The bustling hall, packed with a diverse group of New Haven residents, Yale students and professors, fell into a sudden hush as the Windham-Campbell Program Director Michael Kelleher stepped onstage to begin the ceremony.
The fifth annual Windham-Campbell Prize Festival opened on Wednesday at Sprague Hall with a dramatic lecture by the Norwegian literary icon Karl Ove Knausgård with a name nearly as formidable as his achievements, who wrote the first debut novel ever to win the Norwegian Critics Prize for Literature. Additionally, his autobiographical six-piece novel cycle “My Struggle” has sold more than 600,000 copies and has been published in over 15 languages.
Knausgård’s lecture primarily focused on the exploration of the idea, “Why I Write,” which has been the annual theme of the talks at the Windham-Campbell Prize Festival since its inception in 2013. The writer addressed this concept in a unique manner in that he did not answer the question directly, but instead attempted to discover his answer through his speech and so took along his audience for this discovery, perhaps with a dose of self-discovery as well.
“He has a way of looking at the world that is unlike anyone else I’ve ever read — he causes me to re-examine my world. And he did that with his talk,” said Julian Ward, development and alumni services officer at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.
Knausgård offered some conflicting views on why he writes, citing both internal and external reasons — personal, existential and social reasons. In exposing his personal and existential reasons, he offered a rather vulnerable view into his life for the audience, which can perhaps be likened to his extremely personal writing. In one answer to the question, Knausgård explained that he writes to allow what he keeps down to rise to the surface. However, in another train of thought, he also suggested that he writes because he wants to open the world. I believe the juxtaposition between the humility of his personal reasons and the grandiosity of his existential reasons struck a chord in the audience.
“A lot of what he was speaking about was sort of self-effacing,” said Karla Neugebauer, professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry and cell biology at the Yale School of Medicine.
In addressing his path to becoming a writer, Knausgård offered several humorous and honest anecdotes about his need for recognition as a young man trying to discover his abilities. His response to criticism by a friend, who was also a seasoned poet who played chess and brought items home from the dumpster, was, “Who the hell spends Friday nights playing chess by themselves, anyway?”
Despite the talk being centered upon the notion of writing, and what motivates it, Knausgård also delved into reading and what makes “good literature,” a question that had, at some point, probably plagued all of the literary enthusiasts attending the festival. Perhaps this is one area of Knausgård’s speech that seemed debatable, especially since he covered such a subjective question. Knausgård noted that on the scale of bad books to good books, those that were good had the main attribute of resistance, unlike bad books in which one could “glide through it like a knife through butter.” Essentially, he suggested that literary rebellion or newness of ideas is superior to familiarity; however, this dismisses the power of art that is familiar and evokes nostalgia, which may be just as great as that which sparks entirely new thought.
Knausgård, hunched over the podium in intense concentration, delivering incredible ideas with his thick accent, gave a speech that caused audience members to introspect rather than simply listen. In accordance with his stream-of-consciousness-style lecture, upon realizing he had reached his final thought, Knausgård noted, “And that was my speech,” and walked off stage to unceasing applause.
Contact Jever Mariwala at firstname.lastname@example.org .