Karl Ove Knausgaard’s treatise on the art of Edvard Munch, So Much Longing in So Little Space, fails — as art criticism is prone to do — to adequately 'read' or 'translate' Munch’s paintings for us. But it should not be expected to be a translator ... And yet, though the book fails in the ways it must, it succeeds where others have failed, in its ability to imbue its failure with its own blend of artifice and truth, cliche and possibility, openness and closedness, creating something that may prove to be classic ... the book feels of a piece with the autofiction for which the Norwegian novelist is best known ... What is so compelling about the book, though, is that this longed-for unifying element and these supposed truisms become themselves suspect as the book approaches its terminus.
A more accurate title would have been 'Munch and Me: The Most Famous Norwegian Writer Since Knut Hamsun Considers the Most Famous Norwegian Painter Ever.' Very little space is given over to the details of Munch’s life; instead, the book considers what it means to be an artist in general and what it meant to be a highly talented artist from a restrictive Scandinavian background, obsessed with a peculiar set of personal issues, and living in a time of radical change, artistic and otherwise ... This book is an account of Knausgaard trying to come to terms with the giant. As a writer rather than an art historian, his discussion of paintings largely involves description ... In writing about Munch, [Knausgaard] considers the work of another specialist in cultural excavation. And specialists get paid well.
This is an affecting but strangely structured book. It begins midstream, with deconstructions of various paintings before any biographical context is provided. But, while the authorial journey as a thread feels a little flimsy at first, Knausgaard’s charm gradually takes hold. He brings a refreshing — at times comical — naivety to the rarefied art world.