Robert Ferguson

Pen Portrait

So Much Longing in So Little Space: The Art of Edvard Munch

By

Harvill Secker 233pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

George Bernard Shaw on Henrik Ibsen, Vladimir Nabokov on Nikolai Gogol, Henry Miller on Arthur Rimbaud, Nicholson Baker on John Updike: we are familiar with the genre in which authors write appreciatively about an admired predecessor, usually another writer but sometimes, as in So Much Longing in So Little Space, an artist of a different kind. We expect such books to be at least as much about the author as the subject, and Karl Ove Knausgaard does not disappoint here. What he gives us in essence is an account of what it is like to be a man writing a book about being a man who – somewhat to his own surprise, one suspects – has been invited to curate an exhibition of paintings by one of the world’s most famous artists.

In Part One, Knausgaard gives the briefest of biographical backgrounds and introduces us to books on Munch by academics and art historians that have particularly impressed him. In Part Two, he receives an invitation from the Munch Museum in Oslo to curate an exhibition and meditates on the thematic possibilities open to him. He also solicits the views of artists and photographers of his acquaintance with a view to informing his choice of pictures. He visits Anselm Kiefer at his studio outside Paris, a place so enormous, he notes, that Kiefer and his assistants use bicycles to get about inside it. Over a meal he shows a number of his choices to the Norwegian artist Vanessa Baird, and her use of words like ‘bad, feeble, shameful, embarrassing’ to describe some of them gives his self-confidence a knock. In the short final section of the book, he relates his conversations with the Norwegian film director Joachim Trier as the two men wander in Munch’s biographical footsteps. They are being filmed by Trier’s brother for a documentary version of the same venture commissioned by the Norwegian state broadcaster NRK. The film ends with Knausgaard opening the exhibition.

Knausgaard wraps the book up rather differently, with a few words in praise of the simple pleasures offered by Painter by the Wall, a late and obscure work produced when Munch was seventy-eight. It shows an old man on a ladder painting a window. Knausgaard uses it to sum up one of the main ideas of his book, which is that Munch’s later works show us a man liberated from the torments that gave rise to some of the best-known early works (The Scream, Melancholy, Vampire and so on), in particular the sense of death that was the perverse and unwelcome companion of his childhood, leaving him free at last to paint for the sheer pleasure of painting. Knausgaard rounds off his book with an account of how he wins an internet bidding war on a Swedish gallery’s website to become the owner of a Munch print of his own, in the process conducting and winning an argument with his younger, mocking self.

Knausgaard has perfected the confessional, ‘speaking’ style of writing that his fellow countryman Knut Hamsun introduced into modern Western literature in the 1890s with novels like Hunger and Mysteries. The style was adopted with great success by Henry Miller, and Miller is probably the confessional novelist with whom Knausgaard can most profitably be compared. Writing in Inside the Whale in 1940 about Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, George Orwell described the experience of feeling that ‘he knows all about me, he wrote this specifically for me’. Orwell praised the healthy and liberating effect of reading Miller during the politically tense 1930s, when it seemed to him that people had begun to censor their own thoughts (‘Ought I to be thinking this?’). Knausgaard’s bold self-acceptance performs a similar function for our own nervous times. His prose is direct. It darts forward. Suddenly he finds himself making a massive assertion. He stops, doubles back on himself, examines the assertion, and either qualifies or reinforces it before moving on. His artistic credo, which he believes he shares with Munch, is senk lista (‘lower the bar’): the important thing is just to keep on writing, in the same way that for Munch all that mattered was to keep on painting. The quality can take care of itself.

Knausgaard treats his reader like a trusted friend. He makes no pretentions to authority, he just wants to talk about Munch for a couple of hours. This approach encourages an urge to interrupt, to query, to take issue, to expand and embellish. If one accepts the implied invitation, then there are one or two points at which one might feel moved to suggest, for example, that while overfamiliarity with the ten or fifteen most famous paintings, such as The Scream, might make it impossible ever really to see them for the first time, it is also possible that, following an endless series of virtual encounters with a great work of art, to arrive finally in the presence of the original might bring an unexpectedly powerful sense of climax. Knausgaard twice uses photographers as witnesses in his quest to understand Munch, and he might have made something of the fact that Munch himself was a keen photographer who often based his paintings and portraits on postcards and photographs (see, for instance, the old man with arm raised in Apple Tree in the Garden, reproduced in the book). As Arne Eggum pointed out in Munch og fotografi in 1987, Munch was fascinated by the phenomena associated with the ‘spirit photography’ so much in vogue at the end of the 19th century, including the odd translucence of the human body caused by double exposure and the ghostly effects created by a subject moving about while the shutter of the camera was still open. As Eggum suggests, Munch’s The Sick Child, to which Knausgaard’s narrative returns several times, seems to show the influence of this interest. Knausgaard’s conversation with a photographer who sometimes buries his photographs in the ground for a few days as a way of investing them with something other than light might have brought to mind Munch’s own habit of hanging his canvases in the trees at Ekely as a way of subjecting them to the effects of rain, wind, sunshine and bird shit.

Knausgaard meditates on issues as diverse as the problems facing an original artist once the first flush of rebellious youth is past, the breakthrough has been achieved and he or she is facing the challenge of how to get through the remaining fifty years; the many ways in which the curator of an exhibition can be tempted to act like a censor or editor; and the reductionist pitfalls of literary biography. He is excellent literary company in this entertaining, often funny and candid book. The translation by Ingvild Burkey, herself a published poet, is a fluid and vivid reflection of the original.

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