19 May

“This book is like the love of God, which passes all understanding, and like his mercy, which goes on forever.”

So. I have now read the complete translated works of Karl Ove Knausgaard, and can spell his name correctly two times out of three. His first novel, about a school teacher who entertains inappropriate thoughts about one of his pupils, unaccountably languishes in the original Norwegian. He’s firmly ensconced as my favourite contemporary writer and some Rilstonologists have spotted ways in which he has influenced my own writing. He said, reaching down to take a sip of coffee from a floral black and white mug sitting next to a tangle of phone rechargers on his desk and noticing a single black hair on the white surface. The cold coffee tastes cold.

It would be unfair to say that A Time For Everything is an extended shaggy dog story; but A Time For Everything is an extended shaggy dog story. A lot of people were understandably surprised when The End, the final volume of Knausgaard's autobiographical epic, went off piste for 300 pages to talk about the early life of Adolf Hitler. I didn’t mind particularly, because Karl Ove wrote as meticulously and interestingly about German history as he did about taking his children to the library or making dinner. But it is a good example of his tendency to throw everything into his books, up to and including a number of different kitchen sinks. 

A Time For Everything is about angels. It begins with a very interesting premise. Angels are literally real: and all the medieval and renaissance and victorian depictions of angels are taken from real life. So the question is not “Why did seventeenth century artists depict the cherubim, who in the Bible are multi-headed monsters floating around in wheels, as slightly indecent flying babies.” The question is “Why did the cherubim change from monsters into nude children in the centuries between Ezekiel and Raphael.” One feels that this is the sort of question which Neil Gaiman could have got four hundred pages and a TV series out of.

Knausgaard is not very interested in telling a story; he seems to be genuinely interested in answering the question. The most interesting sections of the book are pseudo-history and pseudo-scholarship, a little in the mould of Name of the Rose. A fictitious scholar, Antinous Bellori, wrote the definitive work on angels, which sorts out all the problems and settles the question. There is some very intense, typically Knausgaardian accounts of Bellori’s life. It seems that he actually encountered two angels as a young child, and became obsessed with making sense of what he had seen, treating the Bible, the Christian and Jewish apocryphal texts, and contemporary stories of angel-encounters as scientific data. Bellori is entirely fictitious, although a lot of the texts and commentaries he references are perfectly real. (A seventeenth century miller really was burned at the stake for refusing to recant his theory that the universe was made of cheese.) The novel is told from the point of view of a modern scholar researching Bellori’s life; there is a lot of clever material about how his writing made no impact and had little influence in its own time but has been rediscovered by modern scholars. If you are interested in this kind of thing, then the theology is terribly well done. The pages about the angels' role in the creation are, in a funny way, quite gripping. God says “Let us make man in our image” and Bellori/Knausgaard demonstrates convincingly that any attempt to make this mean anything other than “Man is made in the image of both God and the angels” involves imposing dogmatic presuppositions on the text. I also greatly enjoyed the sections about how Christian piety couldn’t accept the materiality of both the angels and God and spiritualised them almost out of existence. 

As you would expect, some of the writing is a little challenging. 

"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 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". 

Yes, that is a single sentence.

Knausgaard isn’t infallible — unless he is consciously using an unreliable narrator. Surely it was Elijah, not Isaiah, who went up to heaven in a chariot of fire? And it isn’t completely correct to say that the Nephilim aren’t mentioned again after the deluge: surely Joshua encounters their descendents when he scouts out the Promised Land? 

It occurs to me that I’m making the book sound too much like The Princess Bride: a summary and a commentary on a book which doesn’t actually exist. But this is a very small part of Knausgaard’s literary game.

It seems that Bellori spent a lot of time analysing the canonical appearances of Angels in the Bible. Knausgaard interrupts his critique of the imaginary book with a series of incredibly detailed and naturalistic retellings of the stories of Cain and Abel, Abraham and Lot, Noah, and Ezekiel. These novellas go on and on and on and on. They are, on their own terms, quite touching and engaging. Knausgaard is good at writing about the minutiae of human life and human psychology. It’s what he does. Two lads from contemporary Norway have a complicated relationship. One humiliates the other at a party, the other saves the first from drowning. Yet after a hundred pages one can’t help saying “What, apart from the names, does this have to do with the story of Cain and Abel." And what, in fact, does the story of Cain and Abel have to do with the subject of angels? One of the cherubim guards the entrance to the Garden of Eden, and there are a few references to a glowing light that the boys are not allowed to investigate; but there is absolutely no sense that this is the first family on earth or that the first murder is looming up. It’s just a story. The Noah narrative is more pointed: Noah’s father sees the body of one of the Nephilim, the giant half-angels, on display at a fair, and a really bad rain storm looms through the whole story. The story spends far more time with one of Noah’s sisters, who has a baby just before the Flood, than with the man himself. The account of a woman having a child is terribly detailed and well-done as you’d expect. (“And his hands! They were amazingly small!”). But what does the story have to do with anything?

I am not sure whether it is meaningful to talk about “spoilers” when discussing a six hundred page work of pseudo-scholarship; possibly if you are going to read the book you might not want to read to the end of this review. After maybe four hundred pages, Knausgaard does come to the point, and it’s a very clever point, and he probably couldn’t have made it in less than four hundred pages. All we know about Cain is that he killed his brother. We don’t know anything at all about Noah’s family and all the other people who died in the flood. Knausgaard has immersed us in their lives — which then get completely erased. He talks about what the physical effects of an actual global flood would have been; the effects of 500 feet of water on the landscape; deserts swept up and deposited in new locations. And he makes the point that from Adam to the deluge is something like sixteen hundred years. Noah and Cain could have lived in a civilisation a lot like ours; but it was totally and completely wiped out. When he starts to talk about Ezekiel (more concisely, relatively speaking) he sets it in authentic historical time. 

Eventually, we get up to the life of Christ, which he doesn’t narrate, but only discusses. He is astonishingly clever on the theology of the incarnation: making the point that theological formulations of the Holy Trinity minimise and contain the impact of the Biblical Jesus who literally both is and is not God at the same time. 

“When he said My Father and I are one, he wasn’t expressing some mystical paradox. The contrast between the assertion, which established two distinct quantities, and the content, which brings them together as one, is only valid if one understands the divine as immutable. Then Jesus is simultaneously both one and not one with the Father, and as this goes against everything we know about identity; the only possible ‘solution’ is to give the paradox an almost divine character, and then make it sacred.”

Without giving away all the twists, it turns out to be the Incarnation which changes the nature of the angels: the whole point of angels is that they represent a kind of absolute demarcation between the human and the divine, and God-as-Christ has violated that taboo. Eventually we find out what happened to the angels in the end, and it is at that point that the term “shaggy dog story” came into my mind. 

That’s not the end of the novel of course. There is another hundred pages about a guy from Norway who is quite unhappy and goes fishing and self-harms and at one point has a very brief conversation about angels with his dad. He may be the scholar writing the book about Bellori or he may not be. 

There is no doubt that this is a challenging, exasperating read. But I like writers who tackle huge subjects; who jump between the cosmic and the trivial, who start with a sixteenth century boy destroying an ant hill, end with a Norwegian thirty-something cutting himself in front of a mirror, and have Noah’s flood and the crucifixion in the middle.

Shaggy dog story is unfair, but “folly” might describe the work very well indeed.


Mike Taylor said...

Your review is fascinating; but it is of the kind that leaves me thinking the actual book would be much less fun to read. Based on the couple of passages you quote, I am reminded of Douglas Adams' observation that "The ideas are fascinating, but the actual writing is terrible -- I wouldn't employ Asimov to write junk mail". 174-word sentences are just bad writing.

Anyway, if you need me, I'll be over here re-reading J. K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith's Cormoran Strike detective novels.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I meant to say. If Salman Rushdie writes dreadful books but wonderful paragraphs; and Alasdair Grey writes dreadful chapters but wonderful sentences, then Knausgaard writes dreadful sentences but brilliant hundreds of pages.

Apparently, his translator is accurately reflecting the style of the original Norwegian.

I wouldn't recommend anyone started with A Time For Everything if they hadn't read Knausgaard before. Start with A Death in the Family, no question.

"FOR THE HEART, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops. Sooner or later, one day, this pounding action will cease of its own accord, and the blood will begin to run towards the body’s lowest point, where it will collect in a small pool, visible from the outside as a dark, soft patch on ever whiter skin, as the temperature sinks, the limbs stiffen and the intestines drain. These changes in the first hours occur so slowly and take place with such inexorability that there is something almost ritualistic about them, as though life capitulates according to specific rules, a kind of gentleman’s agreement, to which the representatives of death also adhere, inasmuch as they always wait until life has retreated before they launch their invasion of the new landscape."