The essay collection is having a moment. Weariness with the 20th-century novel’s puppet-show contrivances – to which Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series was itself a response – has incited new interest in a hitherto marginal genre. Many are having a go at it, fewer are doing it well. Knausgaard’s new collection, which covers literature, contemporary art, photography, nature writing and loose cosmic musings, does not show him to be a first-rate practitioner of the form.
In the Land of the Cyclops heightens the suspicion that Knausgaard fulfilled his authorial project with the completion of his six-part autofictional epic in 2011. Everything since then has had the feel of an addendum or miscellany – not least his 400-page collaborative book of emails about football, Home and Away. The Seasons Quartet, in which glum Knausgaard considered a different concept or object each day (Pain, Buttons, Labia), left the impression that his worldwide acclaim had, as we say in Ireland, given him notions. Indulged as a wide-eyed sanctifier of the commonplace, at times he resembled the laughable writer in Martin Amis’s novel The Information, who, beneficiary of sudden success, takes to gazing performatively at apples and stones, the better to project the childlike wonder befitting a literary sage.
A lengthy review here of Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission opens with a plodding explanation of why Knausgaard has never before read the author, and labours on under the presumption that we are as interested in the underqualified reviewer as we are in his subject. He’s better on Madame Bovary, and on much surer footing in a long essay on his compatriot Knut Hamsun’s “dirty modernism”. A piece about reading Kierkegaard in Beirut also begins with an admission that Knausgaard is a newcomer to the Danish philosopher (presumably a commissioning editor liked the symmetrical headline possibilities – Knausgaard on Kierkegaard). He has little to say on Kierkegaard’s thoughts that can’t easily be found elsewhere – and none of it is as lively as an excruciating anecdote about his reading a passage from My Struggle in which he slashes his face to impress a woman to a war-shocked Middle Eastern festival audience.
It’s a reminder that My Struggle’s best episodes worked on the level of scandal and salaciousness – a several-thousand-page slab of Nordic reality TV in gossipy, oversharing prose. Knausgaard can be engaging on art and photography (subjects include Cindy Sherman, Anselm Kiefer, Francesca Woodman), but as a novelist turned philosopher-critic, he often reads as an Aristotelian particularist trying to be a universalising Plato. Whenever he looks up from the concrete, sensuous and personal, he drifts into watery abstraction. His essays are wide ranging in the sense that they tend to cover too much ground. One, Idiots of the Cosmos, skips between identity politics, War and Peace, Pascal’s horror of the infinite, the northern lights and much else besides, but none of it really sticks. With no recollected or imagined world (of childhood, adolescence, manhood) to earth his perceptions, his thoughts spool out, untethered and inconsequential. At his worst, Knausgaard the essayist is a monological bore.
An exception is the pugnacious title piece. It reads like an allegory of cancel culture, until you realise he’s talking about Sweden. Knausgaard’s adopted home seems to be at the vanguard of punitive, curtain-twitching philistinism. With wary indignation he details how the national press have slandered him as a paedophile, a misogynist and a Nazi, and compared him to Anders Breivik. “So what was my crime? I wrote a novel.” He rehearses commonsensical positions that now require defending even beyond priggish Scandinavia: art should convey the messily actual and not just the ideal; fictive description does not entail the act of condoning, and so on. Clearly, this stuff really rankles: in Home and Away he also tore into the intolerance and self-righteousness of Swedish liberals (it was the feminist youth leagues who were having a go at him in that instance).
The Knausgaard diehard will appreciate the reminiscences of childhood journeys and youthful misadventures, even if some of these are recycled. He retells a prophetic dream that was central to Some Rain Must Fall, the darkly riveting fifth volume in My Struggle, as well as the shattering event the dream augured: a malicious false rape accusation. But here we discern the core weakness of In the Land of the Cyclops: the first time round, Knausgaard locked us inside the breathless first-person cockpit of his autofiction; here, the dream and the horror it prophesied are bookends to lengthy, under-controlled and largely bloodless musings on literature, schizophrenia, Dante, Tycho Brahe and the Icelandic sagas. “I hate myself,” Knausgaard announces unbidden in a diaristic piece titled At the Bottom of the Universe. I never hated him, but I did find myself hoping he’d take a hint and let me usher him out of the door, so I could collapse into my armchair, knackered.
• Rob Doyle’s latest book is Threshold (Bloomsbury)
• In the Land of the Cyclops by Karl Ove Knausgaard (translated by Martin Aitken) is published by Harvill Secker (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply