The Zoom screen split and flickered, then, all at once, there was Karl Ove Knausgaard. He was in London, at the beginning of a virtual tour for his new novel, The Morning Star, which is being released in the U.S. by Penguin Press on September 28. There’s a shyness, even an evasiveness to him, but then there’s an opening, especially when he talks about books other than his own, and enthusiasm bubbles through.
Knausgaard has dwelled in the land of memoir for years—his My Struggle series is a six-volume sequence that made him the literary world equivalent of a household name. For some, the books are a page-turning masterpiece; for others, they are 3,500 pages of minutiae, culminating in a multi-hundred-page essay on Hitler, Anders Breivik, and Paul Celan. The Morning Star is his first full novel—albeit an unconventional one—since 2004’s excellent A Time for Everything. Knausgaard said that, unlike his nonfiction, he finds it hard to discuss his novels: “With this book, I have to find a way of talking about it, and there’s so much I don’t know.”
Indeed, the novel, which received a starred PW review, is strange. A new star appears in the sky of contemporary Norway, and nine different first-person narrators, each of whom is going through a personal struggle, react. It’s a wide-ranging cast, including a priest with marital problems and a former documentary filmmaker writing a long essay on death. Each is more preoccupied with their private concerns than the growing evidence that something fundamental has changed about life on Earth and the way things die.
The Morning Star is a shape-shifter: at one moment it takes on the form of a crime procedural; at another, otherworldly monsters appear in the Norwegian woods, and a caustic reporter is forced into the underworld, where he drinks from the river Styx. Penguin is positioning it as a major literary event in its outreach to booksellers, media, and readers. To help promote the novel to independent booksellers, Knausgaard signed book plates.
Knausgaard conceded that the pandemic impacted the book—there were nine people living in his house, all going through a universal experience while dealing with the minutiae of day-to-day life. And he’d set himself a further challenge with the conceit: “How to create different characters? I didn’t want to pretend I’m going to other languages, or other ways of writing,” he said. “I also didn’t want the third person, which could have been a solution, so that was something I thought about all the way through.”
Marten Aitken, Knausgaard’s translator, faced a challenge, as well. “Before I’d read The Morning Star,” he said, “Karl Ove emailed me alerting me to the fact that the story was told by nine different characters and that it was important they each had their own distinct voice. That was his only instruction, but it lit the path for me.”
Also, Aitken said, “while the introspective first-person narrator of My Struggle—Karl Ove—will often wander away and lose himself in long, rambling sentences, the prose of The Morning Star is more marshalled by its overriding function.”
Knausgaard said that the characters in the book are all in some way based on his life. “For instance, the priest—all I knew was that she would come in on an airplane, and that she had been at a conference for translation of the Bible, which I was part of,” he said. “That’s all over the place, really, because you need something that is true. It doesn’t have to be true in any direct sense, but there has to be an experience of something you know. I have to have that when I’m writing.”
Even the interpolated essay on death that ends The Morning Star was based on a single conversation Knausgaard had with an anesthesiologist on a train 30 years ago. “I’ve always thought, ‘I have to use this,’ ” he said. “And there it was.”
Another challenge, Knausgaard said, was writing from the perspective of female characters. “In the beginning, I wasn’t free, and I really wrote badly because of that,” he said. “I asked myself: ‘Can a woman think this? Would a woman do this?’ Then you’re fucked, because there’s no creativity, just restrictions. I had to let go of all of that and just write and be completely free.”
Aitken said that his translation of Knausgaard’s first novel, Out of the World, will be coming out in the U.S. in 2023 from Archipelago Books. “I think that The Morning Star does mark a departure from his earlier fiction in many ways,” he noted. “It seems more outward facing, now that he’s not delving into himself and his own life. The first-person narrators in The Morning Star are clearly distinct from the author, even if he does perhaps squint out.”
The Morning Star, which ends at a moment of change, will not be the conclusion of this new narrative—Knausgaard is handing in the sequel to his Norweigan publisher, Forlaget Oktober, this month. He said he remains preoccupied with the questions that animate the book: “The very simple thought that death is something archaic, is something that sets the rules, and does something to us—and the feeling I have is the same as I had in the beginning of My Struggle... It was my father’s death. It’s something you have to relate to, and it is everywhere, especially now, with so many people dying around us.”
The August sun gradually set in London as Knausgaard spoke, until he was in the dark. He moved to put his light on, but then he left it off. His eyes and silhouette were eventually all that could be seen of him.
Adam Dalva’s writing has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and the Paris Review.