It’s a reminder that My Struggle’s best episodes worked on the level of scandal and salaciousness – a several-thousand-page slab of Nordic reality TV in gossipy, oversharing prose. Knausgaard can be engaging on art and photography (subjects include Cindy Sherman, Anselm Kiefer, Francesca Woodman), but as a novelist turned philosopher-critic, he often reads as an Aristotelian particularist trying to be a universalising Plato. Whenever he looks up from the concrete, sensuous and personal, he drifts into watery abstraction. His essays are wide ranging in the sense that they tend to cover too much ground. One, Idiots of the Cosmos, skips between identity politics, War and Peace, Pascal’s horror of the infinite, the northern lights and much else besides, but none of it really sticks. With no recollected or imagined world (of childhood, adolescence, manhood) to earth his perceptions, his thoughts spool out, untethered and inconsequential. At his worst, Knausgaard the essayist is a monological bore.
The series that made Knausgaard a superstar, bought by an estimated one in nine adults in his birth country, Norway, also featured grand themes. It spilled them, though, across six novels of up to 700 pages. He is not known for snappy sentences. ‘In the Land of the Cyclops’ packs 16 essays into barely 300. Knausgaard needs more room.
The need to be complex — and perhaps also to be seen to be complex — outweighs the need to make a point at times, and this can make some pieces hard going, but Knausgaard is an interesting thinker even when self-indulgent. At its best the writing is clear, elegant, dense and engrossing, but it is the less grandiose, less self-consciously expansive pieces that are the most satisfying and memorable.
This, of course, is a perfect emotional portrait of every day on Twitter, with its self-admiring “call-out” culture, its herds of cry-bullies and other exotic fauna spending their days hate-scrolling in the demented hope of finding something else to become publicly furious about, as though denunciation were the highest social good. Yet it was written in response to a very specific event five years ago, when the translation into Swedish of Knausgaard’s first novel, about a teacher who has sex with a pupil, saw him accused of “literary paedophilia”. With this piece, Knausgaard has achieved what he elsewhere says he hopes to do as a novelist, which is to relay his experience as honestly as he can, gambling that it will somehow be universal.
Reviewers of “My Struggle” frequently praised Knausgaard’s essayistic talent, and readers who enjoyed the novel’s digressions on, say, Dostoyevsky or Paul Celan will find here the same mingling of critical and personal reflection. A meditation on the northern lights detours into musings on Proust and Pascal. A diaristic piece on Dante’s “Inferno” slides effortlessly between visions of hellfire and the hushed winter landscape of Sweden... In most cases, however, these airy speculations are saved by moments of self-searching that bring the meditation back to the personal and the concrete. To some extent, the collection is an extended reckoning with Knausgaard’s own creative process, an attempt to reconcile his longing for limits with a more instinctive desire to escape the world and its social structures and live in the wilderness of artistic freedom, a place he calls “the outlands of the soul.”