Knausgaard meditates on issues as diverse as the problems facing an original artist once the first flush of rebellious youth is past, the breakthrough has been achieved and he or she is facing the challenge of how to get through the remaining fifty years; the many ways in which the curator of an exhibition can be tempted to act like a censor or editor; and the reductionist pitfalls of literary biography. He is excellent literary company in this entertaining, often funny and candid book. The translation by Ingvild Burkey, herself a published poet, is a fluid and vivid reflection of the original.
This is an affecting but strangely structured book. It begins midstream, with deconstructions of various paintings before any biographical context is provided. But, while the authorial journey as a thread feels a little flimsy at first, Knausgaard’s charm gradually takes hold. He brings a refreshing — at times comical — naivety to the rarefied art world. He is shocked by the measured pace of museum management and mortified when an expert dismisses some of his favourite works as “basement drudges”. Insiders also amuse. Inspecting a Munch landscape, an artist sighs: “No one does cabbage like he does.”
In any useful monograph about a great artist there is sprawling room for only one ego, and when an author is as determined as Knausgaard to force his own kamp into the spotlight, everything becomes a jostle for the microphone. The publisher of So Much Longing in So Little Space describes this effort as “art history, biography and memoir”, but even that jumbled shopping bag makes it sound more coherent than it is. A more accurate blurb would read: “Knausgaard follows his nose wherever he fancies, which is sometimes to Munch.”
Knausgaard roots himself in the centre of this story with Munch barely peeping out from behind the author’s massive trunk. What a squandered opportunity. Munch deserves a book that peels away the screaming mask to reveal the man and artist behind the work that has come to define and obscure him. So Much Longing fails completely. Now, excuse me while I find a bridge to scream on.