Famed Writer Karl Ove Knausgaard Declares War on Sweden, ‘Land of the Cyclops’

The Norwegian super author goes to attack against what he sees as Sweden's narrow, parochial view of literature.


For 13 years, Karl Ove Knausgaard, a Norwegian author who has become an international literary phenomenon thanks to his deeply confessional memoirs, has lived in Sweden. He evidently doesn’t much like it. This week, Knausgaard launched a scathing attack on the country, criticizing what he regards as its parochial view of literature and its constraints on what constitutes acceptable speech — and, for that matter, acceptable literature.

Here’s Knausgaard, writing in Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter this week and translated by this writer:

It’s spring in the land of the cyclops. The apple trees are in bloom and stand like white sails in a sea of green. The sky is blue and over the sea, just a few kilometers from where I am sitting, the clouds hang immobile. It’s so beautiful it hurts. And so peaceful. The land is full of prosperity, the stores full of goods, everyone has what the need and more so. Even so, the cyclops aren’t happy. Many of them are angry and full of hate. And many of them are scared. I have lived here for 13 years and I still don’t understand why there is so much fear and hate here. I look around and see almost nothing to hate, and almost nothing to be afraid of.

This metaphor — of Sweden as the “land of the cyclops” — is one Knausgaard repeatedly returns to in his brutal 2,800-word essay on the purported restrictions on Swedish intellectual life: “The reason for why there is so much hate among the cyclops, and so much fear, is simple, I believe. The cyclops do not want to be aware of the parts of reality that don’t accord with how they believe it should be.”

This unwillingness to face the aspects of life that don’t match Swedes’ view of the proper order of thing leads to a revulsion for literature. “The cyclops can’t handle the ambivalent. That which is neither good nor evil, they cannot understand, and it angers them. They say they like literature, but the literature they like is only the kind that agrees with their conception of good and evil, and that isn’t literature, only something imitating it,” Knausgaard writes. “Literature is in its essence ambivalent, but the cyclops don’t know this.”

The Norwegian has risen to international renown through his six-volume memoir that deals in excruciating detail with every aspect of his life and his relationships with the people who populate it. He reveals his deepest thoughts about his wife, how he contemplated leaving her, the tedium of raising their children. In volume one, he describes the death of his father, who was a violent alcoholic and had been living with Knausgaard’s grandmother. The writer finds her living in her own filth, senile. Exposing his family’s secrets has opened a rift between Knausgaard and his relatives, but his deeply confessional style is also what makes his style so revelatory. Knausgaard is willing to reckon with everyone of this thoughts, feelings, and actions — and to do so in public, on the page.

The proximate cause of his new diatribe — and the immediate target of Knausgaard’s anger — is another article in Dagens Nyheter, an essay by the critic and scholar Ebba Witt-Brattström about the depiction — and perhaps exploitation — of young women in the Norwegian’s fiction. Knausgaard’s debut novel, which is about to be published in Sweden, deals with a teacher falling in love with his 13-year-old student. It’s a book apparently informed in part by Knuasgaard’s own life: In volume four of his memoir, the writer describes his experience falling for a 13-year-old student, Andrea.

Witt-Brattström sees a disturbing theme: “The 13-year-old’s congenial function in the Culture-man’s literature is perhaps that she doesn’t have very much to oppose. Through her youth, she is the perfect, defenseless alibi in a story that plays out principally among men.” (Here, the phrase “Culture-man” serves as a stand-in for the powerful white man at the top of the cultural food chain.) In Knausgaard’s memoir, Witt-Brattström speculates that the student with which he falls in love may be the silent fourth node of a tangled romantic web between the author, his wife, and his best friend, Geir. This, Witt-Brattström believes, is part of a literary pedophilia.

Knausgaard evidently read this and promptly brought his head to rest on his desk: “I’ve lived here so long that I’ve occasionally wondered whether the cyclops are right right, and I’m wrong. Yes, that I actually am a literary pedophile, a latent homosexual Nazi mass murderer.”

Indeed, his memoirs have exposed Knausgaard to accusations of just about every authorly crime possible: homophobia, misogyny, and Nazi sympathies, among them. It of course doesn’t help that the memoir’s title, My Struggle, echoes the title of the world’s most famous genocidal book: Mein Kampf.

In that criticism, however, we start to see what Knausgaard means when he accuses the cyclops of Sweden of being unwilling to reckon with the darker aspects of human nature. Murderous violence, sexism, homophobia: These are all human qualities that aren’t interesting so much because they are wrong but because they persist, he argues. The same, Knausgaard points out in his essay, can be said about lesser human evils. We know that we shouldn’t be jealous, that we shouldn’t drink, that we shouldn’t be bitter, that we shouldn’t yell at our kids so much. Still we do it.

“The book in which I described a grown man’s love for a 13-year-old girl is a novel about an assault, but also a book a book about regression and infantilism,” Knausgaard writes. “The infantile exists all around us. We live in a culture that worships youth, that worships the simple and worships the childish.” A novel, on Knausgaard’s account, is the opposite: “It seeks complexity, it seeks ambiguity, it seeks truth in places other than where it formulated in slogans, or where it is framed, hard and unrelenting, rigid and unchangeable.”

In this view, Knausgaard believes that the critic can put the novel in context and perhaps say that the truth which it seeks remains unrevealed. What the critic cannot say is that the truth the novel seeks should not be sought in the first place. “If a novel seeks the beautiful in Nazism, the critic can say that Nazism wasn’t beautiful, but he cannot say that the novel cannot seek the beauty in it,” Knausgaard writes. “Of course Nazism was beautiful, for if it wasn’t, no one would have been seduced by it. The beauty that we know is wrong is one that only the novel can describe. Why should it do such a thing? Because the beauty of Nazism exists.”

The literature of what you can’t say: That, to Knausgaard, is the definition of the literature of the cyclops.

Robin Linderborg/Creative Commons

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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