The Atlantic

Karl Ove Knausgaard on the Power of Brevity

The Norwegian author, known for the multivolume autobiography My Struggle, finds inspiration in the restraint of the tale of Cain and Abel.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Karl Ove Knausgaard isn’t known for being brief. My Struggle—his celebrated six-volume, 3,600-page autobiographical novel—is an experiment in radical scope, a kind of literary ultra-marathon. How long can a narrator extend a moment?, he seems to ask. How much banality can a story include? How long can a novel digress and still remain compelling?

In our conversation for this series, though, Knausgaard chose to examine the biblical story of Cain and Abel—a text he admires for its extreme compression. We discussed the story’s extraordinary economy, its multivalence, and the eternal appeal of family as a subject. (Cain and Abel’s themes—family, ambition, violence, shame—are Knausgaard’s own.) Finally, he gave insight into the process he used to write My Struggle: a willed naivety, a way of writing without thinking, that he compares to improvising music.

is being serially translated into English, and the latest volume—Book Four—comes out Tuesday. This installment focuses on 18-year-old Karl Ove’s first job as a schoolteacher in a Norwegian fishing town. Living alone for the first time, he makes his first stumbling forays into work, writing, self-determination, and sex. It’s a story told with a comic grimace—the mature narrator bears unblinking witness as a young man’s overblown ambitions are cut down, one humiliation

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