Notebook: Karl Ove Knausgaard on The Idiots
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle lays bare every facet of the writer’s life, from his favorite bands to the humiliating details of his sexual failures. Perhaps the only thing we aren’t privy to are his opinions on cinema, which is why it was such an unusual pleasure to hear him talk about Lars von Trier’s 1998 film The Idiots, shown as part of Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Print Screen series. Knausgaard was in town promoting the English translation of My Struggle volume four (of six), recently published by Archipelago Books.
Talking Heads, Echo and the Bunnymen, and Led Zeppelin resound throughout the pages of volume four of Knausgaard’s epic autobiographical novel, covering his late-teenage years in Norway. These groups offer the younger Knausgaard a glimpse of transcendence: “I never worked out what it was that possessed me when music possessed me, other than that I always wanted it.” Movies, however, are not a similar source of the sublime in these books, but merely a diversion, as when Knausgaard tries and fails to borrow a VHS of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It was surprising, then, to hear how much von Trier’s film had influenced Knausgaard in his search for a new style of writing.
The Idiots remains von Trier’s first and only film certified by the Dogme95 movement, which he co-founded with director Thomas Vinterberg. In the stripped-down, handheld-shot film, a group of performance artists commit themselves to “spazzing,” acting like children or the mentally disabled in public places. What starts as a Danish Jackass eventually returns to the sad realities of the performers’ lives back home—a move Knausgaard described as the “veil between art and reality being taken away.” He compared von Trier’s film to Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. The 1869 novel portrays a simple man of no irony or calculation, and positions him against society, which reveals itself to be a performance, a collapsing circus. Von Trier inverts the premise, starting with the performance and ending with the brute simplicity and tragedies of the characters’ lives.
The Idiots was released around the same time that Knausgaard’s debut Out of the World was published, and after watching it, the writer said he realized “my novel was crap.” He responded to the film’s elemental, unadorned style, and the way in which von Trier was a “brilliant manipulator.” (“I cried even though I knew what was taking place.”) He judges The Idiots alongside the poetry of Stig Larsson (not to be confused with the crime writer) as works of art that generated the same feeling, works that get closer to reality. In My Struggle, Knausgaard aimed to get away from materiality of language, something he was focused on in his twenties. Churning out five pages a day, he said, he focused on images and feelings; the language was unimportant. He wanted to get out of his own head, avoid his own cleverness and intellect, and achieve a more direct, intuitive form of expression. Knausgaard’s work does so without von Trier’s emotional manipulation, but it was informed and influenced by the mission of Dogme95.
Knausgaard is no cinephile. While generally dismissive of his home country’s film business—“We’re not used to good films in Norway”—he was enthused about the work of Joachim Trier (Reprise, Oslo August 31st). But when asked by FSLC director of programming Dennis Lim whether any other films or filmmakers had as much of an impact on him as von Trier, he chose one shot from Solaris. Not the film as a whole, but an image from the section on Earth, of raindrops falling into cups. In this image the story dissolved into something else, something more concrete. “How far can you bend a film before it becomes meaningless?” he asked. He poses a similar question in My Struggle, in which exhaustive detailing of everyday tasks makes up the narrative. My Struggle is the image of those cups stretched to 3,600 pages. These nothing moments are the first things that would get cut out of any film adaptation, which is why he has rejected all offers to film the books (so far).
But Knausgaard is working on adapting Out of the World into a screenplay, which he described as the “most difficult thing I’ve done.” Not accustomed to the format, he at first had all the characters introducing themselves at the beginning of every scene. He’s on the fifth draft of the script now—and feels that he’s made progress by adding a voiceover.