With a new exhibition on at the British Museum entitled ‘Edvard Munch: Love and Angst’, the English publication of Karl Ove Knausgård’s book So Much Longing In So Little Space: The Art of Edvard Munch is timely. The book was written when Knausgård was co-curating the exhibition ‘Mot Skogen’ (‘To the forest’) at the Munch Museum in Oslo in 2017, a task he took on despite acknowledging that ‘my only qualification was that I liked looking at paintings and often browsed through art books.’

Although Knausgård studied art history in the 1990s, he is by no means an expert on Munch, and therefore presents the reader with a fresh approach to writing about the latter’s extensive body of work. His mission seems to be to get behind the canonical, angst-ridden image we hold of Munch, and have us see his art as if for the first time, before any of his paintings had become iconic.

It is fascinating to witness Knausgård’s unpicking of Munch’s process: ‘Munch’s method had been to use himself, not by painting what he saw but by trying to visualise what he felt while seeing, so that even a picture of a snow-covered, deserted forest was charged with loneliness and longing’. Knausgård asks what Munch sought to achieve with his paintings, and where he found their value: In the physicality of the painterly process? The emotions the finished painting was charged with? Or was the motif in fact ‘present beforehand, before one even picks up the paintbrush’?

Throughout his work on the exhibition, Knausgård became a diligent student of Munch, and he often refers to other works written about the painter. The Norwegian writer’s gift for language that is both elevated and addictive makes his essays a joy to read, and it is not the skilled translator Ingvild Burkey’s fault that the English version dulls him down – Knausgård is best enjoyed in the original.

Only occasionally does his high-flying arguments halt or fall flat, and this is compensated for by his many fascinating insights on art: ‘(…) much of what we see, we see because we know it is there, often it is more a matter of recognition, of registering something which already exists within.’ Knausgård, who became world famous for his minute descriptions of mundane everyday life, which made us register the literary value of everything from children’s parties to dishwashing, is clearly describing his own writing process when discussing Munch.

As with several of Knausgård’s most recent books, So Much Longing In So Little Space evolves into an interesting hybrid-creation: Knausgård mixes art criticism and interviews with artists such as Anselm Kiefer and Anna Bjerger with elements of the autofictional style that readers will recognise from My Struggle. But as he seems to be describing his own craft as much as he is describing the works of Munch, perhaps it is fitting that so much of the book is concerned with him. His work on Munch is nonetheless fascinating and wonderfully well written.

This review was first published at Bookstoker.com

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