If I had been feeling sufficiently penitent this Lent, I might have played a Nordic version of the old parlor game, “Which three famous people would you like to invite for dinner?” My guests would have been philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, author of “Fear and Trembling”; Edvard Munch, whose painting “The Scream” is probably the most parodied work of art in the world today; and Karl Ove Knausgaard, author of a six-volume autobiographical novel titled “My Struggle.” The dinner, boiled cod and a few unsalted potatoes washed down with water, would have been an appropriately Lenten affair, its conversation unleavened by any scintilla of humor.
We shall now allow Kierkegaard to amble away on one of his solitary walks and consider the other two diners, for Knausgaard has written a book on Munch, “So Much Longing in So Little Space.” A more accurate title would have been “Munch and Me: The Most Famous Norwegian Writer Since Knut Hamsun Considers the Most Famous Norwegian Painter Ever.” Very little space is given over to the details of Munch’s life; instead, the book considers what it means to be an artist in general and what it meant to be a highly talented artist from a restrictive Scandinavian background, obsessed with a peculiar set of personal issues, and living in a time of radical change, artistic and otherwise.
For Norwegians, Munch looms as an inescapable cultural emblem. The filmmaker Joachim Trier, whom Knausgaard interviews in the book, speaks of Munch as “a paradoxical figure whom we were told about, a master of sorts and an important national figure. At the same time, everything he stood for was very remote from what we faced in our daily lives.” This book is an account of Knausgaard trying to come to terms with the giant. As a writer rather than an art historian, his discussion of paintings largely involves description: “In the very foreground, at the lower left edge of the painting, stands the leafless trunk of a tree, it appears to have been an old fruit tree, covered here and there by mint-green moss.”
Seeking a more technical account of Munch’s achievement, Knausgaard reaches out to helpers and interpreters from the world of visual arts. He flies to Paris to visit the studio of renowned German artist Anselm Kiefer, though the encounter doesn’t yield much in the way of insight: “I asked Kiefer about his relationship to Munch, he more or less dismissed the question with an impatient gesture of his head while saying that Munch was a good graphic artist.” Knausgaard pores over reproductions of the paintings of another contemporary artist he admires, Peter Doig, seeking evidence of Munch’s influence, only to conclude that “the commonalities between them belong to figurative painting itself, in the most general sense.” He talks to photographers, painters and film directors, reproducing his conversations with them in the book.
Knausgaard is driven to this scattershot who-can-I-talk-to-next quest in 2017 because, two years after giving a lecture on Munch, he has been invited to curate an exhibition of Munch’s work from the holdings of the artist’s estate, which were entrusted to the Munch Museum in Oslo. Munch was an inveterate keeper of his own work, never throwing anything away and getting paintings back when he could. The works in any artist’s estate, however, usually consist of unfinished compositions or of works the artist was unable to sell.
Hoping to avoid putting together a show of duds, Knausgaard enlists the aid of art historian Stian Grogaard to go through the racks of paintings. Grogaard’s comments as they look through a passel of what can be described only as “lesser works” are worth the price of the book. He speaks insightfully of the young Munch’s struggles to break out of the prevailing academic trends. Grogaard, however, has issues with much of the leftover late work. Pointing to a painting of tree trunks, he sees a certain solemnity of effect, but then admits: “At other times, it just doesn’t work, nothing comes of it, it just fizzles out. And then you think, Doesn’t it mean anything to him? But at the same time I wonder if I’m applying the wrong scale.” He finally evades the question of poor quality by asserting that “something else comes into being,” and positing “painting as a kind of cosmological practice.”
Not having seen the show, I don’t know how well Munch came off, but his reputation was in no danger. Technical achievements aside, Munch’s success came from his ability to give visual form to the stifled passions of a stratified and sexually inhibited society: He let the scream out. Whatever resistance he may have encountered initially, he was soon rewarded for his achievements. At 26, he won a scholarship to Paris, and by his early 30s, he was making good money. Patrons continued to come his way, and he was made a Knight of the Royal Order of St. Olav in 1909. If he chose to spend the next 35 years of his life living in relative isolation, that was his choice.
Norwegian culture still has issues with letting it all hang out, and Knausgaard’s adaptation of the confessional memoir as a fictive device, his use of real people and their intimate struggles, was shocking to many critics. Scandal sells, however, and in a country of only about 5 million, more than 450,000 copies of “My Struggle” have been sold. Worldwide sales of the books have made Knausgaard a wealthy man. In writing about Munch, he considers the work of another specialist in cultural excavation. And specialists get paid well.
Reagan Upshaw is an art dealer and critic in Beacon, N.Y.
By Karl Ove Knausgaard
256 pp. $17