Review: A navel-gazing Norwegian gets over himself, a little, in a new essay collection
On the Shelf
In the Land of the Cyclops
By Karl Ove Knausgaard, trans. by Martin Aitken
Archipelago: 350 pages, $28
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One might assume that the “cyclops” in the title of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s first collection of critical essays published in English has something to do with visual art or photography, core subjects of many of these essays. But no, the immediate subjects of “In the Land of the Cyclops” are Knausgaard’s allegedly myopic critics.
“One cyclops ... compared me to Anders Behring Breivik,” begins Knausgaard’s litany. “... Another cyclops wrote that I was a Nazi. ... Many cyclopes have publicly contended that I’m a misogynist, that I hate women.” Another cyclops “has claimed I’m a literary pedophile who has abused young girls. ... So what was my crime? I wrote a novel.”
But not just any novel. “My Struggle,” Knausgaard’s six-volume, nearly 4,000-page magnum opus, has been called “perhaps the most significant literary enterprise of its time” by Rachel Cusk, his compatriot in the world of autofiction. Though Knausgaard has published several books since “My Struggle,” it will undoubtedly be the anchor to which his career and life are moored. The decision to write with painful intimacy about himself and those closest to him resulted in lawsuits, the breakup of his marriage, the upheaval of his and other lives, and what must be one of the greatest scandals Norway has exported in a long while.
By the time the last volume was published, there was a sense of exhaustion in both the work and the readership. Reviewing the final installment in the New York Times, Dwight Garner wrote, “There are few books I will more avidly not read again.”
The painter known to many as Lucian Freud’s one-time muse writes of her own muse, her mother, and provers herself a masterful writer as well.
Between the slings and arrows born and the writer’s already well established tendency toward fruitful self-absorption, it is not surprising that Knausgaard spends too much time playing defense in “In the Land of the Cyclops.” But when the veil of self-preservation lifts, the fine criticism is impossible to overlook.
Assessing the photographer Francesca Woodman, Knausgaard begins by describing her “hairy crotch” and “pudgy” stomach but comes to recognize he greatly admires her work and acknowledges that his initial disgust comes from his discomfort with “female hideousness.” “Male hideousness doesn’t faze me, it’s not threatening, for it belongs to me too,” he writes. Then, tellingly, he admits: “I was expecting to see a woman, not a body.” In another essay he writes: “And yes, I’m a man, so that’s my perspective.”
“Fate,” a terrifying essay on Nordic myth and dreams, travels again into his own experience, which he can’t resist tying into epic themes. The piece ends with a phone call: “ ‘Is this Karl Ove Knausgaard, the rapist?’ said a voice I had never heard before.’”
Essays like those are no match for the ones in which Knausgaard is able, at last, to escape himself. Of Cindy Sherman’s pig person, he writes one of the most accurate descriptions of the fascination with her work: “It is the desire for and the fear of transgression I recognize, and the pull of the thought that what we call human — and what makes us so forcefully deny what we call the nonhuman — is also arbitrary.”
His review of Michel Houellebecq’s controversial novel “Submission” is exquisitely done. The world of the book is populated by “a class of people helplessly enclosed within its own bubble, without the faintest idea of what’s going on outside or why,” the culture “so completely persuasive that to all intents and purposes it is the world, it is society, it is who we are.” Whether or not you agree with Knausgaard’s reading of the book is irrelevant; his argument makes it true: “This lack of attachment, this indifference, is as I see it the novel’s fundamental theme and issue, much more so than the Islamization of France, which in the logic of the book is merely a consequence.”
Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” is the buzz book of the moment — or more accurately a certain kind of buzz book, for a certain kind of audience.
This articulate writing is a relief after all the talk about cyclopes. When he gets out of his own way, Knausgaard’s passion for interiority and the detail of the individual experience, the most brilliant elements of his fiction, come through.
In writing about Ingmar Bergman’s two largely autobiographical films, “The Best Intentions” and “Private Confessions,” Knausgaard could also be writing about “My Struggle.” “The truth of the two books [screenplays], the truth of the mother, the father, and the things that happened between and beyond them, has nothing to do with whether or not the mother and the father were like that in real life, or whether the events depicted actually took place in that way,” he writes. “Truth is based on experience and exists within us, founded on something so imprecise and vague as feelings.”
The conflict between looking inward and outward crystallizes in “Inexhaustible Precision,” a treatise on art and an appreciation of the work of photographer Sally Mann. It’s no surprise he writes so sensitively about her; both are artists who have featured their own children prominently in their work and been criticized for it. Mann’s photographs of her children toe the line between art and reality. They are photographs, so they are art, but they are also her children, as Knausgaard’s family is the subject for “My Struggle.”
“All artists know this,” he writes of Anselm Kiefer, a German painter whose devastating watercolors evoke the Holocaust, “that what they are going to paint already exists within them, as what Gilles Deleuze calls ‘the painting before the painting,’ which means that the canvas is never white, it is always already filled.” Kiefer’s paintings deal with the concrete, unforgiving nature of history, but his approach to that canvas is his vision.
Compelled to write “My Struggle” after the death of his father, the event that begins the series, Knausgaard writes: “I still remember how everything I saw appeared so crisp and clear in the days after I was told that my father was dead, and especially after seeing his dead body, which had lost everything I’d still retained, and which made every other person a living person and allowed me to see life as life in a near-explosive display.”
The novelist and essayist’s slim new collection, “Intimations,” probes our COVID-19 reality as well as her own gifts, blind spots and vulnerabilities.
His ability to see so clearly is made possible by the fact that it is his father who is dead. Neither the artist nor the observer can ever truly remove themselves from the experience of art. “In the Land of the Cyclops” proves that Knausgaard’s struggle is still ongoing, the search for truth as a balance between reality and our experience of it: “This, which we perhaps could call inexhaustible precision, is the goal of all art, and its essential legitimacy.”
Ferri’s most recent book is “Silent Cities: New York.”
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