This is about the third or so nonfiction book by Karl Ove Knausgard I’ve read and I think it’s the weakest. The other two, not counting the seasons quartet, which to read more and more like his My Struggle books (once the initial premise is established and especially the third in the seasons) are more unified in their version and not entirely analytical, are his book on writing and his book on Edvard Munch, both short, and both tightly focused.
Here he meanders, and we’re not as served by it. His dissection of photographs and paintings (as is true with the Munch book) are where he shines. There’s something about his eye, in looking, at an image where he’s able to pull so much out of it and let its impressions influence his writing. He admits that when reading novels, he’s too much of a reader to be a commenter (including that he prejudges some books by the reputation of the author to the point he might not even read them out of fear), something I do too, and with film, he admits he’s not really all that moved by it in the first place so it’s harder to write. This means that when he mentions books and films he IS moved by, he’s enthusiastic and taken by them, but not often very articulate with criticism.
The title essay becomes the sticky point here. It’s a reference to what sounds like a contemporary essay published about his first novel Out of this World, about a 26 year old regional teacher developing an infatuation with one of his 13 year old students, and eventually “having an affair” with her. I am careful about language here because I am mostly trying to capture his characterization of the novel. So this novel is also similar to volume four of Knausgard’s My Stuggle where he was a regional teacher, but only 19, and also doesn’t sleep with one of his students, but there is a kind of infatuation. I haven’t read Out of this World, as it’s not published in English, I imagine because of the content. He’s defending the book against criticisms of being a “literary pedophile” and like criticisms of Lolita and similar books, at least according to Knausgard, this essay does not seem to differentiate content of a novel from real life, or seems to believe that novels can only explore subjects in “the right way”. Again, I have no idea how well-known or well-read this criticism of his novel is because he doesn’t directly reference it with a citation, but through the clumsy (and childish) metaphor of “the land of the cyclopes,” that is unthinking monsters who hurl stones.
The reason why this essay is sticking point is partly because it’s the title of this collection (I think chosen here by the editor) and because at its most basic it seems to be a kind of standard anti-criticism (ie white man getting mad at having critics) criticism. The metaphor, like I said, is clumsy and childish, and doesn’t really do anything other ruminate on a kind of critic and ultimately had nothing particularly good to say. The defense of his novel is at least compelling, and he’s right about a number of things, including that the way literature it discussed in wider public circles is often in flat and unserious ways, often with a basic failure to acknowledge what literature is.
There’s a moment that happens sometimes in English classes where a professor discusses their opinion on a novel as opposed to their analysis. And it’s one of those moments that shows students that there is a crossover in the ways we talk about these things. But even taking the concept of literature off the table for a minute, there is a kind of new media (books, movies, and especially tv) that is being treated not as a representation of life and language, but as some kind of moral code. It’s the same kind of impulse that takes a short story published in The New Yorker as a “piece” and not a “piece of fiction”. Knausgard makes the point in the essay that people seem able to read a novel or watch a movie in which someone commits murder, and not confuse the author as endorsing murder (even if they get away with it), but that in other subjects, it IS an endorsement. To take a milder example, I’ve seen a lot of people discuss Lord of the Flies as some kind of grand vision of humanity (like a treatise) and not see it for a novel. The essay is basically two essays shoved together: one that’s a compelling defense of a novel about a taboo subject (and full of ideas to be debated and discussed) and a clunky and embarrassing reactionary namecalling extended metaphor that could have been written by an algorithm.