‘In the Land of Cyclops’ is highly stimulating, occasionally overwhelming

Charles Arrowsmith

THE WASHINGTON POST – “You don’t have to say everything that comes into your mind, you know.” This advice, given to Karl Ove Knausgaard in Book 6 of his autobiographical meganovel, My Struggle, is surely a joke.

After all, there can’t be a more conspicuous example in contemporary fiction of saying everything than Knausgaard’s saga, which, in paperback, runs to almost 4,000 pages.

We’re reminded in his new essay collection, In the Land of the Cyclops, that much of My Struggle was written to a publishing schedule that demanded the last four volumes be written in consecutive three-month periods. The adage about writing less if only one had the time leaps to mind.

He probably had longer to write some of the 18 pieces in Cyclops (a svelte 350 pages).

These occasional writings – reviews, exhibition blurbs, musings on Dante, Ingmar Bergman, Cindy Sherman, the introduction to a new edition of Madame Bovary – reveal a more academic Knausgaard. But, as in the fiction, his intense focus, formidable command of reference and tendency to see the interconnectedness of things make for highly stimulating, almost overwhelming reading.

His fiction and nonfiction can at times seem fungible. Just as philosophical and literary digressions permeate My Struggle, so in Cyclops we find Knausgaard’s life illustrating and informing his critical judgments.

Though such asides – conversations with his children, midnight angst – might seem redundant, they do give the essays the same semblance of radical honesty that radiates through his fiction. This pseudo-narrative approach also allows him to dramatise his critical process: to lay bare his neuroses, deconstruct his prejudices and construct judgments from scratch. The pantomime of critical dispassion is avoided; the rhetorical effect is one of wisdom gained rather than merely delivered.

Take the essay Inexhaustible Precision. Knausgaard starts by confessing his fear that art that gives “spontaneous pleasure,” which excites the emotions and can be enjoyed forthwith, cannot be “a true artistic experience.”

Great art, he avers, is characterised by difficulty and resistance; that’s what makes it profound. But he’s not content with this instinct, however deeply felt. Emotion, he reasons, is surely also part of the aesthetic experience. How might it fit in?

He meanders on to the photographs of Sally Mann – which provoke philosophical thoughts on nature, being, death – although they seem to merely depict what is. Inspired, Knausgaard proposes a new theory of rich simplicity that wreathes both his fetish for difficulty and his gut reactions.

He calls it “inexhaustible precision,” that which “is always simple, always without resistance and easily grasped, but always has more to it than what first meets the eye.” Examples of the inexhaustibly precise include myths, Kafka’s Metamorphosis and the white whale in Moby-Dick – “in other words that which brings together something big and undefinable, not by pointing to it, but by being it, and at the same time always being something else as well.”

Art that possesses this quality can avoid aloofness without becoming shallow.

From the kernel of Knausgaard’s anxiety, through sustained critical engagement, there emerges this new theory of greatness – one with its own assumptions, but thoughtful and substantial nonetheless.

Though they can sometimes seem recondite, these essays repay slow reading and retain considerable power to surprise. In Fate, Knausgaard recounts a dream he once had, “so vivid and powerful that I knew it must be true,” in which he’s harassed by a bull that cannot be deterred even after its head is cut off.

Thirty pages of musings on language, omens, Don DeLillo, Icelandic sagas and the divine follow before he reveals the event the dream portended, the heart-stopping phone call familiar to readers of My Struggle when an unknown voice is heard asking, “Is this Karl Ove Knausgaard, the rapist?”

Knausgaard’s loquacity – his denseness – is a token of his faith in literature’s redemptive power. While his grim materialism tells him that it’s an “infinite, empty, meaningless universe through which we hurtle,” in art the chaotic elements of existence are limned, assigned significance. At its best, Knausgaard suggests, literature shows us the world as it is, “something that is forever in the making,

chaotic and incomprehensible, steered by laws we know absolutely nothing about and which also steer us.”