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.”