We’re attempting to unravel the tangled web of literature by talking with the great writers of today about the writers of yesterday who inspired them. This month, we spoke with a pair of literary trail blazers from Scandinavia about two of the preeminent titans of the written word. Karl Ove Knausgård delves into the labyrinth of Jorge Luis Borges’s infinitely complex ideas, and Olga Ravn, author of My Work and The Employees, discusses the compositional fearlessness of Doris Lessing, best known for the landmark tome The Golden Notebook.
Karl Ove Knausgård on Jorge Luis Borges
Rereading Borges after many years of reading many great writers, what strikes me is how truly singular his work was.
To me, he’s incredibly inspiring. It contains so many ideas and so many different views of the world, and different views of almost every subject you can imagine. It’s time. It's identity. It’s history. Everything is existential but at the same time very playful. And in the end you don’t know really if it’s fiction or not fiction and that’s the whole point, I think, of Borges’s oeuvre. It’s a worldview, really. If you read Tlön, Uqbar, it’s about some sort of secret society that is describing a world that doesn’t exist. And at the end, that world has kind of seeped into our own, changing it. And I do think that’s the way the world we live in is made up, and it can change, and it has changed, many times. When I write novels, that's always in the core of it—that this is just one of many possible ways of seeing the world, experiencing the world. And reading Borges is a constant reminder of that. That’s what makes him fun to read too. It’s like a world of its own. A literary world. A world of the written.
It’s almost bottomless, to read him. I think he wrote twelve hundred essays, thousands of pages of fiction, and—I don’t know—six hundred pages of poetry. But a lot of it wasn’t published in his lifetime. There are incredibly many different collections of different essays, and I’ve got Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, and English editions, and they are all different, so I always find new things every time I read him. It’s like it’s not defined, and kind of endless in a way. I reread him now and he feels completely contemporary. Even the pieces he wrote in the ‘20s and ‘30s. He still feels incredibly relevant. And I think that’s because he’s dealing with some sort of foundations which are basically the same now as they were then.
What first struck you about Borges?
It was the ideas. They were mind-blowing. Things I had never thought about that were presented in non-academic language—in the literary language. I always liked the fantastic. When I was in my early twenties, I really loved Calvino and Cortázar. I was really drawn to them—that was right where I wanted to be. But I hadn’t read Borges. Then I did and it was like…yeah. It was the ideas and the compactness of them and the fantastic element. There’s no restriction other than in the language. It just opens up. And it’s always interesting, no matter what he’s writing about.
What do you think a writer should take away from Borges, in terms of craft?
I think one thing with him—he faces his own fascinations, and I have no doubt that he’s really fascinated by what he’s writing about. That, you have to do. And also, trust in them, because if you’re interested in them, they are interesting, somehow. And the third thing—he is very hard to define in genres. His essays kind of go into fiction; his fiction goes into essays. And he doesn’t really care. He writes detective stories, but you would never mistake them for anyone but Borges. So he has this feeling of freedom, that he can do whatever he wants to, go wherever he wants, in whatever ways he wants. That quality is very present in him and is very important: that it doesn't matter what you call it—you can be free in your writing.
Olga Ravn on Doris Lessing
I revisited The Golden Notebook in preparation for our talk, and what a dense book! There are so many ideas.
It's a masterpiece. I must say, I'm afraid of reading it again. You know these experiences where you will read a book and it will completely change your life? I can remember all the places I was when I read it. And then there were like two years where all my friends were like, “Please stop talking about The Golden Notebook. Because you talk about it all the time.” And now I feel like I have to wait quite some years because I'm afraid that I will tarnish the experience by reading it again.
When did you first read her?
I knew that she got the Nobel Prize and I had seen the clip where she gets the news, which I think is the most famous clip of Doris Lessing. And then The Golden Notebook just found me at the right time. I read it at night when my first child was very small and everybody else was sleeping. It was the only time I could concentrate. And then after that, I began reading her diaries and The Fifth Child and also The Good Terrorist. What an amazing book. I was floored with that book.
And I was really grateful for her because I felt that she had done some work with the novel and the form of the novel that I really needed. So I consider her a teacher. And I wanted desperately to read novels that had these forms, but I couldn't figure it out myself. The work she did with how The Golden Notebook is composed and how it works with different notebooks where she almost has different lives and different styles and different notions of reality—she will have a child in one of the notebooks and no child in another—that was just genius. Thank her for doing that work with composition, because the rest of us can stand on the shoulders of that. At least I do.
She was a prolific writer and even won a Nobel Prize, yet she often gets left out of discussions of the great literary giants. Why do you think that is?
I think it's because she writes about what are considered traditionally very female subjects. It is interesting that a lot of prolific female writers who center on female experience tend to not be canonized in the same way. Also she has a very complicated relationship to leftist politics, and she critiques the status quo all the time.
And also she's not interested in beauty at all. And not being interested in beauty—I think that's pretty difficult for a lot of people who just want to have a pleasant experience with art. But that's why I love her. I love her beautiful work, of course. I mean, beauty is wonderful, but it's also very easy. It can be a varnish. It’s very, very difficult to write things that are not interested in beauty but are still very good.
And I think that she’s really angry. She's pissed off. I guess that's why a lot of people don't want to read her. But it gives a book intensity. I think she has a lot of grit, and she's witty. A little mean-spirited in the way she pierces the world, and I think that's one of her selling points. The way she writes about the world—she's fearless.
These interviews have been lightly edited for clarity.
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