Karl Ove Knausgård in 2012. Photo: Berit Roald / Scanpix
Norwegian literary star Karl Ove Knausgård has launched an extraordinary attack on the Swedes, damning them as a race of narrow-minded “Cyclops” who cannot tolerate ambiguity, have no understanding of literature, and are “full of hate and fear”.
The bitter 3,000 word rant, published in the Dagens Nyheter newspaper, is a response to an article in the same paper
by the feminist Ebba Witt-Brattström, which described Knausgård’s first novel ‘Out of the World’, just now translated into Swedish, as a type of “literary paedophilia”.
But it also mercilessly tears apart what Knausgård sees as Swedes’ black and white approach to race, immigration, gender, and sex, lampooning the nation’s tendency to repress complex or difficult ideas, and its fear of moral uncertainty.
“The reason there’s so much hate among the Cyclops and so much terror I believe is simple,” he writes. “The Cyclops don’t want to know about that part of reality which isn’t how they think it should be.”
Knausgård has now lived in Sweden for some 13 years, moving to Stockholm in 2002 when he began a relationship with the Swedish poet Linda Boström, after which they moved first to Malmö, and then to a village in the Skåne countryside.
But he does not appear to have learnt to love his adopted countrymen.
In his article, he attacks Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Löfven for describing the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats as a “neo-fascist party”.
“Everyone knows it isn’t true, but that doesn’t matter because if they think differently on such a sensitive question, they must be fascists,” he argues.
“The Cyclops believe that their picture of reality is the same for everyone, and if there’s anywhere which doesn’t agree, like for example their neighbours Denmark, they get angry with the Danes.”
Within hours of Knaugård's article being published, Jonas Gardell, a Swedish comic novelist and high profile cultural figure, had attacked him in Expressen newspaper for “suddenly and without warning defending the Sweden Democrats”.
He complained that Knausgård had called the Sweden Democrats a ”legitimate” party, and mocked Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Löfven for calling them neo-fascists.
It’s clear that Knausgård doesn’t approve of the Swedish consensus on immigration, but he is perhaps at his most offensive when he gets onto the Swedes’ relationship with literature.
“The Cyclops cannot handle ambiguity, if something’s neither good or evil, they don’t understand and it makes them angry. That’s why they don’t like literature,” he argues.
“They say they like literature, but the literature they like is only a confirmation of their picture of good and evil, and that isn’t literature, but only something that looks like it.”
Knausgård seems angry at Swedish reviewers who he says have, amongst other things, compared him to the mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, called him a Nazi, a misogynist, woman-hater, and most recently a ‘literary paedophile’.
“So what was my crime?” he asks rhetorically. “I wrote a novel.”
“That’s how it goes in the land of the Cyclops,” he explains. “The Cyclops get angry and throw big stones at anyone who says anything they don’t like or understand. That frightens the other Cyclops, because they know that if they say something that the others don’t like or understand, then the angry Cyclops are going to start throwing stones at them. That’s why the Cyclops are either angry or silent.”
He argues that the messy nature of relationships between men and women and between their own and other cultures makes these issues impossibly difficult for Swedes.
“The relationship between women and men confuses them, because it isn’t unambiguous, and the relationship between people from their own culture and other cultures, which also isn’t unambiguous, worries them in the same way. That’s why the Cyclops are always angry when they talk about gender and immigration.”
Finally, he gets onto the discussion of the immediate cause of his complaint, his 1998 novel ‘Out of the World’, which is about a 26-year-old teacher who falls in love with an 11-year-old student.
“Why did I write that? Did I not know that sexual relationships with minors are forbidden, and something deeply repulsive and reprehensible? That it is immoral?”
“Yes, of course I knew that," he answers.
“But why write something immoral, when I knew it was wrong? That is the Cyclops’ question.”
Knausgård then makes an eloquent defence of the need for literature to explore grey areas uncertainty, attacking on the Cyclops’ version of it, which he complains is too prescriptive and dogmatic to count as literature.
“What happens to a society which stops relating itself to what there is, but instead relates itself to what it doesn’t want to have, a society which can’t look at the truth with its own eyes without looking away, which puts 'should' over 'is'?" he asks.
“The cultural pages of the Cyclops’ newspapers are anti-literature, because morality stands above literature, and ideology stands above morality. Literature is not free in the land of the Cyclops.”
In his conclusion, Knausgård returns to Ebba Witt-Brattström’s article.
“To be called a paedophile in the Cyclops’ biggest quality newspaper is not a pleasant experience," he points out. "I have four children and the oldest has started reading the newspaper, and I’m just waiting for the question, “Dad, what’s a paedophile?”.