The acclaimed author of the My Struggle series offers essays on fine art, classic literature, and his own work.
In this wide-ranging, sometimes labored collection, Knausgaard argues that art is at its most effective when it destabilizes our understanding of the world. Photos by Cindy Sherman that satirize the human body, for instance, grab the author’s attention because they spark the same “discomfort, nausea, anger” he experienced while working in a mental institution. Similarly, the moody, provocative black-and-white photos of Francesca Woodman reveal the “constraints of our culture and what they do to our identity” while Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission succeeds because it suggests how easily disillusioned people might accept political upheaval, asking “What does it mean to be a human being without faith?” Knausgaard approaches his subjects indirectly, often bemusingly so. (How did we get from the northern lights to Roberto Bolaño’s 2666?) The throughline is the author’s keen, almost anxious urge to understand the artistic mind. He is fascinated by Ingmar Bergman’s workbooks, how a simple jotting can expand into a classic film like Fanny and Alexander, and how Knut Hamsun’s sensibility shifted over time. Knausgaard also gives his own work close scrutiny, celebrating the crucial role of editors and sounding boards in supporting his work and psyche—he reports that he read every word of My Struggle, some 5,000 pages, to a friend over the phone—and letting fly at narrow-minded critics who “can’t handle ambiguity.” The book’s three translators all reckon with the author’s rhetorical switchbacks and run-on sentences with admirable grace, though Knausgaard is at his best with a wide canvas. These pieces at times feel compressed and fussy, lacking some of the considered grace of his Seasons Quartet or the essayistic longueurs of My Struggle.
Knausgaard’s intelligence is on full display here, if sometimes in strained ways.