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Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Essays Struggle With Big Ideas

Randy Newman’s catalog includes a remarkable song, heard to best effect on his 2011 album “Live in London,” called “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It).” It’s about being an artist whose best work is thought to be in the rearview mirror.

“I have nothing left to say,” Newman begins, “but I’m gonna say it anyway.” The goosebumps part of the song arrives when the audience, as Greek chorus, begins to chant through the melody, “He’s dead / He’s dead.” The song is so exacting and darkly funny that it puts paid to any notion that Newman, as a songwriter, has lost a single step.

Newman’s song drifted through my mind while I was reading “In the Land of the Cyclops,” Karl Ove Knausgaard’s new essay collection. Knausgaard is, of course, the Norwegian writer who beginning about a decade ago unburdened himself of six fat autobiographical novels, the “My Struggle” series, that are justifiably among the literary landmarks of our age. “My Struggle” is like a holiday dinner table to which he kept adding panels.

Knausgaard is relatively young (52), and despite his years of smoking — he wielded cigarettes with haggard aplomb in photographs — one suspects and hopes that he will live to ripe old age. He may, around 2045, win the Nobel Prize. He also seems, forgive me, a bit posthumous, in the sense that the culture is unlikely ever again to make the place for him that it did.

Is excessive literary production a social offense? George Eliot thought so. E.M. Forster’s career made people feel, according to Anthony Burgess, that it’s uncouth to write more than five or six novels. What’s a talent like Knausgaard to do now?

“In the Land of the Cyclops” finds him in, at best, a holding pattern. These are minor essays, earnest and sawdust-filled. Several dealing with artists and photographers he admires (Francesca Woodman, Thomas Wagstrom, Cindy Sherman, Anselm Kiefer) have been repurposed from exhibition catalogs. There’s a reprinted introduction to “Madame Bovary,” a piece about Ingmar Bergman’s prose and a review of a Michel Houellebecq novel.

Knausgaard’s plodding essays read more like lectures than like criticism. They’re more oil than vinegar, and they remind one of the complaint John Berryman’s volatile narrator, Henry, issues in “Dream Song 170”:

I can’t read any more of this Rich Critical Prose,
he growled, broke wind, and scratched himself & left
that fragrant area.

In his fiction, Knausgaard’s crucial gift is for sweeping low over the humble details of life and imbuing them with more meaning than one thought possible. Ideas do percolate through his novels, but they bubble up organically; they’re spray, not wave.

When the pundit in him does fully reveal itself, as it does in the final book of “My Struggle,” in which he wrestles epically with the legacies of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” his wheels start to lose traction. One senses in that final book, as one does in these essays, that Knausgaard has (as the R.E.M. song puts it) said too much but hasn’t said enough.

One thing to like about this book — its primary translator from the Norwegian is Martin Aitken — is how Knausgaard reorients the world of culture and allows us to view it through his own Nordic lens. He takes in northern folk tales, sagas, poems. There’s an alert defense of Knut Hamsun’s fiction. Knausgaard reminds us of the famous death scene in Hamsun’s novel “Wayfarers,” in which a man is trampled to death under a flock of sheep.

Knausgaard frequently broods on the notion of seriousness in art. Like most of us, he enjoys Netflix and its equivalents. But he writes: “The idea that the new television dramas everyone watches and talks about these days are the new novel, as is so often suggested, is to my mind idiotic.” About Christopher Nolan’s movie “Inception,” he writes: “Lovely wrapping paper, no present.” (It’s been a hard year for Nolan, in books. In the filmmaker Charlie Kaufman’s antic novel “Antkind,” a character comments, “Starbucks is the smart coffee for dumb people. It’s the Christopher Nolan of coffee.”)

A few essays are more personal. In one, written in diary form, he admits to a great deal of self-loathing and a certain innate coldness. “Intimacy,” he writes, “I can’t stand it.” He writes about his more reserved parenting style as compared with his wife’s, “Closeness has a price, distance has a price, so which do you choose?”

This book’s title essay, which first appeared in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter in 2015, throws the most sparks. It was composed after Knausgaard was referred to, by at least one critic, as a literary pedophile, and was compared by another to the mass-murderer Anders Behring Breivik, after it was noticed that his first novel is about a 26-year-old male schoolteacher who becomes infatuated with, and sleeps with, a 13-year-old female student. In the fourth volume of “My Struggle,” the 18-year-old narrator describes his transgressive desires for Andrea, a 13-year-old student.

Knausgaard pushes back against those who believe fiction should only portray noble action and sentiment: the professional takers of offense, the mismanagers of ambiguity. No discerning adult, he implies, genuinely believes he is advocating pedophilia.

“What happens to a society,” he asks, “when it stops addressing what it knows to exist and yet refuses to acknowledge?” He suggests that too many liberal newspapers are now “hostile to literature, because morality there reigns above literature, and ideology above morality.” He adds: “You never see a writer risk anything in public.”

He’s right to notice that we’re living in an era when fiction, because it’s a refuge for unpoliced thought and feeling of every stripe, matters more than ever.

Elsewhere in this collection, you get the sense of a writer laboriously working out things that have been better worked out by others.

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