Suggestions for Summer Reading: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Struggle to Write

For the past couple of years I’ve been addicted to a series of books by the  Norwegian writer, Karl Ove Knausgaard.  Presented as fiction,  these explore in minute detail the everyday life experiences of the author  from his childhood in the 1970’s to his relationships with his friends, his family and his children.

Knausgaard presents a vivid picture of the world around him  as  it  is affected by, and affects, the  constantly evolving  interior world of his own perception and consciousness. The writing is phenomenological. It evocatively captures the materiality of  ordinary living through its various locations and artifacts, as well as the intensity of  the embodied feelings and sensations which make up life as it is lived.  The reader experiences what it was  like to grow up on an  island in Norway, to ride a bike aged thirteen on a summer evening and the click of  inserting  a cassette tape into a tape recorder in the 1980’s.

These evocations of   what   anthropologists would  recognize  as  ‘ordinary affect’  are profoundly moving. The  first book in the series deals with the emotional repercussions of the death of the author’s father, a violent alcoholic. The  most recent, published in English translation in 2016,  describes a visit to  his  elderly  grandfather in a city hospital.  While the interior orientation of these books and the emphasis on the narrow consciousness of the author seems at first sight to be in sharp contrast to the  exterior orientation of  an ethnographic approach,  it  generates astute insights into the wider cultural and social worlds which he inhabits. Reflecting on the organization of the hospital in which his grandfather is a cardiac patient, and by extension all hospitals, Knausgaard observes how the medical categorization of disease  as afflicting specific organs organizes social relations and the space within it.  The personal identity of his grandfather is rendered insignificant through this process of classification. `For hospitals all hearts are the same’.

I love reading  Knausgaard’s books  because such close accounts of every day life and relationships are  fascinating.  These  are, after all, the staple diet of  anthropology.  But  I think these books are good for anthropological thinking beyond this, prompting a  reflection on anthropological practice as comprising  both participation and representation.   Knausgaard’s books  offer a situated perspective on what it is to be a social actor in a specific time and place.   They  provide access to a position usually inaccessible to  an anthropologist.  They allow the reader to experience `being there’  as an observant participant, from the inside looking out,   and as a person who is  changed by these experiences.

Knausgaard  is not solely concerned  with  thinking about participation. He takes us one step further as he  explores  the difficulties of capturing this in writing.   Representation is explored practically through the  structuring of the texts  and as a  social practice. Knausgaard’s  life effort which he recounts in this series  is his struggle to become a writer. This struggle is not simply intellectual.  It entails getting the time and space to sit alone and write uninterrupted, managing the demands of   other work,  of partners and children and dealing with the  unsightly by products  literary production in the form of  wasted effort, rejections and negative reviews.

A key insight, over the five books so far published in English (there are six in all), is that good writing takes time. Time to actually do writing, time to develop the skills to write well and, importantly, time to develop a voice. Recommended summer reading.


Maia Green works on issues of social transformation in East Africa and the anthropology of international development. She has written on diverse topics ranging from anti-witchcraft practices to the proliferation of NGOs. She teaches at the University of Manchester.

3 thoughts on “Suggestions for Summer Reading: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Struggle to Write

  1. Maia, I enjoyed reading your essay. I agree with everything you say. Why, then, has no one commented on it? I have worked in advertising and would like to suggest a few answers.

    Consider the lead, “For the past couple of years I’ve been addicted to a series of books by the Norwegian writer, Karl Ove Knausgaard. Presented as fiction, these explore in minute detail the everyday life experiences of the author from his childhood in the 1970’s to his relationships with his friends, his family and his children.”

    If I were to write a similar essay and begin with the sentence, “For the past couple of years I have been addicted to a series of books by the Chinese-Eurasian writer Han Suyin,” would you be likely to read any further?

    Suppose that I added the opening sentences from her Wikipedia entry,

    “Han Suyin (simplified Chinese: 韩素音; traditional Chinese: 韓素音; pinyin: Hán Sùyīn; 12 September 1916 or 1917 – 2 November 2012)[1] was the pen name of Elizabeth Comber, born Rosalie Matilda Kuanghu Chou (Chinese: 周光瑚; pinyin: Zhōu Guānghú).[2] She was a China-born Eurasian,[3] a physician, and author of books in English and French on modern China, novels set in East and Southeast Asia, and autobiographical memoirs which covered the span of modern China. These writings gained her a reputation as an ardent and articulate supporter of the Chinese Communist revolution.”

    Given the rising prominence of China in world affairs, that could conceivably grab your attention. I suspect, though, that very few of our readers here on Savage Minds have any particular interest in early twentieth-century China. Even if I were add that Han Suyin was a brilliant writer and a first-hand witness to some of the twentieth century’s most important historical events, a witness who wrote about them from a now rarely encountered perspective, I suspect that many eyes would glaze.

    I return, however, to my agreement with everything you say. That may be the heart of the problem. There is no gap, no point of entry for disagreement, a different perspective, another insight. “Yes, yes,” I say to myself and move on. There is nothing here to make me linger except an old man’s concern that an anthropology dedicated to local perspectives will have little to say to people without a particular interest in the places it describes.

  2. Thanks John. Useful suggestions. I didn’t write this post for agreement or disagreement. It was more a personal reflection on why I as an anthropologist find this particular author, whose perspective is so domestic and local, so interesting. I guess he is better known in Europe where his books are prominently displayed in every book store and reviewed at length in the print media. Point taken though- I’ll make sure my next post is more contentious. Suggestions for topics welcome!

  3. Contentious is click bait, no question about it. Are there other possibilities? I find myself thinking of Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture and the observation that pop culture franchises have largely abandoned the notion that the work of art must be a coherent whole enclosed in a frame, aiming instead to create universes in which every thread opens onto others: Star Trek, for example. In my own case, memorable, quotable moments are what hook me and keep me tied to an author. Thus, for Han Suyin, it is a scene in which she and her brother are looking at a famous mountain and the brother remarks that the literary allusions with which the mountain is covered prevent him from seeing the mountain itself.

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