Judging a Book By Its Cover: Designing Knausgaard’s ‘Struggle’

Archipelago edition of My Struggle Book Four.

Archipelago edition of My Struggle Book Four.

Much has been written about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, perhaps too much.

But amidst the rave reviews, the one area that hasn’t quite been pointed out enough is how fantastic the cover art on them is, especially in the editions by Archipelago books, which publish the U.S. first editions in hardcover.

The first Archipelago book features a desolate yellow and tan Anselm Kiefer landscape that may be one of the best pairings of art and writing ever for Knausgaard’s engaging, sturdy, self-obsessed prose. Kiefer’s work is beautiful by itself, though tinted with dark context, and Nazism (said to be largely the subject of the thusfar not translated in English My Struggle Book Six).

Archipelago declined to discuss the covers or any role that Knausgaard may have had in choosing them, but he too seems to approve. In an interview with the Paris Review, he said: “For me, I think I’ve just substituted literature and art for religion. Yes, that is a very conservative, Romantic part of this project. Most contemporary art is completely without that dimension. Anselm Kiefer has it very much.”

Such details are vaguer for the other Archipelago covers. Book Two features a polyptych photograph of electronic wires by Asbjørn Jensen, a friend of Knausgaard’s with whom he started a publishing house. The book concerns relationships, and their discontents.

The paperback editions, published in this country by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, now highlight the author but Charlotte Stick, the former Art Director at Faber & Faber, Inc and the paperback line at FSG was proud of the original design for those, which had her working with collage artist Bill Zindel to create montages of Norwegian youth amidst floating numbers held by an unseen hand.

“I just loved the idea of a faceless person holding up their life for us all to see,” Strick said, “because, my God, who writes like this about themselves, volume after volume, at middle age?”

“Outside pressure” led FSG to go in a different direction, which was a shame since, as with most series, she and Zindel had already designed all six covers. If placed together the spines would have shown a scene of a nude child swimming in a pond, furnished by a Norwegian neighbor.

Instead, FSG aimed to answer Strick’s question with dramatic shots of the author’s face, which looks like something between a saint and an aging rocker (VH1: BEHIND THE STRUGGLE). Strick said that for these she strove to find photos of Knausgaard that hadn’t been over-used. She now runs an independent design firm but stayed on at FSG longer than she would have to finish the job because “I knew what important writing it was, and I didn’t want to leave it undone.”

The FSG cover for the third book, subtitled Boyhood Island, has a shot of a boy looking defiantly in the distance, though Strick said her interaction with the author was limited and that this is actually just a stock photo.

By contrast, and though Archipelago didn’t want to discuss details, a spokeswoman said that the crowd shot on the cover of the third edition of the Archipelago edition is in fact from Knausgaard’s childhood and that he appears in the photo (though it’s difficult to say where exactly).

“We simply follow our gut when selecting the art for each cover,” Archipelago publisher Jill Schoolman said in an email, regarding why she didn’t want to discuss it.

Archipelago’s other books follow the same format of the Knausgaard ones, an art image of some kind floating in a muted color, with similar fonts for each. There’s a whiff of academia about them, which is perhaps why some readers (before the first rave reviews) may have been shocked by the earnest, dire, and revealing prose within.

Wherever their gut led them with the cover of the fourth book, published last week, is something of a mystery. Archipelago wouldn’t say who the artist featured is, and there’s nothing in the book or on Archipelago’s website that mentions an artist, but it appears to be an abstract watercolor with heavy blues and yellows. It is big and empty-feeling, tragically so.

Book Four covers Knausgaard’s years teaching in Northern Norway, post-gymnas, around age 18. These years are for him a waste. He wants to write but lacks the skill, and spends most of his time in a drunken haze, failing even to lose his virginity in a timely manner.

It’s possible that the blues are the sea and the mountains that surround this inner turmoil (crazy side theory: the books thus far have shown a weird preoccupation with human fluids and book four focuses a lot on vomit, specifically the bilious hungover kind, so maybe that explains the yellow).

If only we knew more about it. But Knausgaard wouldn’t be Knausgaard if he didn’t raise more questions than he answered.

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