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Karl Ove Knausgaard On Exploring A 'World Out Of Joint' In His New Book


In "The Morning Star," Karl Ove Knausgaard (ph) spins an ambitious tale that takes place over two days in August. It's told through the eyes of several people, among them a professor, a priest, a journalist all struggling with the challenges that are life, love, mental health, addiction, career failures, work-life balance, global warming. Then a new star appears in the sky and things get strange. Crabs fill the street far from the water, swarms of ladybugs cover a terrace, and animals that shouldn't be there appear on roads, in homes. The novel is an unsettling and biblically-infused story that explores life, death and the in-between.

Joining us now is author Karl Ove Knausgaard. Welcome.

KARL OVE KNAUSGAARD: Thank you very much.

FADEL: So I just want to start with how we got "Morning Star." I mean, this is your first work of total fiction in over a decade after writing your six-volume autobiographical series, "My Struggle." What brought you back to fiction and this story in particular?

KNAUSGAARD: Well, first of all, I wanted to do something very far from what I have been doing until now, which is writing about myself and my own life. And I wanted to go back to fiction. And I wanted it not to be one single person seeing the world but kind of almost like a choir of people. And then how this idea of something threatening, something that everybody had to relate to, something that is completely unknown that we don't know what it is.

FADEL: I want to ask you about the unknown because at the center of your story is an unidentified star. Can you talk about, why this star? What's the metaphor? What's the meaning here?

KNAUSGAARD: Well, it could be many things. In the book, it's related to Lucifer, which is the morning star in the Bible, which is the fallen angel. But when I read about it in the Bible, Lucifer is also connected to Jesus, which is kind of the opposite. And both of them are characterized as God's children or God's (unintelligible) child. So there is a very ambivalent, ambiguous thing there.

The other thing about most of this book in lockdown here in London, and I realize after I've been writing it, that everything that happened around me and us in the pandemic kind of has, in a way, come into the novel, are in this dynamic between the outside threat, the thing we don't know, and then the inside life, which is kind of, you know, normal and family based. And the third thing is that there's no gaps in my knowledge, I feel, but that once I start to try to understand something, I realize I don't understand anything, you know.

FADEL: Yeah.

KNAUSGAARD: Morning star is kind of a also a symbol of that, of everything we don't - we think we understand. We can see it, but we don't really.

FADEL: Is that why you chose to tell the story through so many different characters' eyes in the way that they were defining it differently for themselves?

KNAUSGAARD: Yeah. Exactly. And also, every one of them are, in one way or another, restricted, you know. They don't know everything. They know bits and pieces, like we all do.

FADEL: Are they versions of yourself in some way? I mean, you have to be drawing from somewhere for each character.

KNAUSGAARD: Yeah. I think there is a lot of me in them, but it's not in any way biographical.

FADEL: Right?

KNAUSGAARD: Some people think it is. It was one of my very close family that asked me because one of the characters are drunk driving, and asked me, why didn't you tell me that you were drunk driving? You should have told me. And I have, of course, not done that. But I take that as a kind of a compliment that it is working, the fiction is working.

FADEL: There is a lot that is supernatural in your book or biblical, God and good and evil, death and life. But the novel also delves into the mundane struggles of our actual lives - drug addiction and disappointments in life and not being able to understand why we're here. And I just wanted you to talk about those juxtapositions of things that are otherworldly and things that we all really relate to as human beings.

KNAUSGAARD: That is basically what I always try to do when I'm writing is a realization of, you know, the big things, the big ideas, the big lives. They simply just don't exist. Life is where you are, you know, and it's always kind of infiltrated with a lot of things that's going on that is mundane. And I have this kind of almost shock when it's 20 years ago when my father died and was, like, death to me was something abstract, something you talk about or you can maybe write an essay about.

And then it came, like, you know, it was something completely, completely, completely different. But it was also mundane in a way, you know. It was also in my everyday life. And - yeah - and since then, I've kind of - how to deal with the big questions in life, how to deal with why we're here. What's death? How did life come into being? You know, it's - the only way to do it is from where you are.

FADEL: Yeah. There's this creeping horror that is happening through - the sense of dread that you get that builds throughout the book. You talk about these sort of mundane forms of death that we think of as mundane - the death of a fly, killing a fly, or death of a relationship, and then also horrific things like the mutilation of bodies and killing cats. And were you equating this - these deaths as all the same?

KNAUSGAARD: I don't know, really. I haven't been thinking about that. But the unsettling parts of the novel is very much kind of representing a feeling that the world is out of joint. You know, something is coming at us...

FADEL: Yeah.

KNAUSGAARD: ...And it is related to nature. And I wanted kind of to visualize that feeling so that the animals start to behave a bit differently. And it's like everything is changing in a way, even though it's kind of minor moments in the book. And that kind of comes from a feeling I have that we have to go back to nature and also somehow turned our back to death. I mean, it's hidden. Nature is kind of hidden. And then I thought, what if you know, the other world kind of starts to move and also that death starts to move a bit? So we, you know, so we - it's changing, and something something is going on because death and nature is, of course, very much related.

FADEL: Yeah. You often write in series. So I was wondering, is "The Morning Star" the end or the start of something?

KNAUSGAARD: It's the - it's a beginning. I mean, I really wanted it to be one novel. But I just, you know, I just can't write short. So it's it's - this novel just started, and it was 666 pages. And I thought I should end it and continue it in another book.

FADEL: You mentioned that the book ended on Page 666. And, of course, that in the New Testament is the mark of the beast. And I - was that purposeful? Did you choose that end page on purpose?

KNAUSGAARD: No, I didn't. It was my brother who sat the book. And he said in a text, you know how many pages the book is? And I said, no. And I said, 666. And I thought, OK, that's like a sign from the book itself, completely accidentally. It was like, that was what it's ended up as.

FADEL: That's Karl Ove Knausgaard. His new book is called "The Morning Star." Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

KNAUSGAARD: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.