So Much Longing in So Little Space: The Art of Edvard Munch by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Translated by Ingvild Burkey

Reviewed by Jean Morris

This is a book for fans of Karl Ove Knausgaard who also love the work of his native Norway’s greatest painter, Edvard Munch (1863–1944). I’m one of these, and I hope we are many. I’m so glad the writer’s high profile ensured it would be translated into English (beautifully by Ingvild Burkey, a regular translator of Knausgaard) and published here in time for the opening of the British Museum’s Munch exhibition. It’s a fascinating work, I think, and replete with intensely pleasurable passages, not least the short prefatory essay, which focuses on one minor painting:

“Sometimes it is impossible to say why and how a work of art achieves its effect. I can stand in front of a painting and become filled with emotions and thoughts, evidently transmitted by the painting, and yet it is impossible to trace those emotions and thoughts back to it and say, for example, that the sorrow came from the colours, or that the longing came from the brushstrokes, or that the sudden insight that life will end lay in the motif.

One picture I feel this way about was painted by Edvard Munch in 1915. It depicts a cabbage field… The picture is magical. It is so charged with meaning, looking at it I feel as if something is bursting within me.”

Well, after that you have to go on reading.

Great fame can greatly impede thoughtful appreciation of both visual and literary art, as Knausgaard reminds us with regard to Munch, and some early reviews of his book have ironically illustrated how true this also is in his own case. A number of art critics seem, perhaps forgivably, to have struggled a bit with a book that is neither conventional art criticism nor conventional biography. Less forgivably, they apparently looked here for what his detractors love to deplore in Knausgaard, that he always writes about himself, and zero-ed in on the smallest evidence of this, neglecting so much more.

It is a very Knausgaardian and a not very conventional book, I suppose, but also a detailed and substantial reflection on the life and works of Munch, and on the writer’s deep emotional and intellectual experience in looking at those works.

Even before the current exhibition opened and before this book was published, I was a bit tired of hearing from the media how timely it is to see a version of The Scream on show right now in London – although, sadly, it really is! As Knausgaard points out, it’s sad if a great and prolific painter who was active for more than sixty years and left behind many hundreds of works is now mostly known for just one. I’m pretty sure I knew only that one, with perhaps a vague sense of a few more rather dark, strange images, before I saw the last Munch exhibition in London a few years ago – the first in a long time, I think. I remember how surprised I was then by the beauty, the colours, the humanity of many of the paintings and prints, which moved me a lot and seemed quite unlike anyone else’s, as well as intrigued by the repeated depiction of the same subjects – there were whole, unsettling rooms of superficially almost identical portraits of the same few people… This is often clearly because certain deep and traumatising subject matter never ceased to obsess him. But just as much, we learn from Munch’s own copious writings quoted here, it seems to be because he was so attached to the works – his children – and having sold one would paint it again to keep beside him.

When Knausgaard writes about one such instance, a very early portrait of Munch’s brother and the near copies he painted much later in life and long after the brother’s death, it becomes a compelling opening into reflections on the artist’s life, technique and preoccupations.

The less-than-knowledgeable reader (like me) will learn a lot. Here’s a life recounted. The growing-up in genteel poverty. The strict, religious father. The gentle mother who died when he was very young and the beloved elder sister who became a mother figure and died when he was 13 – both of “consumption”. The other sister who suffered from schizophrenia. The highly sensitive artist who apparently never recovered from these deaths, who lived in fear of TB and mental illness, and who had many relationships with women but shrank from intimacy and increasingly isolated himself.

And there’s so much more to learn and consider: about his character and characteristic intensity; about his times – the dawning of the modern era as well of a bohemian counter-culture; about his startling skill and innovative techniques, that wild beauty, the lightness and movement of texture that goes along with often sad and obsessive themes.

All this is conveyed more impressionistically, with more reflective detours, than it would be in a straight biography. There’s a certain freedom in the structure, or lack of one, but the writing is more polished and balanced than in Knausgaard’s mammoth “My Struggle” quartet of novels, or even in the subsequent slimmer and more focused “Autumn/ Winter/ Spring/ Summer” quartet. Personally, I like the developing genre of “creative” memoir, biography and non-fiction in general that we’ve seen a lot of lately. And more varied approaches to writing about art are surely to be welcomed – it’s not easy to make writing about something so mysteriously wonderful convey even a little of the mystery and wonder.

For similar reasons, I was happy to read the more personal sections. You might think from some reviews that these make up most of the book, but they felt to me a rather small part. We get an account of the invitation to curate an exhibition and Knausgaard’s first visit to the Munch Museum’s vast stored collection, which includes everything left in the artist’s house when he died. He describes watching, riveted, as rack after rack of unseen art works are wheeled out for his perusal. I too found it riveting to imagine the scene and his feelings and to read the reported conversation.

He also recounts conversations with some contemporary Norwegian artists – the same favourites whose paintings illustrate his “Seasons” quartet – about their views of Munch and whether they feel he was an influence. Elsewhere, he writes about the cold and light and colour of the Nordic landscape on days when he was writing this. Then back to the cold and light and colour of the paintings and of the life under consideration.

There are no short, clearly labelled chapters, only three lengthy sections. It’s not an easy shape to reconstruct in one’s mind. But I did come away from a long and engaging read with a lot of new knowledge and food for thought. As a big fan of the writer, I was well disposed and had high expectations. That could also have led to disappointment, but I wasn’t disappointed. When I went to see the exhibition at the British Museum, I definitely got more out of it after reading this book, now knowing much more about Edvard Munch, having more points of reference and more doors into thinking about his work. And, perhaps above all, feeling a lot more for him.

Jean Morris is a writer, translator and editor living in London.

Karl Ove Knausgaard, So Much Longing in So Little Space: The Art of Edvard Munch, trans. Ingvild Burkey (Harvill Secker, 2019). 978-1787300545, 256 pp., paperback original.

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