Karl O. Knausgaard - A luminous flight of fancy on the nature of angels, man and God + a six-volume literary epic based on his family and, in particular, his relationship with his father
Karl O. Knausgaard, A Time for Everything, Trans. by James Anderson, Archipelago Books, 2009.
"In the sixteenth century, Antinous Bellori, a boy of eleven, is lost in a dark forest and stumbles upon two glowing beings, one carrying a spear, the other a flaming torch... This event is decisive in Bellori’s life, and he thereafter devotes himself to the pursuit and study of angels, the intermediaries of the divine. Beginning in the Garden of Eden and soaring through to the present, A Time for Everything reimagines pivotal encounters between humans and angels: the glow of the cherubim watching over Eden; the profound love between Cain and Abel despite their differences; Lot’s shame in Sodom; Noah’s isolation before the flood; Ezekiel tied to his bed, prophesying ferociously; the death of Christ; and the emergence of sensual, mischievous cherubs in the seventeenth century. Alighting upon these dramatic scenes – from the Bible and beyond – Knausgaard’s imagination takes flight: the result is a dazzling display of storytelling at its majestic, spellbinding best. Incorporating and challenging tradition, legend, and the Apocrypha, these penetrating glimpses hazard chilling questions: can the nature of the divine undergo change, and can the immortal perish?
"this strange and serious novel of ideas is an admirably imaginative contemporary reinterpretation of characters whose odd, splendid appearances in Christian mythology are made all the more mysterious for being matter-of-fact and never fully explained."—Metro UK
"Knausgaard joins the ranks of the greatest storytellers of our time. His glittering prose is purposeful, precise, and poetic... There can be no doubt about his extraordinary talent: only the work of a master can be thought provoking on so many levels yet retain a lightness of touch." —Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
"This ambitious, meandering novel begins in 16th-century Italy, when young Antonius Bellori encounters two angels while lost in the woods. Bellori becomes a Renaissance theologian dedicated to documenting the ‘‘history’’ of angels. The novel then mirrors this task by retelling Biblical encounters with angels from Adam and Eve to Noah’s ark, in a fresh reworking of Old Testament times. The novel’s title, from a line in Ecclesiastes, is an apt description of the Norwiegan Karl O Knausgaard’s writing." - Heather McRobie
"Although the subject matter suggests either New Age ramblings or a Da Vinci Code-style page-turner, Knausgaard treats his subjects with idiosyncratic seriousness, reflecting on the changing nature of angels as conveyed by their depictions in medieval and Renaissance art and literature, and retelling Biblical stories – including Cain's murder of his brother Abel and the Crucifixion – to expand on the tales where angels put in an appearance.
There are times when it gets waffly, and the digressions and narrative jumps can be discomfiting.
Nonetheless, this strange and serious novel of ideas is an admirably imaginative contemporary reinterpretation of characters whose odd, splendid appearances in Christian mythology are made all the more mysterious for being matter-of-fact and never fully explained." - Tina Jackson
"One of the most interesting books of 2009 was Karl Knausgaard's A Time for Everything. Generally books with religious or spiritual themes do not particularly attract me. But this year I not only reread all the publications of Flannery O'Connor—works immersed in her deep Catholicism—but for four weeks buried myself in Knausgaard's profound retellings of Biblical stories from Abel and Cain, Noah and the Flood, Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Ezekiel, and other tales involving angels. I also reread these works in the Bible, rediscovering in the process how significantly this Norwegian author has expanded them, psychologizing his figures, and placing them into an anachronistic setting that would remind one of the novels of Knut Hamsun. Indeed, the Old Testament figures of Knausgaard's versions live a in world of fjords, wooden houses and barns, and changing seasons that resemble his native Norway.
For that reason, of course, most fundamentalists would abhor this religious fiction; in fact even some church liberals might describe the work as heresy. Yet Knausgaard's complex sentences draw one into to the Biblical stories in a way that helps one to make sense of the spiritual issues of each.
In this writer's retelling of the Cain and Abel story, for example, Abel is a talented and appealing figure, drawing everyone to him through his singing and storytelling and intense good looks. He is beloved by all, particularly by his Father. Cain is more stolid, less attractive, slow to speak; yet in many respects he is the more loving of the two as he carefully analyzes family relationships, painfully seeking a way to ingratiate himself with both his father and brother. Because he is so gifted, Abel is also often cruel, unable to contain his sometimes destructive curiosity. When a family shepherder is found dying of wounds inflicted by a bear, the brothers agree that they must kill him so that he no longer suffers. Yet Abel draws out the process in an attempt, so it appears, to explore the body parts; Cain is forced to step in, ending the boy's life quickly by thrusting a rock upon his head.
Later, Abel tries to reenter Eden in an attempt to find the Tree of Life, and is horribly burned by the Angels. In his deep love for his brother, Cain gently nurses him again to life, yet Abel, thought to be in a coma during his illness, later mocks Cain's gentle musings. Ultimately, Cain's murder of Abel seems almost inevitable, the only way, perhaps, to save Abel from his own self-destruction.
Similarly, the simple Bible story of Noah is focused less on Noah and his construction of the Arc than on the family he has left behind in the valley, fleshing out their daily activities, their loves, fears, and hates. The God who destroys them indeed is an angry and jealous God, and the dark black visage of Noah and his arc rises up in this telling as a kind of cruel and uncaring force, not unlike the all-white Moby Dick.
Threading these various tales together is Knausgaard's retelling of the story and writings of the Sixteenth century figure Antinous Bellori, who, after seeing two angels at the age of eleven, spent most of the rest of his life studying and contemplating the lives of the angels, collecting his findings in On the Nature of Angels.
His questions are profound. Why, for example, did God destroy the Earth? Yes mankind had been evil, but how had that evil changed so significantly that God was determined to begin the process over again, to destroy all but a single family? Why did the angels appear infrequently as messengers from God in the early part of the Bible, but appear more often to people in later ages until finally, with the Birth of Christ, they completely disappeared, only to return after Christ's death with increasing frequency, this time as small and bothersome baby-like beings, "tubby little infantile figures" who, as the composer Scarlatti reports, had to be rooted out of the house because of their robbery of food and dirty activities?
In an attempt to understand these radical changes, Knausgaard, with Bellori's help, explores the changing role of angels, from messengers to beings who sometimes behaved, in the case of the Lot story, more like men. Knausgaard through Bellori believes he can explain the cause of God's anger and his destruction of mankind through apocryphal writings in The Book of Enoch and The Book of the Apocalypse of Baruch which suggest that the angels had taken wives and partners in their mingling with human beings, producing the "giants in the earth," the Nephilim, described in the Bible. According to Enoch, beside their carnal lust, the angels had grown too close to man, sharing with human beings "knowledge about everything from medicine, mining, and weaponry to astronomy, astrology, and alchemy," knowledge that man, apparently, was never meant to have. It was not mankind that had changed, it was the relation of man and the sacred that doomed the human race.
The various changes of the angels themselves are explained by Bellori in a manner that is strangely similar to Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection. According to Bellori, Christ was not just a symbolic or temporary manifestation of God the Father, but was God himself, the spirit become a carnate being in order to save Man. His death, accordingly, was also the real death of God, and with God's death the angels had nowhere else to go. In order to survive among mankind they transformed themselves from the fiery, fearsome and horrific winged beings who Bellori witnessed as a child and who later may have killed him into more appealing looking figures, resembling human infants. With God's death in Christ, they were forced to extinguish their own inner fire. When that transformation also failed, so Knausgaard seems to suggest, they become, as legend has it, seagulls, the highly intelligent birds of the Lariade family who have small, finger-like appendages under their wings.
If all this text (452 pages before the "Coda") sounds a bit like heretical nonsense, one might recall that Bellori's writing was labeled as such. But Knausgaard's work is not so much a religious exegesis, but a fictional speculation in the guise of a religious exegesis, a form, I am certain, that will put off many readers. Some English critics (where this book bore the less lyrical title of A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven) criticized the work for its extended arguments and overinflated sentences.
Yet any attentive reader can realize that Knausgaard is a superb stylist (as is the book's excellent translator, James Anderson), capable as he is also of a more pared-down narrative evident in his "Coda."
This last section "explains," or perhaps I should say "reveals" those significant changes in the relation of humans to the divine. In Henrik Vankell's isolated and gull-covered island, man is represented as a sinner who has no one to turn to, but is able only, as so much Scandinavian literature and film reiterates, to turn within. We are never told what terrible crimes Vankell (a character who appears in two other Knausgaard fictions) has committed or what awful act of self-destruction his father committed that helped mold Vankell's being. We only know that he has run from human company and finds his only solace in the silence of this barren but beautiful landscape.
On the day we follow him he does, primarily, what he does every day: walk various routes along the ocean according to set and ritualistic patterns, eat, fish (quite ineffectively), and watch the few islanders move about. But on this day, his mother calls having had bad dreams which she sees as tokens of something about to happen. A ship that inexplicably enters the harbor, terrifies Vankell. Yet there are no other signs that he might accomplish the horrifying self-immolation that by book's end he has achieved. Slowly, without explanation, he cuts himself down his chest and mutilates his arms and face, sitting in a hot tub of water, apparently awaiting death.
But then who could be telling this first-person story? Despite his self-punishment he has perhaps survived, a survival which may signify that despite this man's immense separation from his spirit, he has found a way of truly forgiving himself, perhaps in the telling of this spiritual story." - Douglas Messerli
"Knausgaard’s most evident strength as a writer is his gift for minute description, especially of nature, but also of the human psyche. A Time for Everything begins in a northern Italian forest with an eleven-year-old boy, Antinous Bellori, who has wandered off by himself to fish one afternoon in 1562, and the moment, however distant in time and place, becomes entirely ours by a combination of narration in the present tense and the careful appeal to every one of our senses, including that sixth sense of foreboding:
When he gets into the valley, he’s struck by how silent it is. The air is quite stagnant between the trees, as if exhausted by the heat. The shade beneath the treetops is scaled by shafts of light, filled in places by small pockets of swarming insects. There is the scent of resin, dry pine needles, warm earth. The water in the stream he’s following is greenish black in the gloom beneath the great conifers, blue and sparkling where the sky opens up above it, shiny white and frothing in the terracelike falls leading to the little lake in the middle of the valley.
Then, in what will become a recurrent theme of the book, the boy Bellori loses his bearings, first in a physical sense, when he loses track of time by ignoring the signs of its passage all around him:
As the sun goes own, he’s lying on his stomach in front of a huge anthill studying the strange life going on there. He doesn’t notice that the sun’s rays are moving higher and higher up the mountainsides and that the valley around him is gradually filling with darkness. Nor does he register that the birds have stopped singing, or that the constant hum of insects gradually decreases.
More importantly, however, he also loses his moral bearings. Curiosity verges into vandalism, and Knausgaard carefully tracks this transgression step by step:
After a while he takes a twig and pokes it gingerly into the anthill, curious to see the chaos this causes, the furious concentration of thin legs and chubby bodies as the ants come streaming up from all directions. At the same time he finds it repulsive, he doesn’t really want to destroy their work, but there is something almost magical about being able to influence a chain of events in this way, and he’s not really ruining their anthill, is he? They’re so hardworking, they’ll soon have it mended again.
But then, the destructive impulse possesses him entirely:
As parts of the anthill have already fallen in, he may as well continue, he thinks. At the same time he begins to despise what he’s doing. But in a strange way, it’s precisely this disgust that causes him to carry on. He knows just how strong his remorse will be when it’s over, and he wants to put that moment off for as long as possible, while his despair at what he’s doing creates a kind of fury within him. He begins to kick at the anthill, more and more wildly, not stopping until it has collapsed completely and the ground around him is dark with crawling ants. Then he throws down his stick and hurries away.
It is a familiar story of boys and the way that a random act can degenerate into havoc. Saint Augustine talked in the same tones (as Knausgaard is surely aware) about stealing the fruit from a pear tree and throwing it at the pigs. In each case, the act is not so terribly vicious in itself, but it is freighted with the awareness of viciousness, with awareness of positive joy taken in viciousness. When Antinous finally comes to his senses, he realizes that he is hopelessly lost in the woods, and that he is lost for the same reasons that he wrecked the anthill. The pace of the narration accelerates with the boy’s growing desperation as he thrashes through the forest, and then it pulls up short: for he spots two angels fishing in the river by torchlight. They are not the kind of angels who wear white robes and play harps; these two are clad in chain mail and carry weapons. When they catch a fish, they eat it raw, tearing it with their teeth, as feral as the little mermaid in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s exquisite short story “The Professor and the Mermaid.”
As Antinous watches them, one of the strange, pale angels emits a shriek of terrifying loneliness, so dreadful that the boy almost changes his mind about the nature of angels on the spot—they suddenly seem almost as vicious as humankind. Quickly, however, he returns to feeling their presence as pure joy. This vision, our narrator assures us, suddenly intervening as an overt presence, will spur the mature Antinous Bellori to write a magisterial treatise on angels, and to spend the rest of his life trying to find them again. Both he and his treatise are Knausgaard’s inventions, but they seem as real, and as tangible, as these two wayward angels.
Abruptly, then, the narrator takes over entirely from what has been a breathless, gripping story of Antinous Bellori and pauses, in his slightly pedantic tone, to tell us about the history of angels. When he resumes his storytelling, he will not return to this young boy in Italy, but shift instead to the Holy Land and the Hebrew Bible, setting us down in Sodom at the moment where the angels meet Lot the patriarch. Most of the rest of the book, in fact, is set in biblical times; from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah the story moves back to the Garden of Eden, then to Cain and Abel, and then on to the Sons of God who mingle with the daughters of man, and thence to Noah and the Flood. The narrator declares, and shows by example, that there have been profound changes in God and the angels since those earliest times, but offers no comment about the irrepressible, often gratuitous violence of human nature, which seems to persist as immutably as God and the angels are changeable. Original sin is alive in Knausgaard’s Holy Land.
It is a remarkable Holy Land: not a Mediterranean desert, but rather a Scandinavian forest, whose dwellers seem to have tools, and shoes, and carpentry—a whole series of unexpected conveniences for such ancient times. All these details, however, are drawn from a real work of antiquarian history, the Swedish savant Olof Rudbeck’s masterwork, Atlantica, or Atland eller Manheim, published in a sequence of four bilingual Latin-Swedish volumes between 1679 and 1702. Best known today for his identification of the lymphatic system, Rudbeck also served the city of Uppsala as fire chief, professor of anatomy, and purveyor of pickled herring. He collected and studied runes. He designed the anatomical theater at the University of Uppsala. He is honored today at the University of Padua as one of its forty most illustrious foreign alumni (though he may not, in fact, have studied there).
As he reached middle age, Rudbeck became convinced that Plato’s description of Atlantis perfectly fit the ancient Viking earthworks of Uppsala—and not only Atlantis, but also the Garden of Eden. Hence Sweden was the true Holy Land, and the Hebrew of the biblical patriarchs, he declared, must lie at the root of the Swedish language. Atland eller Manheim explained all these mysteries and more, including what Noah and his companions ate on the Ark (“What did they eat? Fish”), and the fact that the Trojan War represented the second great Swedish incursion into Europe (the first invasion followed on the destruction of the Tower of Babel, which Nimrod had raised, needless to say, in Sweden). This was heady stuff, and it is not surprising to find, on the frontispiece of Atland eller Manheim, a dimwitted person so drunk at the font of Rudbeck’s erudition that he is throwing it all up.
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Scandinavian Holy Land is an equally potent brew, in which the glimmers of savagery we have seen in Antinous Bellori surface as raw violence with Abel long before Cain has conceived the idea of killing him, and then surface again and again in the long, terrifying chronicles of the Hebrew Bible. The most dramatic episode, in our own age of global warming, is surely that of the Flood, which we see from the viewpoint of the people who are forced to flee the rising waters as Noah casts off in his Ark.
Throughout this narrative, we watch God evolve, but the angels degenerate, until they have become the wild, almost mortal creatures that Antinous Bellori observes in the woods. They are earthbound, but rather than turning into the kindly ponytailed creatures in trenchcoats that soften the hard edges of pre-Unification Berlin in Wim Wenders’s 1987 film Wings of Desire—which a writer of this generation must certainly know—these angels keep to themselves, and they feel nothing as gentle as compassion or empathy. They are survivors red in tooth and claw no less than the other creatures of the earth. Eventually the narrator will return to Bellori, now a mature man and an author, but still in pursuit of his angels. And with this resolution of Bellori’s life, we might expect A Time for Everything to end.
Instead, the novel makes one more shift, away from angels, away from God, and into the mind of a disturbed young man of about thirty. His name is Henrik Vankel, familiar to Norwegian readers because he was the protagonist of Knausgaard’s first novel, Ute av verden (Out of the World) of 1998. There, Vankel was a schoolteacher disastrously obsessed with one of the girls he teaches. Here, Vankel (and it must be the same Vankel, and also, therefore, our academically minded narrator) has retreated, after some shameful deed he never reveals, to one of those remote, barren islands that occur in such profusion on the Swedish coast.
Vankel’s inner life is as bleak as the seashore where he passes his days: the angels have devolved at last into ill-tempered seagulls, God is dead, or at least withdrawn from the world, and Vankel can only ponder the grand designs of divinity and nature through pain, whether it is self-inflicted physical pain or existential Weltschmerz. Knausgaard creates Vankel’s penitential desert with the same fine perception of sensory detail and spiritual desolation that brought his Rudbeckian Holy Land to life, and before that, the North Italian selva oscura where Antinous Bellori lost his way and found his angels. In a recent interview, Knausgaard answered the question “What is the most important lesson that life has taught you?” with “That it doesn’t really matter.”1 Henrik Vankel would probably concur, but he is too self- destructively crazy to sound convincingly prophetic. He does not provide a key to the book so much as he opens another set of questions.
Whatever we are to make of this long novel of ideas, it will not be flattering to humanity. The trees, plants, birds, and beasts—especially the fish—exact our compassion and admiration far more than its people or its pale, wizened angels. The descriptions of forests, floods, streams, fields, and Henrik Vankel’s secluded island are ravishing, and they work in surprising accord with Vankel’s initial antiquarian interventions: taken together, these strangely juxtaposed qualities create the feeling that we are being transported, again and again, into some primordial world. And in every corner of that primordial world we watch the full enormity of human history as it spins out the ancient tale of the Garden of Eden, where God, man, nature, and angels once lived together in tranquility, but have long ceased to do so anymore." - Ingrid D. Rowland
"For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we just barely endure and we admire it so because it serenely disdains to destroy us. Every angel is dreadful." —Rainer Maria Rilke, The Duino Elegies
One can provoke considerable abuse by the truthful observation that the Western worship of divine beings is grounded in several distinct but related instances of literary representation." —Harold Bloom, Fallen Angels
For three millennia, the vogue of depicting angels in literature has waxed and waned but has never been fully eclipsed. Fro their origins in Zoroastrianism in ancient Persia and the Old and New Testaments, literary representations of angels became increasingly complex, refined, and contradictory, reaching an apogee in The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost, where they were enlisted in no less a project than justifying “the ways of God to men.” Angels have fallen far since. The millennium brought a host of angels in books, movies and television shows but without flaming swords, fire and brimstone, or joint-dislocating wrestling matches. Instead, the angels were mostly depicted as kindly, maternal women of a certain age eager to help those in need or bumbling middle-aged men somewhat gone to seed. Shelves of self-help books guide readers through the finer points of angelic numerology and advise them on how to be in touch with their own, personal guardian spirits. Recently angels have begun nudging vampires off the young adult bestseller lists. To do this, they are necessarily more threatening and sexually assertive than the admirably self-controlled blood-sucking Edward of Twilight. More Nephilim than putti, these angels are simple variations on familiar villains of the thriller genre. God’s dread messengers have become as domesticated as the once formidable adjective “awesome”.
There have been a few bracing antidotes to this epidemic of angelic schlock. The most recent is the Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Time for Everything. Part biography of Antinous Bellori, a fictional sixteenth-century theologian and angelologist, part alternative Biblical exegesis, and part reimagining of the stories of Noah, Lot, Ezekiel, and Cain and Abel, it is a looser, baggier monster than anything Henry James might have been willing to recognize as a novel. Still, this is a work of impressive ambition and considerable, if intermittent, power.
It is a visionary exploration of the nature of the divine, of knowledge and belief and the authority of scriptures, religious and secular. And if its visions are digressive, idiosyncratic and anachronistic, they have their own internal logic and seductive intensity. The novel’s imaginative ground is a fault line between two world views, the transition in the sixteenth century from medieval thought to seventeenth-century Enlightenment, a move brought about by thinkers confident that “truth lay outside collective knowledge.” Knausgaard posits Bellori in the company of Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz, and Newton, members of a new intellectual species, for whom “knowledge was indissolubly linked to their individual lives, severed from the general context from which it had originally been won, with all the resultant loneliness, spiritual crisis, and megalomania.” They were not unlike hermit crabs changing shells, “quite naked and vulnerable, always alert, always on the brink of scampering back to the old shell, until they’d crossed the invisible line and the new shell lay closer.” But Antinous Bellori chose a different shell than these Enlightenment pioneers. Their writing, once daring and revolutionary, eventually hardened in familiarity. Knausgaard interrupts that epistemological dynamic, in which writing simultaneously preserves knowledge and distorts it by encapsulating it, shell-like, outside the context in which it was formed, by creating a new context for canonical works. To avoid calcification, we must constantly recover writings eclipsed by others, for “our world is only one of many possible worlds, something of which the writings of Antinous and his contemporaries serve to remind us in no small measure.” A Time for Everything is a vivid thought experiment in alternate world-views, in what would have happened had Bellori’s ideas prevailed over Newton’s. One can’t argue with gravity, of course, but what if?
The novel opens in the early 1560s. Lost in a dark wood early in his life’s journey, the eleven-year-old Antinous Bellori stumbled on two angels standing in a river. Far from the majestic luminous beings come to earth bearing God’s message in the Bible or the chubby, rosy-cheeked cherubs that crowd paintings of the Baroque and the Renaissance, these angels are almost loathsome. Trembling with hunger, they tear at the flesh of the fish they have caught, scales clinging to their chins. “Their face are white and skull-like, their eye sockets deep, cheekbones high, lips bloodless. They have long, fair hair, thin necks, slender wrists, claw-like fingers. And they’re shaking. One of them has hands that shake.” The angels’ wings glimmer green and black and their porcelain-blue eyes stare ahead fixedly, strangely independent of their movements. They examine Antinous, lying prostrate with fear, then disappear in a blaze of light. Antinous will devote the next four decades of his life to recapturing the sense of terror and joy of that sight, searching throughout Europe for traces of angelic visitation and completing his monumental treatise, On the Nature of Angels.
Bellori published this work anonymously in 1584 to avoid being tried for heresy by the Inquisition. His fundamental conclusion was more than cause enough for him to be burned at the stake. Bellori’s close study of the 189 angelic manifestations in the Bible, accounts of non-Biblical manifestations, along with “every conceivable and inconceivable text in which angels figured,” led him to question the very nature of God. “It is not the divine that is immutable and the human that is changeable,” he wrote. “The opposite is true and is the real theme of the Bible: the alteration in the divine from the creation to the death of Jesus Christ.” Furthermore it was human understanding that had wrought the change. Bellori believed that “the worship of its immaterial aspects had distorted the divine and turned it into something else, into something abstract and written, while in reality it was corporeal and concrete, as the angels he’d seen quite clearly showed. “Soon after On the Nature of Angels was published, it was placed on the Vatican’s index of forbidden books. All but a few copies were burned. Bellori’s anonymity did not protect him for long. He was found out and interrogated. He recanted, convincingly pleaded insanity, and was released. Although he never published another word on the subject, he persisted in his quest, spending his final queers tracking the degenerate angels. Forty-three years after his first sighting, he found the angels again, considerably more decrepit, desperate, and savage, snarling at each other over a slaughtered roe deer calf. His diary breaks off abruptly after he describes this encounter, with an explanation that he must confirm a suspicion about the angels. Sometime later a body, presumed to be Bellori’s, was found, mauled beyond recognition on a remote mountainside in 1606.
At this point, the novel’s unidentified narrator, previously measured and self-effacing, becomes more intrusive and the theological speculation more extreme. From posthumous papers, he reconstructs Bellori’s second revelation, more revolutionary than the mutability of the divine. In the Cappella della Scrovegni in Padua, Bellori had seen the fresco of Christ’s Passion and was dumbstruck by Giotto’s depiction of the angels’ frenzied grief, a painterly truth that ran counter to and, for Bellori, superseded the medieval thought he had spent his life examining. The angels above the Crucifixion scene
seem to be breaking forth from the somber heavens. Their movements are violent and expressive, they fill the sky with motion and drama, I contrast to the lifeless Christ, the grieving Mary. The picture is condensed: there is redemption here, resignation, adoration, sorrow. It shows the moment when Jesus is most like us, he’s dying like a man, at the same time he’s moving away from us … presence and absence at one and the same time, God and man.
Yet the angels evince none of this resignation. They see, better than any human had then or since, the true implications of the crucifixion.
One of them closes his eyes, his mouth twisted in tears, as he clutches his face with both his hands, fingertips to his cheeks as if about to claw himself. Another is pictured in a strangely distorted posture, the upper half of his body lifted as if in ecstasy. A third opens his arms as if in embrace or surrender. … God had emptied himself into Christ and become man. And as a man he’d died. The angles alone remained, that was why they were insane with grief, and why their lives had altered so dramatically in the centuries that followed. God was dead on the cross, and the angels were imprisoned here.
Bellori had noted that after the Annunciation, no angels appear again in the Bible until Christ’s death, as if they had warily withdrawn in puzzlement awaiting God’s next move. And upon Christ’s death, the angels, God’s messengers, were stranded. They belonged neither on earth nor to heaven. This was their final fall.
The angels, caught in the gravitational pull of base, earthly desires, began to proliferate but could not leave this world. They lost more and more divine attributes, degenerating into the creatures Bellori happened upon over 400 years ago. Concerned that if humans saw the extent of their “hunger, lust, and savagery,” they would be hunted down and killed, the angels took on what they thought would be the most innocent form possible, that of “human, baby-like beings.” In the early seventeenth century, hundreds of chubby, winged, naked children spread out over Europe as reflected in the paintings of the time. At first the cherubs were greeted with joy and affection, but their undiminished hunger In the early seventeenth century, hundreds of chubby, winged, naked children spread out over Europe as reflected in the paintings of the time. At first the cherubs were greeted with joy and affection, but their undiminished hunger and greed eventually turned men against them. They had to be chased from the rafters with broomsticks. Windows had to be kept shut and larders locked against them. They were soon reduced to scavenging for food in refuse piles and back alleys. At this point their physiognomy began to change rapidly. They shrank in size, and feathers sprouted not just on their wings but all over their bodies. After a few generations of starving and squabbling, they were indistinguishable from seagulls, and the connection between these creatures and their divine ancestors slipped from collective memory.
Knausgaard’s mysterious narrator substantiates Bellori’s theories and investigations with reinterpretations of Biblical stories, expanded with faithfulness to poetic truth rather than historical accuracy. The land of Nod, where Noah prepares for the Flood, resembles a pastoral nineteenth-century Norway, with fjords. The inhabitants have guns, stoves, and kitchen sinks. They use sleds and cross-country skies. Noah’s brother-in-law tries unsuccessfully to raise mink for their fur. Cain and Abel live close enough to the Garden of Eden to see the light of the cherubim guarding it, yet in winter, they wander through snow-covered mountains. For the local harvest festival—they live in a village, not alone on the earth with Adam and Eve—they put on their best clothes: white shirts, button-fly trousers, and red suspenders. By decontextualizing these familiar stories, Knausgaard sharpens his focus on the protagonists’ inner lives, for which the Bible spares not a word.
From twelve verses in the Old Testament and an apocryphal fragment of fifteen lines that tell of Abel’s attempt to reenter the Garden of Eden and find the tree of life, the narrator spins out an encapsulated novella of 100 pages about the brothers, familiar in outline but wondrous strange in detail. Cain is taciturn, melancholy, awkward and, despite his feelings of inferiority, utterly devoted to his charismatic younger brother. He is contented with his lot as tiller of the earth, but Abel cannot resist the pull of knowledge—he eviscerates a dying shepherd in order to find the sources of his life and his pain—much less the promise of eternal life. After several attempts to sneak by the cherubim guarding the tree of life, Abel is a wreck, raving, delusional, burned over most of his body. Cain kills him not out of jealousy but to save him from a worse fate.
Knausgaard’s version of the great Flood is twice as long as his retelling of Cain and Abel. His Noah is a reclusive albino, beekeeper, and natural biologist. His father Lethem, at the summer fair, stands for hours to see the remains of a grotesque, humanoid creature with a face of surpassing beauty. Despite his revulsion, Lethem studies it carefully, knowing of Noah’s fascination with all life forms. It is one of the Nephilim, the antediluvian angels mentioned in the Old Testament, the “sons of God” who were so taken with lust for the “daughters of men” that they interbred with them bearing progeny who were neither angel nor human. Noah hears God’s word and follows his instructions to the letter. As the waters rise over the land of Nod and its inhabitants retreat to ever higher ground, Knausgaard charts their progression from denial through resignation to despair. The ark must float by these mountaintop islands within earshot of their huddled refugees, among whom is Noah’s sister, beseeching his help. These stories also provide fodder for the narrator’s theological speculation. He offers textual evidence from the Bible and from Bellori’s treatise to support his claim that God’s wrath was not caused by man’s wickedness but by the Nephilim’s miscegenation. It was they He wanted to annihilate in the Flood, not mankind.
The narrator’s identity is revealed only belatedly in a coda whose only apparent connection to the preceding 450 pages is thematic echoes. The narrator, Henrik Vankel, has exiled himself to a remote, barely inhabited Norwegian island as a result of an unspecified transgression. He slashes his chest and face with a shard of glass in a desperate attempt to achieve a sense of transcendence through pain, but he gets no existential relief. Cut off from the divine, he cannot atone for his sin.
Although Knausgaard’s faux-theological pedantry occasionally drags, he is a gripping storyteller. His eye for detail is precise and judicious, and his orchestration of interconnected themes adept. For all its dizzying layering of texts within texts, this work is itself the second section of a much larger, three-part fictional autobiography. Archipelago Books will publish the multivolume third part, Min Kamp or My Struggle, with its intentional allusion to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, in the next year or two.
In his book-length essay, Fallen Angels, Harold Bloom attributes our widespread New-Ageist trend of sentimentalizing angels to “the American evasion of the reality principle, that is the necessity of dying.” Yet, this hunger for divine kitsch is more complex than a simple refusal to face reality. Americans do appear well-steeped in denial about the inevitability not just of death but also of aging. Still, Knausgaard’s suggestion that our representations of angels are both determined by and in turn influence the fluid relationship between the human and divine is more intriguing and satisfying than simple denial. On the evidence of popular and even middlebrow culture, we often call on angels, directly or indirectly through the medium of New Age angelicism, to intercede in our lives, to solve our problems, to save or cure us, to answer our prayers. A Time for Everything investigates the sources of the modern longing for belief without faith, the hunger for certainty, and the triumph of wishful thinking. And what it offers are the rigors of imagination as an equally intangible, but more substantial consolation than mere wishfulness." - Tess Lewis
"Long before the back and forth between religion and science, literature has been an irritant and a helpmate to belief. Because the continual transmission of spiritual practices relies on the transformative power of storytelling, there is a kinship between the appeal of Scripture to the catechumen's sensibility and the grander aims of secular literature. In both instances, the success of a text may be reckoned by its potential to modulate a worldview, or bring clarity to universal concerns.
That said, at least since the time when Plato anointed itinerant versifiers with myrrh and wreathes before shooing them away from his utopia, the subversive potential of literature has been appreciated. Censors throughout the millennia have grasped that dogma is not literature's forte. At heart, fiction and poetry are wildcards capable of shoring up a perceived truth or pillorying it, or zipping between both extremes on the fly.
In his impressively ambitious book, A Time for Everything, the Norwegian novelist Karl O. Knausgaard uses fiction's license to advance and undermine piety. Charting the relationship between humanity and the divine, in light of the angelic manifestations in the Bible, Knausgaard adds a new coat of palpability to a selection of Biblical stories by injecting them with emotional resonances that are latent or missing from the source material. The liberties he takes are generally compelling.
In his retelling of the story of Cain and Abel, the angels figure on the periphery as sentinels posted at the entrance to the Garden of Eden. Initially, the plot canters along a psychologically pedestrian bridle path; Cain is portrayed as loner, who is forever being eclipsed by his extroverted younger brother. Then at one gruesome point, the tale shrugs off its predictability by ascribing Abel with a touch of sadism. This enriches the nuances of the brothers' relationship exponentially.
Though a tragic outcome is never in question, Knausgaard's creative inventions lend the story an intensity lacking in its laconic, scriptural counterpart. It should be said that sometimes these Miltonic attempts to supplement, daresay, outperform the Biblical narratives are undermined by rather hammy anachronisms--e.g. Noah's future brother-in-law plays poker. While it could be postulated that Knausgaard lards his book with such details to display an easygoing side, he does this fine in other places (Lot and his wife are a hoot) without these garish wink-winks.
A Time for Everything prosecutes the case for divine mutability. The narrator, whose identity is explored in the coda (which one could imagine as a fully fleshed out treatment for a Lars von Trier film), is versatile at voicing this claim along literary and hermeneutical lines with fluctuating seriousness.
Donning a pleasant, scholarly tone, he engages in a close reading of the Bible that pays heed to God's changing behavior toward mankind: The punitive deity who sends the Flood; the lamenting deity who bids Ezekiel to eat the honey-flavored scrolls; the radical deity who, by incarnating himself in the figure of Christ, quests for total empathy with his creation. For the narrator, these and other examples attest to a creator who has a finite understanding of his creation, which should not be construed as an attempt to divest God of His grandeur, but as cogent assessment of His attributes." - Christopher Byrd
"By the time Antinous Bellori encounters angels in what we can euphemistically call the flesh, the creatures are no longer those divine messengers familiar from the Old Testament. Nor have they yet mutated into the chubby, rosy-cheeked babies hoisting puffy clouds that Tiepolo et al. gloried in depicting. The eleven-year-old Antinous, lost in the darkening forest near his northern Italian home circa 1562, stumbles on a pair of the flickering fallen ones just as they're sinking their bared teeth into a raw fish. The sight is horrible, more sublime than miraculous: "Their faces are white and skull-like, their eye sockets deep, cheekbones high, lips bloodless. They have long, fair hair, thin necks, slender wrists, clawlike fingers. And they're shaking. One of them has hands that shake." As they devour their sushi, their rolled-back eyeballs make them look blind—or even dead. Then with a dazzling light they depart; for Antinous, the experience is transformative.
According to Karl O. Knausgaard's A Time for Everything, the encounter leads Antinous to a life of restless theological inquiry, eventually yielding his anonymous On the Nature of Angels, published in 1584 but consigned to oblivion until its 1859 rediscovery in London. By then, of course, to speculate about angels is to be embarrassingly reminded of the superstitious past. The Norwegian author's epic biography of the fictional Antinous is one layer peeled from the strata of stories constituting A Time for Everything. This baroque novel folds a text within a text within a text to tell what happened to the nature of the divine over the course of all history, from creation to the present. Running parallel to the story of Antinous are stories of the angels' salad days, the long span between the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden and the explosion of God's wrath in the great flood.
Knausgaard's rotund novel seems itself out of time, a throwback to the grand European novel of midcentury; it is at once a sort of faux theological disquisition; a philosophical quest for the meaning of time, decay, and exile; and an unabashedly literary excursion into storytelling, with digressions narrating the psychological dynamics of Cain and the deprivations of Noah's extended family in Nod. The embedded novellas—of Cain and Abel, of the peasants of Nod as they flee up the mountainside in advance of the seawater that will exterminate them, of Abraham and Lot and Ezekiel—are themselves wrenched out of historical time: Cain and Abel wear britches and leather boots; the people of Nod tote hunting rifles, take notice of the quality of the morning light on the fjord, and build frame farms to take advantage of the lucrative market in mink breeding. In one delirious scene, Noah's father is pictured in the riotous summer market, a county-fair setting filled with pickpockets, carneys, and a freak show featuring the corpse of a murdered Nephilim, the antediluvian half-angel, half-human that, according to the Apocrypha, was the fruit of the angels' lust for female Homosapiens. Where are we? Knausgaard roams a strange landscape that resembles nothing so much as the pastoral 1800s Scandinavia of early Knut Hamsun.
Our delight in Knausgaard's virtuosity (and daring) in evoking these dreamy, ersatz settings is the payoff for his gamble in engaging an outsize theme—he is, after all, setting foot on terrain where Dante, Milton, and Blake dared to tread—and for his at times tedious digressions into angel scholarship. Knausgaard's mysterious, deadpan narrator is one of the book's more dizzying effects. It has become second nature for readers to greet this sort of reflexive novel by looking inside the collar for the irony label, but A Time for Everything wears its earnestness on its sleeve. In place of knowing humor and self-deprecation are startling episodes of Bosch-like violence and buffoonery. When Cain and Abel find their companion Jared mauled but still breathing in the forest, Abel slits his eyeball Un Chien Andalou–style and pulls his intestines out of his living body in order, Abel says, to experience his pain. Noah's father, dealing with a gangrenous big toe, saws off the digit with a knife before throwing on sock and shoe and continuing his chores.
Toward the book's conclusion, the narrator reveals himself; he is one Henrik Vankel, a young man living in self-imposed exile due to some unspecified transgression committed in the late 1990s on an island off the coast of Norway. There, he bleakly fishes for his lunch, desultorily reads Northrop Frye on Blake (OK, I guess there is a little ironic ha-ha here), and, in a bout of masochistic fury, slices his face and chest with a broken drinking glass in an attempt to, through pain, make contact with the infinite. The bloodletting doesn't work its magic—like the angels, Vankel is too removed from divinity to transcend this earthly existence. If Knausgaard drives home the message of A Time for Everything literally, it comes as no surprise. This is a literal-minded novel about a visionary subject—a grand mismatch of terms, a happily mixed metaphor, and an audacious effort for that." - Eric Banks
"What a strange book this is. Look at the subtitle – "A novel of the nature of angels and the ways of man" – and you'd reasonably think, that it is about angels, and the history of their interaction with mankind. And it is, sort of.
Its central figure is Antonius Bellori, a 16th-century Italian, who as a boy stumbles across a pair of angels, high in the mountains. "Their faces are white and skull-like," we learn, "their eye sockets deep, cheekbones high, lips bloodless. They have long, fair hair, thin necks, slender wrists, claw-like fingers. And they're shaking. One of them has hands that shake." They are standing by a river, fishing disconsolately for their dinner. This is a far cry from the cherubim and seraphim of the Bible, with their mighty swords and their blazing light.
Stricken by what he has seen, Bellori devotes his life to the study of angels, and concludes that they, and so too the divine, have altered since the time of the Creation. By the time he sees them again, in his 50s, the angels have degenerated further: now they crouch over the carcass of a dead deer, ripping at it with their teeth, no better than animals.
If this quasi-theological fantasy was all the book was, it would certainly still be of interest, but Bellori's obsession is not the half of it. We only ever read him indirectly, through the words of a long-unidentified narrator. This narrator pauses his account of the Italian's life for two extended takes on familiar Bible stories. The first, at a novella-length 100 pages, treats Cain and Abel; the second, at twice that length, the Flood.
It is here the book's true weirdness and brilliance shine out. We see life among those early people from Genesis: tilling the soil, building houses and preparing sacrifices to God, always aware of the glow of the Cherubim guarding Eden, over the mountains. But wait: they have stoves, and button-fly trousers, and guns.
After the pedantry of Bellori's angels-and-pinhead sophistry, it is a relief to give yourself over to the achingly patient, serenely anachronistic descriptions of this pioneer life. And then, with 50 pages to go, the book changes again, casting a severe, contemporary light back over all that has gone before. Not just strange, this is a quite extraordinary novel, and completely original." - Jonathan Gibbs
"The most surprising thing about this extraordinary novel is its success. It was greeted with awed admiration and awards in its Norwegian homeland; translation rights were snapped up. What was it with Knausgard's second work, 500-odd pages of fictionalised biblical exegesis?
The author's pitch might have run: "My novel will argue about the actuality of the divine and how the Old Testament was right all along. Another theme will be: what happened to the angels? I'll refer to a 16th-century scholar – me – who's supposed to have spent years inquiring into the nature of angels. I'll add versions of the stories of Cain and Abel and Noah, set in a glorious, Norwegian-style landscape, and then go on to Ezekiel and Lot, stressing the role of angels.
"Next, the scholar's ideas about God as vulnerable to time and to mankind's devices, and his thesis that angels became trapped on Earth and began to change shape. Eventually, the scholar realises that God is dead and is himself killed, probably by renegade angels. Finally, a coda about a modern, solitary and disturbed 'me'."
It is a credit to Knausgard's publishers that they bought into this scenario. Christian themes have been resurfacing throughout the secularised West. I'd like to think they realised that here was a fine writer with a fearless mind, and that his proposal would become a fascinating if flawed work.
Knausgard's handling of argument is masterly, but the premises shift with mood and time, as does his idea of God. Initially hands-on, God struggles to get a grip on mankind's waywardness. His incarnation as Jesus is the final attempt. The fate of the Heavenly host reflects the ascendancy of man. The angels' decline accelerates as they turn into Renaissance cherubs, Victorian fairies, and end as greedy, cold-eyed gulls.
This kind of speculative tale needs very good telling not to read like mad pedantry or utter tosh. Knausgard and his translator, who writes like the author's soulmate, veer close to both. Yet the writing glows with an intense awareness of the here and now, and loving observations of landscapes and objects. In the coda, irony turns to bitterness. The self-harming narrator stands for man alone in a world bereft of meaning. For God is truly dead" – Anna Paterson
"So the debate is on. Or rather, it continues. Zadie Smith (of all people I’m tempted to say) has waded into the session of soul-searching going on over the future of the Anglophone novel. For the last eight years, thanks mostly to the Internet and the astounding uniformity of the ‘marketable’, bland books commercial, regressive and lazy book publishers have forced on everyone, an intellectually hardened, avant-garde yearning milieu have developed. International, well-connected, non-commercial. And I’m not talking here about Dave Mc Sweeney’s Eggers. Zadie Smith is late to the debate, in the New York Review of Books review-essay on Joseph O Neill’s ‘Netherland’ and Tom McCarthy’s ‘Remainder’ she very eloquently and intelligently, it must be said, brought to the stall of the establishment sentiments long aired on countless websites such as readysteadybook.com or 3amMagazine.com. As Smith carefully pointed out, for the Anglophone novel, ‘These aren’t particularly healthy times. A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked.’ Well, turn-offs are open, ‘Remainder’ has caused tail backs (it is the undisputed champion of the so-called Offbeat Generation, revelling in concrete literariness and avant-gardism), and Smith, well-used to the highway route of the conservative novel-writing tradition whose survival she admits to ‘cautiously’ hoping in, has merely turned off late, beeping her horn loudly at the rear. But at least she’s noticed. And at least she’s had the temerity to bring it to James Wood and company.
But, this is not a review of a review: it is a review of the Norwegian author Karl O. Knausgaard’s novel ‘A Time To Every Purpose Under Heaven.’ It represents another, much more clearly signposted exit we all know well: translated foreign fiction. If Remainder does anything (and Smith did well to point this out) it highlights the easily won gains of taking non-Anglophone literary traditions seriously. But while McCarthy managed to write a French novel in English, Smith can’t even get her Robbe-Grillet right, she considers Flaubert to be somehow diametrically opposed to the New Novel! Robbe-Grillet considered the vogue for Flaubert a ‘triumph of my own views.’ It’s there in his Paris Review interview. In English. World literature is more nuanced than university modules would lead you to believe, or indeed, it would seem, the venerable pages of the New York Review of Books. Reading Knausgaard’s large, ambitious (I’m going to use that word a lot) novel I could hear the detractors immediately: far off, small, insignificant, reviewers in the Anglophone world who were going to scratch their heads, yawn rudely, and complain about the seriousness of Knausgaard’s novel, the unbridled ambition that drives this novel to a self satisfied righteousness, a grab at totality that demands the humility-liking, literary fiction with a good-plot-and-good-relatable-character type of reviewer to detract from its achievements. There are imperfections of course, but it’s telling what critics have to date pointed out as their points of dissatisfaction in the UK reviews.
This is a review of a novel, on the front cover of which is a picture taken from the 14th century fresco ‘The Dream of Joachim’ by Giotto di Bondone; it says beside a big angel that it is ‘A Novel of The Nature of Angels and The Ways of Man.’ This all seems a bit boring and pedantic. The first page takes us to 1551, to Ardo, ‘a small mountain town in the far north of Italy’ and introduces us to the hero of the novel, Antinous Bellori. We’re presently told that we mustn’t turn our attention to the ‘inner’ world of our hero to understand him. ‘Even if the events and relationships of his life were to correspond exactly with a life in our own time, one that we understand and recognise, we would still come no closer to him.’ Zadie Smith and Joseph O Neill would be in trouble here.
‘Antinous was, first and foremost, of his time, and to understand who he was, that is what must be mapped.’ Knausgaard, still on the first page, draws our attention to the legacy of Freud whose ‘confusing of culture with nature, combined with his equally fatal insistence on the external event’s inner consequences’ has messed us all up, and nobody more so than our novelists. This novel’s over 500 pages are an effort in reconfiguring of what we normally expect a novel to deliver us: we are subjected to a treatise on the nature of angels in much the same manner as a readership of 16th century would expect and with which they would feel at home.
We’re well off the highway now, we’re lost down a turn-off with no signpost. A novel of ideas. ‘A Novel On The Nature of Angels.’ A historical novel that’s thrown off the lyrical Realism whose survival Zadie Smith so cautiously hopes in; a period novel that adopts the dress of the day and goes about its imaginative business as it feels it must. I have a lot of hesitant feelings toward historical novels, I think writing a story set in the past in the garb of the present is, well, lazy and unprofitable, for both reader and writer. Colm Toibin, managed, with some success, to write in the time and character he plucked out of the defenceless ‘in-the-long-ago’ and managed to write about Henry James qua Henry James. There are other examples, and for all my reckoning (I haven’t read much 16th century treatises or even the Bible for that matter, young Irish ‘Catholic’ that I am) Knausgaard has managed to pull off the latest such literary transposition.
If Tom McCarthy’s ‘Remainder’ has been read by many as so much 20th century French philosophy and Anglo-Saxon literary theory played out and repeated – re-enacted I should say– in a novel, than ‘A Time To Every Purpose Under Heaven’ is, say Thomas Aquinas, William of Ockham or even Saint Augustine summed up in a sumptuous retelling of all those stories from the Bible where angels make an appearance. It uses the fictional work by the fictional Bellori, ‘On the Nature of Angels’, as its bedrock in the book’s warped and altered biblical exegesis.
While Knausgaard suffers from the threat theoretical longueurs pose to his readers’ ability to enjoy themselves, I think, ultimately the sustained gaze he levels at his subjects, at his stories’ implications, will impress. We move from the first encounter with Bellori as an eleven year old stumbling across a couple of fearsome yet forlorn looking angels, to a miraculous re-envisioning of Cain and Abel. The sheer length of this particular fable (this seems like the most fitting word) is an example of what the Norwegian is doing. A commonplace story, one of the most primal tales we have, Cain killing his brother Abel, is given a telling that would seem to want to trick the reader into believing it is of the tale’s time: its insistence on Cain’s clumsy loneliness, Abel’s pugnacious all-roundedness, the cold aloof father constantly looking down on his eldest son Cain in favour of the more charming Abel. Something strange, in short, is going on here, and I think any reader with a love of stories, of authors who write so well they disappear into the texture of their character’s lives, will appreciate Knausgaard’s ‘longueurs’, will go with him on his long, round about engagements from sentence to paragraph to whole sections of this big book. Those fond of David Mitchell will be at home with Knausgaard.
There is no Freud brought in, that’s one of the rules of the book: this is Old Testament landscape, and I read it as convincing and, I imagine, more fun then the source text.
In the beginning was the word, the sacred Logos, but the word of God, we are reminded, was of no help to the victims of God’s great flood:
The reason no-one spoke was not due solely to weariness or fear, but also because by being silent they minimised themselves, made themselves less exposed, more like the forces that presently ravaged their world. The cellar was one hiding place, silence another. If one of them had broken it, the act of speaking, no matter whether it was nervous, despairing or encouraging, would have been demoralising, for there was demonstrated their vulnerability and helplessness in all their horror: the only thing they had that was their own, that was human, was words. Words made them what they were, and what are words when it comes to the crunch? What help are words when things really get tough?
None at all?
We are constantly given man’s point of view. God – and his angels – are just a distraction really, the source for the ideas the characters group around often bringing them hardship and strife. Noah is portrayed as an albino-type child, photophobic and who grows up indoors, a scientist by night, a naturalist occupied by the make-up of the world. A world Knausgaard feels free to portray as he wishes seeing as the Great Flood completely obliterated it. Leaving us no trace of this sinful world (they have guns for instance, in this doomed terra obliterato). I would say to take or leave Noah’s bland thoughts on fire: they’re forced and not a little boring.
And while it isn’t to be read as Freudian, we are given lots of chances to read it as just that. Cain and Abel are tied up in a cold family that favours one son over the other; the tortured, often poignant inner world of the likeable Cain are mapped out carefully. This story lays out the ‘psychology’ of man’s first fracticide with precision. Noah’s childhood family is headed by a proud, prosperous patriarch named Lamech who ‘could go an entire day without saying a thing, and then suddenly sling out a sentence or two about whatever he was thinking, which his children, if they happened to be nearby just then, found almost sinister.’ It is testament to the imaginative breadth of this novel that the author can playfully lull the reader to enjoy so many strands of thought and narrative turns and on so many levels, without little heavy handedness. And without resorting to the tried and tested Freudian-Balzacian formulas of inner characterisation.
Translated fiction like this offers a turn off from the dominant highway of current English novels because it offers new takes on the novel that don’t feel new: this novel is comfortable within its own skin, it is fresh. This composure needs to be kept in mind when taking an axe to lyrical Realism. But it’s not a perfect road to follow if rejuvenation of the Anglophone novel is what you’re after: it is, after all, fraught with problems. James Anderson has provided a very fine translation, well-levelled and holding its pitch. Portobello Books are to be commended also for taking on such a distinctly challenging novel. But, without taking away too much of the singular experience of reading this novel cover-to-cover, one had to lament that they started here, with Knausgaard’s second novel. This novelist obviously has an extremely ambitious vision for his work, and this novel offers but a tantalising, somewhat enigmatic instalment of it. In terms of important European novels of this decade, Knausgaard’s first three novels will undoubtedly go down as a seminal roman-fleuve; let’s just hope Portobello Books will deliver us the other two books.
What I’m talking about is the Coda of the book – it ties us in with a bigger story Knausgaard would seem to be telling over the course of three books centring around a character called Henrik Vankel. Out of Old Testament concerns and into late 20th century neuroses we would seem, for the last 80 pages, to be back in the world of Freud. All the old anxieties. The anxiety Heidegger believed we have to pay for our spiritual freedom, our physical abandon in a savage environment. What Zadie Smith tried to put down in her review of ‘Netherland’ by O Neill as that seemingly ‘too perfect’ expression of these old anxieties of our day and age (and literature!), are set against, in the last 80 pages of the book, a world set of free of Freud, of Balzac, that world were man met the divine in the form of angels, and ultimately suffered for it. It’s a telling contrast (a wound you could call it, a wound in the novel which the reader feels acutely) and intriguing in the possibilities it suggest. Now you just have to go and read all 518 pages to intimate what those possibilities may be." - John Holten
"The English title of this epic is taken from the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes: "For everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven." The Norwegian title translates more simply as "There is a Time For Everything", but both give a flavour of the book's tone, as does the self-consciously Miltonic subtitle: A Novel of the Nature of Angels and the Ways of Man. It is apparent from the start that here is a book that wants to be taken very seriously.
The ostensible frame of the novel is the story of the fictional 16th-century theologian and philosopher Antinous Bellori, who, as a child, has a shattering encounter with a pair of angels. This early part of the book is gripping. Knausgaard is at his best with finely observed natural description; he is also skilful with atmosphere. The account of the small Antinous's wilful destruction of an anthill, which prompts his flight in fear into the dark of unknown territory and a lifetime's restitutional remorse, is compelling; as is Knausgaard's conjuring up of the terrifying, Rilke-esque, fish-devouring, spear- and flame-bearing angels. Their shaking limbs and spellbinding deliquescing eyes activate (very understandably) a lifelong obsession in Bellori with the nature of angels.
So far, so good. But then the novel turns to theological and historical-sociological exegesis, which becomes a recurring, and increasingly distracting, strain. To be fair, it is, from a historical point of view, well researched. We assume that the scholastic interpretations of biblical texts are based on Bellori's great work, On the Nature of Angels. But it is hard not to wonder if his author began this book as an academic theological study and halfway through decided to transform it into a hybrid fiction by giving his commentaries, and their accompanying thesis, to a narrator who remains too coyly in the postmodernist wings to qualify as part of a fiction. We are instructed by his contributions, but the narrative is neither informed nor enlivened by them.
Moreover, they require a good deal of editing. Here is one sentence. "Almost everything concrete and tangible concerning the divine became, in the course of a few centuries, abstract; almost everything physical spiritual, and even though the consequences of this work were greatest within the Greek-speaking area - where eventually things were taken to their limit and the divine was placed in an obscurity beyond understanding and language, which would eventually lead to the Eastern Church's mystical and divine image, which not only spiritualised the divine beyond recognition, but at the same time created the danger of obliterating it completely, and therefore seemed poised on the edge of an abyss of meaninglessness, because the ultimate conclusion of negative, apophatic theology is that God is a non-God, his existence is a non-existence or, as Pseudo-Dionysius expresses it in On Divine Names, 'God is not of the things that exist' - their massive reforming work also left its mark on the Latin language area's theology, where God, in common with his angels, is represented as pure spirit, without physical dimension, in addition to being omnipresent and boundless, omnipotent and unchanging."
It is not that I am against long sentences. Indeed, I am rather averse to the modern trend to write only in staccato bursts of clauseless prose. But even if this unparsed monster is supposed to exemplify a pedantry on the part of the concealed narrator, it is still bad writing because it places a needless strain on the reader's attention for no valid reason. The thought is not complex; only the means of expressing it. (This is no fault of the translator, for as far as I can judge the translation is of a high order.) This admittedly extreme example reveals another feature of the book: a propensity to bully the reader through sheer weight of information and opinion, which includes a tidy bit of showing off. I have read some theology, so "apophatic" didn't faze me, but it is technical language, for the use of those in the know, and adds nothing here, unless it is to demonstrate the superior expertise of the narrator (or the author).
Nestling within these riffs on the nature of the divine (like everything else it evolves and may be various and circumscribed) and speculation about the nature of angels (they are not as immutable and unimpressionable as has been supposed) are re-renderings of various Biblical stories that have angelic references. Here the book did promise to engage and I feel sure that there will be those who will be captivated by Knausgaard's highly wrought versions of the dramas of Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah and the fanatical prophet Ezekiel, whose sensational vision of the cherubim was later to give the four evangelists their iconic images: man, bull, lion and eagle. The writing in these sections often has power but, in the end, the psychological interpretations didn't convince me. Unlike, for example, Patrick White's great novel on a similar theme, The Riders in the Chariot, Knausgaard's reworkings seem over-contrived, adding nothing very real to the peculiar resonance of the originals. This is a book that will divide people. It may well become a cult novel. But it left me wanting to return to the spare and unpretentious tellings of the old stories that engendered it." - Salley Vickers
Karl O. Knausgaard, My Struggle, Trans. by Don Bartlett, Archipelago Books, 2012.
"A Norwegian Marcel Proust. This nerve-striking, addictive piece of hyper-realism, by the Norwegian Critics' Prize-winning author of A Time For Everything, has created a phenomenon throughout Scandinavia.
"Almost ten years have passed since Karl O. Knausgaard's father drank himself to death. He is now embarking on his third novel while haunted by self-doubt. Knausgaard breaks his own life story down to its elementary particles, often recreating memories in real time, blending recollections of pain and family moments with profound questions in a devastating way. Written as though his very life were at stake, Knausgaard probes into his past, dissecting struggles (immense and small) with great candor and vitality. He strikes nerves. Articulating universal dilemmas, this masterpiece opens a window into one of the most original minds writing today."
"Painful, touching, honest, and full of insight... It's like Knausgaard turns himself inside out and shows that side of himself that no man ever shows to anyone."—Zin Magazine
"Knausgaard has thrown himself into an insane project, with a disdain for conventions that only true geniuses are able to obtain... My Struggle is a literary victory." —Affari italiani
"The personal material is a rope around the neck, a knife in the heart. Nevertheless, the book is so full of magic... My Struggle is fierce and clever, and a fiercely clever read."—Kristeligt Dagblad
"The vast majority of novels are competently written. Then there are a number that are really good. And finally there are a few that are unnerving, completely engrossing, artistic experiences. Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle is in the final category."—Goteborgs-Posten
"Many people have read My Struggle in the same way as we watch television series: insatiable, in continuous fresh helpings, imprinted on our own daily lives day by day, month by month... There are still new ways for literature to exist in the world."—Trygve Riiser Gunderson
"This book took me awhile to read, but time is something owed to a great literary piece of art. You can't just sit and swallow something so serious, so raw and honest; you have to take the time to absorb what you are reading and as this book is the account of a man's life, you have to listen.
To compliment the book there is a list of music that the Archipelago Books had paired with it, classic rock and new wave that weaves in and out of his time as a troubled adolescent and the rock fantasies of his youth. I do recommend it, if for a quiet background sound while reading. I read the first have of the book without the music and then the rest with it and it made just enough difference in ambiance. That and a cup of coffee. The list can be downloaded from Spotify and has tunes such as:
Space Oddity - David Bowie, Love With Tear Us Apart - Joy Division, Should I Stay or Should I Go - The Clash, Mexican Radio - Wall of Voodoo, Paranoid - Black Sabbath.
Almost ten years have passed since Karl O. Knausgaard's father drank himself to death. He is now embarking on his third novel while haunted by self doubt. Knausgaard breaks his own life story down to its elementary particles, often recreating memories in real time, blending recollections of images and conversation with profound questions in a remarkable way. Knausgaard probes into his past, dissecting struggles - great and small - with great candor and vitality. Articulating universal dilemmas, this Proustian masterpiece opens a window into one of the most original minds writing today.
Some of the greatest novels ever written have been about the struggles between a son and his Father, about the troubles of growing into manhood - both in and out of the shadows of Fatherhood and then oneself being that Father; this one does justice to the theme. As Karl Knausgaard looks into his memories of his Father, counting footsteps and deciphering sounds of approach, reflecting during a time when he was the age as Karl had been; you are met with another time and landscape. He vividly takes you back into his memories, with his fears and adulation's as a young child that goes from wonder, to troubled, to hopeful, to lost, to afraid and once again reflecting. This is a 6 volume Autobiography, the beginning always begins well... at the beginning...
Throughout our childhood and teenage years we strive to attain the correct distance to objects and phenomena. We read, we learn, we experience, we make adjustments. Then one day we reach the point where all the necessary distances have been set, all the necessary systems have been put in place. That is when time begins to pick up speed. It no longer meets any obstacles, everything is set, time races through our lives, the days pass by in a flash and before we know what is happening we are forty, fifty, sixty... Meaning requires content, content requires time, time requires resistance. Knowledge is distance, knowledge is stasis and the enemy of meaning.
There is something odd about reading Autobiographies. It is as if you are standing outside of various windows, looking in and watching as someone grows, an observer to both the past and present. Unlike many autobiographies I have read, this is an entire epic of his life from book one to book six. He had sat down and wrote with profound skill, every great and small struggle of his entire life and this - My Struggle Book One - was just the beginning for me. It is not only a great literary read, but it also opens your mind to look back on your own life. Often I found myself looking into that window into my childhood when my Mother was the age I am now and sometimes seeing a different face than I often remembered, a face more human, more wane and worked than I remembered. Growing into adults we are capable of looking back without the veil of innocence and seeing these overly large characters of our life as smaller, more realistic versions of ourselves.
Karl Ove Knausgaard was born in Norway in 1968 and made his debut with the novel Out of This World (Ute av verden). A Time for Everything (Archipelago Books), his second novel, was nominated for the Nordic Council Literary Prize. The first volume of My Struggle was winner of the Brage Award, the Book of the Year Prize in Morgenbladet, the P2 Listeners' Prize, and the Norwegian Critics' Prize, and was nominated for the Nordic Council Literary Prize.
If you decide to pick up this book, do not try and read the entire journey in one sitting. Step away, look backwards and forwards, listen to the music and reflect. It will grip you with an intensity that it's difficult to pull away from, but I found that it was worth taking the time to let things settle in my mind before moving on to another sentence, another paragraph, another chapter and now I am waiting to move onto Book Two.
To the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops. Sooner or later, one day or another, this thumping motion shuts down of its own accord, and the blood begins to flow towards the body’s lowest point, where it gathers in a small pool, visible from the outside as a dark, spongy spot on the slowly whitening skin, all the while the temperature sinking, the limbs stiffening and the bowels emptying. The changes of these first hours happen so slowly and are performed with such an inevitability that there is almost a touch of ritual about them, as if life capitulates according to set rules, a kind of gentleman’s agreement, which even death’s representatives observe, as they always wait until life has withdrawn before they start the invasion of this new landscape." - Outnumbered 3 to 1
"Karl Ove Knausgaard has written a six-volume literary epic based on his family and, in particular, his relationship with his father. It's a publishing sensation but half his family won't speak to him. So has it been worth it?
It is – I imagine – like mainlining literature; injecting into a major artery and feeling it pump urgently, unstoppably through your veins. Min Kamp, or My Struggle, has been the publishing sensation of the past two years in its native Norway. Its six volumes have sold nigh on half a million copies in a country of five million people. The opus has hijacked the Norwegian bestseller lists for months and won every prize going. It's been hailed around Europe as "unique", "extraordinary", "exceptional", "unparalleled", "a masterpiece", "a new way for literature to exist" and compared to Céline, Mann and (most often) Proust.
But literary landmark as it undeniably is, its author readily admits that the work's success is due at least in part to the scandal that's accompanied it. For Min Kamp is autobiography: a scorchingly honest, unflinchingly frank, hyperreal memoir of the life of one man and his family – and the family has not survived it intact.
Before 2009, Karl Ove Knausgaard, 43, was just a critically respected Norwegian novelist, author of the first debut novel to win the Norwegian Critics' prize and of a weird but widely admired book about angels called A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven. Then he hit a block.
"I wanted to write something completely different, and I wanted to write about my father," he says. "About his fall, how he somehow changed from being a father, a perfectly ordinary teacher, a local politician, to a divorced, dead alcoholic. For three years I tried to write a kind of regular, realistic but fictional work about his death. Nothing worked."
Knausgaard had at that stage very nearly hit 40, the age at which his father left home and began drinking himself to death. It was ten years since his father had died. "That, I think, was the turning point," he says. "That realisation that I was as old as he was when he left home allowed me to write about him as an equal. Before, I think he had been like a kind of statue for me. And I started just writing it as it was: the truth, no artifice, no cleverness. Reality."
The writing flowed and fast: five pages a day, increasing to 20 by the end. Unconcerned with literary niceties such as a narrative arc, Knausgaard "developed a new kind of language almost, of the banality of the everyday. I could write about anything."
Passages of intense, almost hallucinatory detail emerged: painful, pin-sharp recollections of early childhood, a music-obsessed 70s adolescence, school, early fumblings with girls. Of an older, less complicated brother, a kind, loving but often somewhat absent mother; and of Knausgaard's father, a distant, unpredictable, sometimes harsh and often feared figure.
Everything went in as it happened. Nothing was changed, certainly not the names. It was high-risk: it could, the author admits, have been an artistic catastrophe. "I thought this was only interesting for me. I was ashamed even to show it to my editor," he says.
There was another reason to write with such ferocious frankness: "As a person, I'm polite – I want to please. One of the reasons for that is my father; he had that grip on me. For 40 years I'd lived that tension between my inner and outer selves. Suddenly now the point was not to please, it was to speak the truth. To write reality."
So he kept writing: his parents' divorce in his mid-teens, college, first marriage. Second marriage, fatherhood. His father's death – a gross, bloated, filthy man living in unimaginable squalor – bottles everywhere, soiled clothes, shit on the living-room sofa – who had, by then, moved back in with his mother, Knausgaard's grandmother, who was herself now incontinent, her mind wandering. About how he and his brother spent a week cleaning the place up, with bleach and Ajax and Jif and rubber gloves, from top to bottom.
After a few months, when he had 1,200 pages, he took them to his editor. They became volumes one and two of Min Kamp, and an instant sensation (the first, A Death in the Family, is published in the UK this month). Another year or so saw the remaining four volumes delivered and printed in Norway.
Long before that, though, the scandal had kicked off. "I wrote this in a kind of autistic mood," Knausgaard says. "Just me and my computer in a room, by myself. It never occurred to me that it might cause problems – I was just telling the truth, wasn't I? But I was also being very naive. I sent a copy to everyone involved before the first volume was published, and then I discovered how difficult this was going to be. It was like hell."
Knausgaard's father's family, furious, tried to stop publication, threatening to sue both publishing house and writer if the book went ahead. They objected to lots, but mainly to the portrait of his grandmother. "I said it was true, they said I was lying," Knausgaard says.
"I think ultimately it has to do with showing something that shouldn't be seen. Even though it's very common – everyone has an alcoholic in the family, everyone knows old people become incontinent. But they live in a small town, where life is partly about maintaining a facade. There was shame, I think. And they convinced themselves this was somehow about revenge, about something that happened in my teens. It wasn't, of course. I just wanted to understand my father."
With hindsight, Knausgaard says, he could perhaps "have gone a little easier on my grandmother. But not with my father. He had to be like he was. I still have dreams he's alive, you know. He's been dead 14 years and I still dream he comes back, and punishes me."
Knausgaard's uncle took the story to the press, and demanded the names of all the father's side of the family be changed, to which Knausgaard and his publishers, after taking legal advice, eventually agreed. "Every name," he says, "except my father's. I couldn't change that. So throughout the book he's 'Dad', or 'my father'." But it did mean that before the first volume was even published, Min Kamp had become, to put it mildly, a talking point.
After publication the scandal shifted up a gear. Television, radio and newspaper reporters interviewed not just everyone Knausgaard mentioned in the books, but pretty much everyone he had known since early childhood. "Should he have done it?" became a burning question discussed at supermarket checkouts, in cafes, across family dinner-tables. Norwegian companies were obliged to declare "Knausgaard-free days", when the subject was banned.
As a consequence of his project, Knausgaard says, his father's family now refuse to have any contact with him, or, sadly, with his brother. His ex-wife, although she had earlier said she was happy for him to write about her and to use her name, found the whole experience so difficult that she made a radio documentary about it.
His second wife, Linda, a writer with whom he lives in Sweden, "was more difficult. She had said: 'Do it, just don't make me boring. Use my name.' Then when the manuscript was done she read it, on a long train journey to Stockholm. She called once to say it was OK. Then she called again and said our life together could never be romantic ever again; this was all so frank. Then she called a third time, and cried."
The couple went through "a deep crisis" following publication, Knausgaard says. "You know, in every couple there are things you don't talk about, and I did. So it was very difficult. But we are adapting. We are still together."
Their three children, Vamja, Heidi and John, now aged eight, six and four, are also a real worry. "It's not what I wrote about them," Knausgaard says. "They are children; innocent. And of course I didn't write this to harm them. But I am worried about what they will learn about their father, later. How will they respond to what they read? I am very ambivalent about that. But a while back I met the daughter of a very well-known Swedish writer, and she said she had grown up in exactly this situation – and after her father died, they were all happy to have the books he had written. They were like a gift, because he was still there, in their lives. So I don't know."
So should he have done it? "If I had known then what I know now, then no, definitely no, I wouldn't dare," Knausgaard says. "But I'm glad I did. And I couldn't have done it any other way. I will never do anything like this again, though, for sure. I have given away my soul, in a way."
Was it worth it? Worth the furore, the upset, the anguish, the ostracisation? "Well that's the big question, obviously," he says. "Do you think your literature is worth your uncle, or whoever? Is literature more important than hurting people? You can't argue that. You can't say it. It's impossible. But you can write about yourself and about your father. That's my defence in all this. I did this with a pure heart. He brought me to life, he did these things to me ... Danger, it seems to me, is in action, what people do, not in telling, what they say. As long as this isn't a hate project; as long as I am trying to tell things how they really are."
The "most truth", Knausgaard says, was reserved for his father and grandmother – both now dead for more than 10 years. In the last four of Min Kamp's six volumes, Knausgaard adopted a distanced, reserved and remote tone, and safer territory – his own childhood and teenage years. "The real danger is in writing about more recent times," he says. "I also wrote about my mother, you know, but much less. Because she is still alive. I couldn't go there."
So there is, he concludes, a measure of guilt – not least that his project has made him a wealthy man, allowing him to buy a house, start up a small publishing house printing translations of foreign books he really wants to see in Norwegian. "That makes me ambivalent," he says. "I get the rewards; the people I wrote about get the hurt."
But, at root, it was something he had to do. "The thing is," he says, "I was there, turning 40. I had a beautiful wife, three beautiful kids, I loved them all. But still I wasn't truly happy. It's not necessarily the curse of the writer, this. But maybe it's the curse of the writer to be aware of it, to ask: why is all this, all I've got, not enough? That's really what I'm searching for, in this whole thing, an answer to that question. My intention, throughout, has been to write literature." - Jon Henley
Karl O. Knausgaard, Death in the Family, Harvill Secker, 2012.
"A novel that describes the author's childhood and teenage years, his infatuation with rock music, his relationship with his loving yet almost invisible mother and his distant and unpredictable father, and his bewilderment and grief on his father's death."