, but it is funny. And it was fun to write about.” In Summer─among odes to “Barbecue,” “Dogs,” “Ice Cream,” “Bicycle,” and “Repetition”─he praises Monty Python. “A [teenage] revelation,” he adds. Further comedies enjoyed include Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Seinfeld. Like Seinfeld, My Struggle is about everything, though it has been said to be about nothing? “Yeah, that’s true. I’ve also thought that about Seinfeld, that there is a relation somehow,” Knausgaard smiles. Though his English publishers describe My Struggle as autobiographical novels, the self-dubbed workaholic (“writing to escape myself”) says that they are “novelized autobiographies,” poetic truth. Literature should go for the hurt and fear and be ruthless, Knausgaard adds. “You’re not a real writer until you have enemies.” My Struggle: Six, released in English translation during September, caused controversy in Scandinavia for its coverage of Adolf Hitler and Anders Breivik. Knausgaard—now in a relationship with his U.K. publisher Michal Shavit─counters that he dislikes Sweden’s journalistic and academic cultures. “It’s so monological. It’s very one-sided. I wrote an essay about it called “In the Land of the Cyclops.” There’s a monopoly of meanings. If you have an opinion outside of that it’s impossible. I’m being compared to Nazism and Breivik because of that. It’s very different than Norway. My English is not good enough to explain. You can see it now in the crisis about the Swedish [Nobel] Academy. That’s a very interesting thing that’s happening. It’s only one version [of events] that’s dominating. There are other possible versions, but they’re just not present.” Knausgaard (recently in The Other Munch) is currently adapting his debut novel Out of This World for cinema, and greatly likes films such as Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure and The Square. He is intrigued by Lars Von Trier’s serial killer movie, The House That Jack Built. “One hundred people walking out [at Cannes debut]. I think he’s a genius, absolutely brilliant. I hope I will never meet him.” He double-checks a new Von Trier quote on his phone: “‘I’ve never killed anyone myself. If I do, it will have to be a journalist.’” That sly smile again. “I don’t think he means journalists like you.” Photos: James Black
“One of the Big Apple’s most celebrated sons,” the BBC once described Paul Auster. “A literary giant.” Auster, the screenwriter of four films (and director of three), hit a knockout with Smoke. The 1995 classic is a lovely, emotional look at Auggie Wren’s Brooklyn community smoke shop. The early icon of Brooklyn literary cool is a novelist and essayist, translator and poet, and much more. Over the phone from his Park Slope home studio, Siri Hustvedt’s husband is a generous, avuncular interviewee, speaking musically in that distinctive voice chiselled by a lifetime of fine cigars. The author of five autobiographies brings the frankness his memoirs like The Invention of Solitude are known for. As in his best writing: Auster is cerebral and elegant, passionate and precise. Having inspired younger stars from Jonathan Lethem to Karl Ove Knausgård, he remains a varied, engaging storyteller. (The co-director of Blue in The Face -- starring Lou Reed and Jim Jarmusch -- has film in a number of his novels, like The Book of Illusions.) 4321, his first novel in seven years, runs 866 pages, peppered with traumatic 20th-century American history, from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to the Attica prison riots. It charts four alternative lives for protagonist Archie Ferguson, Newark-born in 1947. Despite America’s grim political moment, Auster is persuasive about humanity’s capacity for imagination and transcendence, and the future of good books. The Millions: Smoke begins with that beautiful, inviting shot of Brooklyn looking back to the twin towers. Paul Auster: I know, I know [elegiacally]. TM: On 9/11 I was in St. Dizier, one of the worst dumps in France. Seeing you on TV, saying that you thought New York was going to be okay, was reassuring. Now, as your wife Siri Hustvedt put it in The Guardian: “When fascism comes to America, they will call it Americanism,” and “Reality didn’t matter.” PA: Siri’s written some very powerful pieces during and after the campaign. We’re both galvanized, I must say, and we’re digging in our heels and we’re going to try to do as much as we can, and stay as vigilant as we can. Trump ran on division, hatefulness, and the desire to smash everything to bits, which is, I think, unprecedented in American history. We think our institutions are very solid, but not necessarily, and you keep attacking them, then suddenly the foundations are going to collapse, and then we’re in for real trouble. I don’t want to go on and on about Trump and his cabinet appointments, but pretty much everyone he’s picked so far is someone who has made a career out of trying to dismantle the very agency he’s supposed to lead. So, we’re in for a very weird, weird time. The Environmental Protection Agency is there to protect the environment and if the person in charge of it doesn’t believe in it, then how can he be the head of it? This is the absurd impasse we’ve come to now, where somehow it seems legitimate to millions of people in the country to take apart everything we’ve tried to build up all these years. And for what? TM: I like how 4321 is spiced with dramatic 20th-century American history: the Vietnam War, JFK’s assassination, the Attica prison riots, Rockefeller drug laws, ‘68 Columbia University protests. Referring to the Newark race riots in 1967, you said: “I did see that colonel from the Jersey State Police saying those terrible things about ‘wanting to kill every black bastard in the city’. It was horrifying.” Starting with grotesque Birtherism, Trump has unleashed this shocking old racism. PA: It goes back to the very early days of America. The pity is that Obama’s election, I felt at the time, was maybe our finest hour as a country. What a man he is, Obama! Sadly his election created such a reaction among a big swamp of the white population in America: they demonized him from the instant he took office and opposed every single thing he tried to do, and insulted him, denigrated him and he stood up to all of that, for eight years, with remarkable dignity. I’m so impressed by it. The man is truly extraordinary. It’s not that I agree with all his policies, he’s much more moderate than I am, but the human qualities of this man are so admirable. I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone of this stature and moral integrity as this president, Obama. So, I’m going to miss him terribly, I must say. TM: Trumpism, like the traumatic times in 4321, reminds me of an enduring line from William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” PA: Our country is built on these two primal sins: the sin of slavery and the sin of genocide, and I think we can’t really become a fully functioning, mature country unless we own up to how we started. TM: You have a history -- partly in your leadership role through PEN as an advocate for free speech -- of challenging Trumpish authoritarians, like the Turkish dictator Erdoğan. That must have been a real accolade for you in 2012 when he slammed you as an “ignorant man,” after you protested his jailing of writers? PA: A couple of years later, I met one of the journalists who had been in prison at the time, and he had come to New York because he was getting an award from the excellent Committee to Protect Journalists. He told me when my statement was published in the Turkish paper, he and all the other prisoners in the prison where he was incarcerated started cheering. So, it does matter to speak up. It really makes a difference. As part of my response to Trump, I decided recently to take on the presidency of American PEN in a year. I’m going to do as much as I can do: Speak out about all these things. TM: Under Trumpism, some leftists are rediscovering the importance of free speech. You and Salman Rushdie, unlike some writers, stood in support of the murdered Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. PA: Yes, that was an issue that divided American PEN in ways that I would never have predicted and lifelong friendships were shattered in this dispute. I still don’t understand, I can’t get my mind around the people who oppose giving Charlie Hebdo the award. Seems like such a simple matter: martyrs for free speech deserve to be recognised, but these people had another point of view, which I didn’t agree with. Free speech is a black-and-white issue. There is no grey. Once you start making exceptions, then there is no more free speech. The people arguing against the award said that Charlie Hebdo engaged in what we would call hate speech, but I don’t agree with this. They were just obnoxiously making fun of everybody, and they were never singling out any one group for attack. They were opposed to everything and there’s something healthy about that, I think. TM: “You want to burn up and destroy all your previous work; you want to reinvent yourself with every project...You have to challenge yourself,” you once told Jonathan Lethem. Does that still speak to your creative instinct? PA: I’m happy to hear these words read right back to me. They’re very forceful, true. I still subscribe to them wholeheartedly. You dry up if you keep repeating yourself. It’s useless. TM: Jonathan Lethem, for his part, is sharp on sex: “I couldn’t agree more that the dirty secret of the [American] contemporary mass culture self-image is that we flatter ourselves on being extremely jaded and sophisticated, but we’re awfully prim and censorious and Victorian about so many different things.” For example, a politician involved in a consensual sex scandal, everyone’s so disgusted they need to know every last detail. PA: Siri and I were highly amused when the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky thing broke, how the press seemed to act as if no one has ever had sex before. The disdain that people showed for him engaging in whatever it was he did, really was the height of hypocrisy. As if no member of the press has ever had an affair outside of his or her marriage. It becomes ridiculous and America is a country of tremendous hypocrisy in these matters. More so I think than any other country in the West. I mean Mitterrand, the president of France, had two families and everyone left him alone about that. They knew but they didn’t care. It’s his private business. As long as he’s not sleeping with a, I don’t know, a Russian agent, he can do whatever he wants. TM: Speaking of Siri, in her essay "A Plea for Eros," she wrote that “American feminism has always had a puritanical streak, an imposed blindness to erotic truth.” PA: She’s right. Siri is someone unafraid to talk about these things in her work, and more power to her. TM: There’s quite a lot of sex in 4321. Any comment you’d make on the nexus between sex and creativity? PA: Ooh, what a big question that is. Sex is, of course, fundamental to all of us. It’s probably the most interesting subject in the world. I’ve noticed, over the years, my ability to write about it more fully. In my early novels, not so much. People were having erotic encounters, but I’d never described it at much length. In some books, more recently, I’ve been able to do that. I’ve been fascinated by it, to tell you the truth. Nothing I’ve written could be said to be just about eroticism. But there are erotic components to most of my books. I suppose the most erotically charged thing I’ve ever written is in the novel Invisible, when there’s this affair described between a brother and a sister. But whether it really happens or not is not clear in the narrative. But I remember feeling that I had to go into another zone altogether in my mind and just knock down all fear of squeamishness or prudery and go there, because if I didn’t then the passages would have been useless. I mean it’s not that they’re obscene, these passages. I’m not talking about pornography, but I’m talking about an accurate description, I hope, of erotic experience. 4321, yes there are sex scenes in the book. But all of them are crucial to the story, and because the book’s so complex, because I have a protagonist who’s not just one person but four, there are four of my Archie Fergusons, each one living his own parallel life, having different experiences from the other three. One of them, as a young person, has a bisexual life and I never went into any of that material before and certainly it’s not autobiographical. Writing about violence, too. Things I’ve never done myself, but it’s not hard to imagine how someone can lose control of himself and do awful things, violent things to another person. TM: When The Tortilla Curtain came out, some people attacked T.C. Boyle for appropriation, despite his sympathy and skill evoking the undocumented Mexican experience. PA: Nobody owns the imagination. If we didn’t have the power to project ourselves into the minds and bodies of other people, people unlike us, I don’t think there would be such a thing as society. We wouldn’t be able to communicate. The whole idea of being a person is the fact that once you reach a certain level of mental and emotional maturity, you’re able to look at yourself from the outside. You’re able to see yourself as one person among many. Millions, in fact. Which then you take that one step further and you realize then you have to have the ability to project yourself onto others in order to try to understand them. Either sympathize with them, empathize with them, however you want to define it, but without that quality we wouldn’t be human beings. So, every time I hear someone get up and say: “You can only write novels about people exactly like yourself,” they’re saying that there is no such thing as the imagination. Which means people are not people [Laughs]. TM: “So then only men could write about men, only women could write about women. Only dogs could write about dogs. It becomes a kind of fascism in itself,” T.C. Boyle responds. PA: That’s right. It’s truly absurd. Getting back to Tolstoy, then he wouldn’t have been allowed to write Anna Karenina. I mean these are absurd arguments and yet people actually do make these arguments, and I’ve always been appalled to hear them. TM: What do you hope 4321 might accomplish? PA: I wrote the book, now it doesn’t belong to me anymore. I mean, needless to say, every writer hopes that every human being on the face of the Earth will read his book, but that doesn’t happen. TM: It’s heartening that good books and independent book stores seem to be doing well. PA: Yes, absolutely. The novel has been pronounced dead, I guess, maybe 50 million times in the last 100 years, but it’s still thriving. The novel is one of the only places in the world where two strangers can meet on terms of absolute intimacy. We need storytelling in order to understand our own lives and I don’t think that this impulse to create fiction-- and to read it -- is ever going to go away. Paper books are better technology. It’s more pleasant to read a book and turn the pages than to push buttons on a screen. The novelty of this has died out now and sales of e-books have leveled off now for several years. Paper books are very much alive and will continue to be alive. TM: Do you hope to write till your last day, like Wayne Barrett and George Orwell did? PA: I hope so. Of course, George Orwell didn’t live very long. He died at 46, when I think I’m about to turn 70. It’s quite a difference. Yes, I want to keep going. I don’t see how artists can retire, really.