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German award goes to the master of the literary selfie

Silke Wünsch / eg
November 6, 2015

His books are about everything. And about nothing. They're just about his own life - and that's what fascinates the world. Now a German literary prize honors Karl Ove Knausgaard's works.

Karl Ove Knausgard, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/J. von Jutrczenka
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. von Jutrczenka

An autobiography of an author written over six volumes, totaling over 3,500 pages, sounds like a challenge. Yet the author Karl Ove Knausgaard turned his memoirs into an incomparably intense and compelling work. There's just nothing like it.

The Norwegian writer, born in 1968, details his entire life in what he calls his "autobiographical project." The books became a huge success.

The title itself, "Min Kamp," sparked controversy since it is the same as the Norwegian title for Hitler's "Mein Kampf." If the US translation keeps the reference to the Nazi manifest by using "My Struggle" as the main title, the British edition has added other titles to the volumes: "A Death in the Family," "A Man in Love," "Boyhood Island," "Dancing in the Dark" and finally: "Some Rain Must Fall."

Knausgaard writes about his life and about the influence of his overpowering father throughout his childhood. He chronicles all of his coming-of-age experiences: having sex for the first time, getting drunk, dealing with the usual problems a teenager has to deal with. He explains why he hates his brother. He reveals everything about his marriage, about his own children, his separation and his personal doubts. He depicts the process of trying to become an author and how he drowns his uncertainty with alcohol. The backdrop to this literary punk's life are the breathtaking landscapes of Norway.

The Knausgaard virus

Knausgaard, whose books have been translated into 30 languages, polarizes and fascinates. Readers who embrace his powerful style and his almost manic descriptions of detail have become addicted to the series since the first volume was published in 2009.

In Norway, he is a star and has collected several prizes. He is even the cause of a new problem in the country: people apparently don't show up to work because they spent the night reading his books. Knausgaard hysteria has often been compared to Harry Potter hype.

Some critics manage to resist the Knausgaard virus. They claim his provocative writing style is a pure invitation to voyeurism, not award-worthy literature. Some passages, they claim, are of little significance and only add to the narrative's epic length.

Other opponents to his works can be found within more familiar circles: Knausgaard exposes just as freely the private lives of his family and friends, lovers and other former companions. His uncle has already threatened to sue him for defamation.

Radical redefinition of the genre

This criticism fades in comparison to the great enthusiasm Knausgaard provokes. In 1998, his first novel "Out of the World" won the Norwegian Critics Prize for Literature. Many Norwegian awards later, he will now be honored with an international literary accolade.

The German newspaper "Die Welt" has awarded a 10,000-euro ($10,877) literature prize since 1999. This year, it will be honoring Karl Ove Knausgaard's entire oeuvre.

The jury described him as a "literary phenomenon" who has radically redefined autobiographical writing. The author has created a new relationship between memory and narrative, and "This extreme level of self-exposure is so compelling that a reader can hardly escape its appeal," the jury added.

The "Welt" Literature Prize is awarded to Karl Ove Knausgaard in Hamburg on Friday, November 6.