In the Land of the Cyclops, by Karl Ove Knausgaard, Harvill Secker, 320 pp, £20, ISBN: 9781846559419
The question of limitation, of discerning boundaries, the place where one thing begins and ends, is one of the most fundamental components of human life. For our bodies, the way we can experience the world is limited by the capacity of our senses. The limit of what we can see or hear is very different from what we can touch or taste. Limitation also structures our social and political world. We exist in a world of cartographies, classifications, taxonomies. Juridical frameworks, class, race, gender, nationhood: these issues are all oriented by relational and unstable boundaries. The limitation of knowledge is at the heart of the problems faced by science and philosophy. Working against this, while propelling it forward, is the tendency of human desire and human reason for transgression: setting the contours of behaviour and understanding all the while gazing into an infinite beyond. Often, it is toward this absolute otherness, through the realms of religion, nature, or even nothingness, void, that the frantic search for meaning continues to draw us.
In the Land of the Cyclops, the recent book of essays from Karl Ove Knausgaard, translates a selection from two collections of the Norwegian writer’s work dealing with literature and visual art. There are essays on Madame Bovary, Michel Houellebecq, Dante and Knut Hamsun, as well as Anselm Kiefer, Francesca Woodman and Cindy Sherman; and formally the articles range from book and exhibition reviews to more personal, occasional pieces that seem closer in spirit to the diaristic, object-oriented pieces in his Seasons Quartet. Uniting them however is a concern for the question of limitation, the limits of the material and of thought, and the limitations of art in its mediation of such boundaries, all the while pursued by the lurking question of the absolute. For Knausgaard, it is in the uneasy contemporaneity of these two questions: between the proximity and fullness of our “presence in the moment” and the remoteness of the feeling of “being outside something and considering it while being removed from it” that we find the place of art.
The best essays in the book explore this difficult task with a mixture of erudition, personality, and a deep sense of feeling that is both engaging and insightful. Knausgaard is adept at illuminating the elusive power of the artworks he studies while grounding his responses in everyday concerns around freedom, our experience of the body, and social interaction. The essay on Sherman, for instance, thinks through the transformation inherent in her photographs, drawing on Homer’s Odyssey and the Book of Leviticus as two opposing tendencies of metamorphosis: the former presenting a fluid, unbounded world, the other a rigid, categorial place of distinctions of right and wrong, sacred and profane. Sherman’s photographs present a complex of transformation and narration, and pretence, artifice, flattening. The fairy tales are all obviously made with props, the horror of the staged vomit and twisted doll limbs always on the verge of subsiding into absurdity, humour. Through this lapse, however, comes another unsettling realisation: not the realisation of multiple identities or their unity in a single truth behind the mask, but the dissolution of identity altogether. This is most evident in the photographs using mannequins and anatomical models where “the body parts we see are not simply anonymous … they are also artificial and mass produced”. The universal then is always threated by undifferentiation: a place where “the human is obliterated”.
Knausgaard’s writing on Hamsun likewise draws on the question of falsehood, pushing away from the merely naive romantic and politically reactionary understandings of Norway’s most famous novelist to identify a thread of what he terms “dirty modernism”. This modernism creates its tension of remoteness and proximity, its failure of inwardness and transcendence, not through grand formal invention but in quotidian failure, trickery, jealousy and shame. Its emptiness is disturbingly ordinary. This is the Hamsun who is a precursor to Chaplin and Beckett, whose rootless comedy of vacancy undermines any “growth of the soil”. A similar sense of the presence of artifice as a way by which art strives closer to truth, comes in the discussion of Madame Bovary as “the perfect novel”. Knausgaard notes that Flaubert had been trying to write a novel called The Temptation of Saint Anthony that was full of wild excesses, lyricism, biblical characters and romantic invocation. To create a book that did not sink under this weight, not only did Flaubert curb these tendencies to present a more “real world”, he translated the schism itself into the pivotal conflict of the book: the contestation between reality and dreaming that plays out in the fantasies of Emma Bovary. It is by laying bare his own fear of failure, desire, vanity and yearning for beauty within the work that there “comes a novel which is about truth and asks what reality is”.
The essay on Woodman picks up several important threads: surreal juxtaposition, the angelic, and the focus of many of the photographs on “the insuperable boundary between the material and non-material”, but slightly misses its mark in getting at the extraordinary nature of Woodman’s images. Knausgaard alludes to their “playfulness” and awareness of the symbolism of art history, before focusing on the power of “metonymic displacement”: bodies shown in identification with eels, cracks in the floor, wires, bark etc seeing in their disturbing aura an opening up of the “biological abyss of our sexuality”. What is missing here perhaps is the counter-tendency, the way the textural painterly qualities of the images, alongside their eroded domesticity and sense of “ruined play” continually disrupt the sexual, spectral, and symbolic, turning the question out towards the viewer and to the mechanism of photography itself. Photography’s illusiveness, its creation of ritual where there is only material, is knowingly present in Woodman’s work. That sense of “this is what you are seeing”, “photography is doing this”, further emphasised by Woodman’s depiction in front of the camera (or absence behind it), reintroduces a lightness that always threatens to give interpretation the slip.
The weakest essay in the book is, somewhat oddly, the one that gives it its title. “In the Land of the Cyclops” speaks of a parallel world inhabited by one-eyed creatures whose inability to understand nuance and ambiguity makes them rage and throw rocks. The “cyclopes don’t want to know about areas of reality that aren’t as they think they should be” and are “never so angry as when they’re talking about gender or immigration”. The essay is, in part, a defence of Knausgaard’s first novel, which was written from the perspective of a young teacher who becomes infatuated with a thirteen-year-old girl. The teacher commits acts of sexual abuse with the child, then flees. Having been called a “literary paedophile” and compared in the press to Anders Breivik is certainly not nothing, and one need only glance at the continual resurgence of the most ludicrous “discourse” around novels like Lolita to see why one might be tempted to launch such a return salvo.
However, the conversational and roving frame of reference that elsewhere makes the essays both immediate and appealing here comes across as muddled and churlish. The cyclops allegory is a diluted agglomeration of (admittedly insipid) comments the author has received about his opinions and work, bits of identity politics, and assertions of freedom as “the only thing that matters when it comes to literature”. In the end such pronouncements do little more than add surface fuel to a surface fire. Many great novels, from Lolita to The Kindly Ones, force us into recognition with horror and disturbing conceptions of beauty we might seek to deny, but the defence of having written such works, the refutation of dubious claims from the world of capitalist liberal “morality”, is the work itself. Rather than giving the risk he identifies as essential to fiction its due, it feels here that Knausgaard has uncharacteristically chosen to close one eye and pick up a rock.
Overall, despite the occasional misstep, In the Land of the Cyclops is a worthy addition to the ever-expanding English Knausgaard canon, demonstrating the author’s at times astonishing capacity to bring out the existential questions art poses for us and how we live. An essential part of the power of Knausgaard’s grand novel, My Struggle, stemmed from its distention of time, the recalibration of attention on the mundane and apparent closure of the distance between writer and work opening up the space to hear the murmur of something other. In these essays Knausgaard is particularly attuned to the way distance and time create tension between work and world, undermining and reinforcing one another. Art is a site of transfiguration, from material to representational, “the blue oil colour that becomes a sky”. This transformation is also artifice, its transcendence is always inscribed within the material, and many of the best works of art draw attention to and disturb our desire to simply be taken in by this transformative capacity. Art seeks to re-enchant the very thing it leads us away from. As that author puts it himself states early on: “Any photograph, any painting, is a fall, and that from which it falls is the world.”
Daniel Fraser is a writer and critic from Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. His work has featured in the LA Review of Books, Gorse, Aeon, Music and Literature and the Irish Post among other outlets. Find him on Twitter @oubliette_mag