Karl Ove Knausgaard on Charlie Rose: ‘My Struggle’ as the Great Middle American Novel of Protestant Shame


Last night, Charlie Rose, with his Carolinian drawl, sounding like he put a thimble of bourbon in his sweet tea, introduced American Baby Boomers to author Karl Ove Knausgaard. All in all, it went terribly. Just imagine the famed “Charlie Rose” by Samuel Beckett video — even with its flaws, still the greatest video ever produced for the Internet — interjected by a handsome, primetime Odin who hovers many miles above giving his host a straight answer. To make matters worse, Rose, brimming with hubris, had just won the 2015 Cronkite Award for “asking the tough questions that affect people around the world.”

I personally have never heard Charlie Rose ask a question at anything other than an acute angle; as the video illustrates, he’s a wizard of Boomer sidetalk:

Now, Knausgaard and his books present many problems for an older American audience. He is, to begin with, Norwegian, so the Greatest Generation cannot even understand what he’s saying on television. Boomers will likely hang on the book’s Hitler-cribbing title, My Struggle — certainly Rose did — and its autobiographical aegis: how can he write so many words about himself?

I mistakenly assumed that Rose’s job, having read the book, would be to usher the audience into an understanding of Knausgaard’s project. Only Rose quickly revealed not so much as a glancing familiarity with its contents. And how could he? Now that Letterman is gone, Rose is the hardest working white provincial Baby Boomer in showbusiness. Can we really expect him to read a six-volume novel about anything other than the travails of a middling TV host whose life is spread perilously thin by his obligations to the American public?

But the irony, even the beauty, of Knausgaard’s attendance last evening, was that My Struggle revealed itself to be a novel weirdly suited to the predicament of the many American provincials watching at home. In fact, upon reconsidering the novel in light of Knausgaard’s statements, I began to wonder why a cosmopolitan American would like it at all. It became unsurprising to me that cosmopolitans, as they often do on Twitter, would accuse Knausgaard of narcissism, the trait that best describes… the American cosmopolitan. Knausgaard’s book is much more aligned with a different trait, one that you would find in a Protestant alcoholic father or a member of a red state legislature: self-hatred.

It’s fair to say that this admission of self-hatred confounds Rose, who spends much of the rest of the interview playing the role of therapist, even though Knausgaard explains to him that writing the novel wasn’t therapeutic. (“It doesn’t help to identify your problems.”) Nor, Knausgaard adds, did My Struggle’s success have the effect of justifying his life. “Success doesn’t help anything,” Knausgaard says to an incredulous Rose. “All this is a lie — something that is not true — so it’s very hard to take.”

Calm, hands folded, jaws clenched, with a boyish and even Mephistophelian charm, Knausgaard then unclasps the book’s title from the sweaty hands of Hitler’s “boring” German (Protestant) Nazism:

In Norway, now when they say Min Kamp or My Struggle, they will think of this book instead of Mein Kampf. And this book is the exact opposite of Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

Wholly dissatisfied, Rose then reverts back to the role of therapist in an amazing moment that provokes from Knausgaard the best summary of My Struggle so far.

“Is the argument with your character, with your performance, with your reason for being?” Rose asks.

“What do you mean?” Knausgaard wonders aloud.

“You said you get unhappy…”

“I see,” Knausgaard says. “There are a lot of things I like in my life, but this book is about shame. There is some kind of Protesta[nt] moral or ethic in there somewhere I believe, that you shouldn’t think you are better than anyone else, and that’s very deep rooted in Scandinavian culture. And if you have it like that, then shame is a very effective way of controlling a society. That can be a good thing. But if you get too much of it, then the shame gets its own life.”

At one point, Rose’s paternalist-therapeutic style gets so heavy-handed that Knausgaard is forced to explain to him that happiness is not the end goal in life:

Now, you can tell by the end of this clip that things are taking a turn into darkness, and Rose, who often jokes about his Protestant upbringing, follows Knausgaard down the left-hand path.

“Why do you call this book authorial suicide?” asks an increasingly morose Rose.

“I’ll tell you. The plan was to empty everything I have. There should be nothing left”—

— “So you’re killing yourself by giving everything you have?”

“Yeah,” Knausgaard explains. “That was the plan: that when I start again there should be nothing. It should be all beginning from scratch.”

The thickening gloom of the evening’s program prompts Rose to thump his copy of My Struggle like a Bible.

“But is there a demand now to write another book about your life?”

“It’s completely out of the question,” Knausgaard explains. “I’m not going there again. It’s so hard to go there.”

But as Hölderlin said, “Where the danger is, also grows the saving power.” It gets darkest, in other words, just before the dawn. Just as a defied and defiant Charlie Rose — noticeably exhausted by the failure of his own Protestant work ethic — gets kind of nasty with Knausgaard, he finds himself on the verge of enlightenment:

“Does your life deserve all the attention that you’re giving it?” Rose asks.

“I think that’s the clue with this book, that it’s an ordinary life,” Knausgaard explains. “It’s nothing exceptional. There’s nothing exceptional going on, and I’m not an exceptional person. And everybody’s life deserves this kind of attention. I have this idea of who I am, and then I start to write, and then I see this ocean of complexity, and the richness of it all. I have this idea of who I was when I was ten, and then I start to write about it, and then I can see what it was to be ten. The sensation of being ten. And it’s still inside of me. I think it’s only a matter of getting access to it. And you get that through literature” —

— “You can get access?” Rose asks innocently.

“To your self,” Knausgaard answers…