Read an excerpt from In the Land of the Cyclops here.
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s newest release, In the Land of the Cyclops, is a collection of essays and reviews translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken and published in the United States by Archipelago Books. The title essay, first published in a Swedish newspaper in 2015, is an enraged response to a critic who asserted that Knausgaard’s depiction of a relationship between a teacher and a student in his first novel was pedophiliac. Knausgaard argues forcefully that explorations of all human impulses are necessary, and touches on many of the themes that have lately become associated with his body of work: Nazism—which forms a central plank of Book 6 of My Struggle—identity, literary freedom. While Knausgaard is a writer who is provocative in both the scope and the theme of his work, his politics resist neat categorization: “All my books have been written with a good heart,” as he puts it in this essay, perhaps conveniently. And despite the provocations of its title essay, the book is really a cabinet of Knausgaard’s curiosities. His interests lie in visual art, destabilized reality, meaning, and perception. There are pieces on topics as disparate as the photography of Sally Mann and Cindy Sherman, the perfection of Madame Bovary (“Madame Bovary is the perfect novel, and it is the best novel that has ever been written”), and Knut Hamsun’s Wayfarers. The Bovary essay seems to contain the key to the collection, to the extent that there is one: Knausgaard describes Flaubert’s book as a novel “which is about truth and which asks what reality is.”
About Francesca Woodman’s photographs, which he first dismissed, he changes his view: “Why did I find Francesca Woodman’s photographs, youthful as they were in all their simplicity, so relevant now, while those great paintings of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries suddenly and completely seemed to have lost their relevance to me?” A review of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, a novel by an author who is a byword for outrage, is about “an entire culture’s enormous loss of meaning, its lack of, or highly depleted, faith.”
The pandemic poses problems for book tours, and Knausgaard, according to his publisher, hates Zoom. We corresponded via email at the dawn of 2021.
The title of your new collection is used as a derisive descriptor for Sweden. Sweden also appears at length in Book 6 of My Struggle, as a figure of scorn for what you describe as its failed, hypocritical social policies. In America, on the Left, there is a fantasy of a sort of single, undifferentiated “Scandinavia” that has wonderful social programs and proves that capitalism can exist along with strong social supports. But during the pandemic, Sweden made choices that did not seem to be in keeping with that reputation. How does the pandemic response align with or recalibrate your ideas about Sweden?
I would say that there was a certain one-eyedness in Sweden’s approach to the pandemic. They did it their own way without looking to other countries. Even when the death rate in the country was ten times higher than that of the neighboring countries, they continued to do it their way. Having said that, we don’t yet know for sure why some countries have been hit harder by the pandemic than others. But Sweden’s approach wasn’t out of character for sure.