Norway’s Karl Ove Knausgaard Should Probably Stay In Norway

Travel writer's scathing depiction of Newfoundland and Detroit falls short.

When a writer from Oslo sets out in 2015 to trace the steps of his forefathers’ medieval meanderings to America, his discoveries are certainly something to write home about.

At least, the New York Times Magazine thinks so.

Part one of My Saga, a series of (not so) short stories by Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard, is reacquainting the controversial writer with the public scorn he garnered upon the release of his six-volume series Min kamp (My Struggle), the title a cheeky nod to Hitler’s manifesto, Mein Kampf.

One of the most popular works of literature in Norway’s history, the purported work of fiction sparked outrage from readers as well as from Knausgaard’s close family members, of whom the author draws cutting and candid characterizations in the books.

But Knausgaard’s brand of biting prose may be too much for audiences this side of the Atlantic. At least those who live in Newfoundland.

Or Detroit. Or America.

Commissioned by the New York Times Magazine to document his journey from the first North American Viking settlement at L’Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland, to Minnesota, Knausgaard’s observations are more an abusive vilification of contemporary Western culture than the chronicles of the “tongue-in-cheek Tocqueville” he considers himself to be.

The writer’s issues obtaining a driver’s license take up most of My Saga, Part 1, with entire paragraphs devoted to rationalizing self-defeating behaviors.

“It’s good that I always put off paying bills. That means I’m a writer.”

Outside of that, a comment on its lack of tourist amenities (“I had expected fences, like a theme park”) is but the only observation Knausgaard makes of the site where the Vikings first landed in North America at L’Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland.

Far more ink is spilled blasting that province’s obesity statistics.

“I had never seen people that fat before,” the writer lamented. “Everyone in the place, except the waiter, was fat. The strange thing was that none of them looked as if they were trying to hide their enormous girth.”

The scathing portrayal has many Newfoundlanders rightfully up in arms, the National Post reports. And the resentment travels with the writer all the way to Detroit, whose deprived landscape he likens to that of Maputo, Mozambique.

“If this was poverty, then it must be a new kind poverty.”

Of American society in general, Knausgaard proclaimed: “Not even the Soviet Union at the height of its power had succeeded in creating such a unified, collective identity as the one Americans lived their lives within.”

Writing for Slate, Katy Waldman issued an amusingly unrelenting response to Knausgaard’s My Saga, capturing the sentiment of an entire nation with the headline “Karl Ove Knausgaard Is The World’s Worst Travel Writer.”

Waldman lambastes Knausgaard’s very distinction as a travel writer, calling him “a master at arranging banal facts in a row,” and “our great crumb-gatherer of small, subjective consciousness.” She says Knausgaard’s writing style consists in “collecting data without tuning into the spirit of his subjects” which she says results in “a hypnotic kind of detachment.”

Could it be that Knausgaard’s journalistic integrity is simply too abrasive for politically correct North America? Does the heated reaction to Knausgaard’s piece merely reflect a sensitive audience, rather than an insensitive author?

Speaking to the Toronto Star’s Heather Mallick, Knausgaard explained the importance of artistic freedom to literary integrity.

“You can’t write if you think about the reception of your writing. Writing is about freedom.”

Even the anecdote of an uncooperative toilet Knausgaard so generously included in My Saga has its place in prose, he says. The writer told the Star that descriptions, however sordid, of his daily regiments are essential ingredients of authentically autobiographical writing: “What is more commonplace and at the same time more secret than someone having a s–t?” he insisted.

Considering the unflinching frankness with which Knausgaard weaves a tale, its surprising the NYTM ran the piece to begin with. But with more than 500,000 copies sold in Norway alone, Knausgaard’s Min kamp suggests there is an audience for his inflammatory character rendering.

Just not in Newfoundland.

Or Detroit. Or America.

Photo Credit: The Telegraph