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Karl Ove Knausgaard’s latest book in English, In the Land of the Cyclops, translated by Martin Aitken, is an essay collection on art, literature, and life that opens with an apparition of a child’s face in an ultrasound image of adult testicles and ends with the author as a child throwing up. If that sounds unpromising, welcome to the world of Knausgaard, where seemingly no thought goes unexamined, no connection unfollowed, no moment unexpressed.
The opening essay, for example, quickly pivots from testes to Jesus, cloud formations, René Descartes, the Shroud of Turin, Rembrandt, Mantegna, the translation of the Norwegian Bible, Canadian critic Northrop Frye, and more (always more), and culminates in a formative adolescent experience: “Summer 1985, Kristiansand’s airport, Kjevik. I’m sixteen years old as I pass down the aisle of the aircraft that is to take me to Bergen and squeeze into a window seat in one of the back rows.” From there he soon experiences, “an ‘artistic’ epiphany, my first.”
I was at Kjevik that summer too, at the same age, leaving Kristiansand, where Knausgaard and I attended the same school for a year. For me, reading Knausgaard always feels Proustian (a voluminous, self-referential writer to whom he has often been compared, and who he writes about here) — if Proust had been 16 in southern Norway in the mid-80s. What surprises me is not that I find Knausgaard so compelling, but that so many do. Surely no writer in Norwegian has ever reached more readers worldwide, not even Henrik Ibsen or Sigrid Undset, and certainly not in their lifetimes.
That the crown of most-read Norwegian author would come to Knausgaard could never have been predicted from his solid but safe early fiction. An essay near the end of this collection, “To Where the Story Cannot Reach,” is about writers and editors. In it, Knausgaard describes his artistic development, illustrating how fervent and fast his process would become. He wrote the six sprawling books of My Struggle in under three years, for example, reading “some five thousand pages in total” over the phone to a friend at the end of each day. Amazing friend aside, Knausgaard felt secure in spinning out so much so quickly because of his editor. “What is significant is a feeling, something vague and elusive, perhaps best captured in the word trust,” he writes. “I have absolute trust in him.”
Whatever its source, Knausgaard’s writing is fueled by a creative nerve, a willingness to go there, which is everywhere, and a willingness to sound simple-minded, or simply annoying. Sometimes outrageous. While I’m irritated by comments about feminists or motherhood (“As long as you’re feeling on top of things, it’s the easiest thing in the world to get them dressed and off to nursery, do the shopping, make dinner, put them to bed”), more troubling is an essay on Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun that never clarifies Hamsun’s wartime complicity with Nazis beyond, “Then came the war, the trial for acts of treason.” As one example, in 1943 Hamsun sent his Nobel Prize medal to Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda.
Knausgaard doesn’t need to rehash any of that for Norwegian readers, but the lack of context is disturbing. He closes the essay with a scene from Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, comparing Chaplin to Hamsun: “And therein lies the art.” Um, no. There’s no equating a writer/director/actor who took on Hitler in The Great Dictator to a writer who wrote Hitler’s sympathetic obituary. Knausgaard’s examination of Hamsun’s work is insightful, even persuasive, but glides over a world outside of art that endangers real people.
In other essays, Knausgaard’s willingness to grapple with art, especially visual art, can prove refreshing in its honesty. His encounters eschew theory for radical subjectivity, as when describing photographs by Francesca Woodman: “Why did I feel such disgust when I first looked at them? It was a forceful reaction. Where did it come from? It seemed clear to me that the feeling embraced its opposite, a wish for something exquisite and restrained, and since I do not expect such things from art it cannot have been the hideousness of Woodman’s art from which I recoiled, but the specifically female hideousness. Male hideousness doesn’t faze me, it’s not threatening, for it belongs to me, too.” I appreciate Knausgaard revealing his unflattering first impression, then interrogating it, his willingness to go further, to look again, and to show how his mind moves, then changes. He first resists Woodman but, in the end, admires her: “It feels as if she cast herself before our gaze in the expectation that someone there would receive her. Someone there, which is us, we who see.”
I want to see what Knausgaard sees, even when I’m overwhelmed by it or disagree. His willingness to bore, both in the sense of risking boredom in his reader and of boring down into any moment, thought, or artwork, offers its own thrilling spectacle. You don’t want to look away.