Actually quite good
We are wired to know faces and I knew Karl Ove's when I saw him walking up the aisle to the low stage. I should know it, it adorns his books: he looks up at me from my bedside table, where I leave my glasses and the pores on his right cheek have been the first things I see when the world drops back into focus. That evening in Christ Church in Bath I saw the rest of him. He sat, long, thin and slightly stooped, opposite the Telegraph journalist. Knausgaard's face looked as hard as it does in his book cover, but then he smiled and he looked vulnerable, and then he spoke and his voice was soft and foreign.
They talked about his novels which meant they were talking about his life. The background to everything was his father. At one point Knausgaard said 'I thought I really hated him, and wanted him dead' but when he arrived at the house his father shared with his grandmother, to clean up the bottles and blood and feces, he realised that wasn't true: he didn't hate hime. When he was saying this I'm sure I heard his voice nearly crack.
He revealed what we all wanted to know but perhaps felt was too un-literary a question to ask: 20%-30% of the novels were actual truth, the rest was fiction. And what if everything that happened in one day in the novel really did happen in one day? He replied that the novel would only be two or three sentences long.
Several times he made a point and then said 'so, well, yes...' and trailed off. It was a charming habit because one expects intellectuals to be unassailably loquacious, but he trailed off just like... Me I guess. Of course, when Knausgaard was in his stride he was perceptive and thoughtful and truly fascinating, in precisely the same way he is in his books. We were rapt. Many people leant forward, and not just because the pews were so uncomfortable.
When it came to his success he made a point of being modest. For example, he mentioned buying a house and added 'a modest house' before continuing. He said, emphatically, that the year when he was in the papers every day was 'terrible'. He disparaged his earlier novel, and made the point that most of My Struggle is not very good writing, except for the first section of the first book, which, and here he turned to the audience, he thinks 'is actually quite good.' But his editor wanted him to cut that part, because it was so obviously better than the rest of the book and would seem incongruous, but he insisted because he wanted some good writing to remain.
When he signed my book I thanked him for his writing about children, and he smiled at me, eager and open, and I remembered the many times in the second book where he complains about not being able to talk to someone until he's had a few drinks. He seemed shy, a normal man bowled over by his success. Sure, it's recorded that he's said he wanted success, that he wanted to make something great but he said this in the spirit of honesty, of telling the truth, not as a public statement of intent. That is why he is so unusual as a public figure: he is not mediating himself or his truth, it's all there. If snippets of this vast tapestry of his life correlate with archetypes of public figures then that's not because he is trying to embody those archetypes like so many others, it's because the immense surface of himself that is on display has intersections with the superficial TV-types that wisp on by. I can't be alone in feeling that I know him better than I know many of my friends. I went to The Star Inn afterwards, where I know the employees of Toppings & Company, the booksellers who organise the Bath Autumn Book Festival, sometimes take their speakers. Karl Ove didn't arrive, he stood me up.
Many people know so much more about him than just his face and yet he will never know them. Has there ever been a relationship with the world that is more one-sided? Has there ever been a more substantial celebrity?