Saturday, April 20, 2013

Notes on A Time for Everything

Though I loved the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard's novel/memoir My Struggle, I wasn't sure if I was going to read his novel, A Time for Everything (translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson). After all, it's about angels, isn't it? And isn't it a bit of a historical novel? Yes, yes, both of these things are true. And yet, A Time for Everything turns out to be an astonishingly good novel.

On the very first page we read that "our world is only one of many possible worlds". The second page plunges us into an account of 11 year-old Antinous Bellori's 1554 encounter with two angels after a day of fishing. Bellori's day is recounted in what feels like moment-by-moment naturalistic loving detail, reading in parts almost like Thoreau. Angels become an obsession for him, and he ultimately writes his study, On the Nature of Angels. Our narrator tracks Bellori's studies, his questions as to the nature of the divine, his similarity to figures such as Newton, essays interesting and relevant questions about the nature of science - paths not taken and other possible worlds loom large here  - and anxieties about the value of the written word. All of this is endlessly fascinating, and it is not at all surprising that I would be interested in it, given the various threads I have pursued on this blog.

However, the bulk of the novel is devoted to psychologically detailed stories concerning Biblical figures, almost back stories, if you will, for such central stories as those of Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, the prophecies of Ezekial, Lot and the destruction of Sodom, the death of Christ. The nature of the angels, and by extension the divine, is further explored through their presence and role in each of these stories. And these narratives could almost be described as one would describe a fat historical novel about real historical people. I would not have expected to want to read such a thing. Put like that it frankly sounds somewhat dreary. Occasionally, too, Knausgaard's prose goes slack (as indeed it does at times in My Struggle). And yet I found these stories just as endlessly fascinating as the narrator's essays, if not more so. How is this?

This passage from Stephen Mitchelmore's review (which you should read) about this, including the prose (which he allowed was "vulnerable to criticism for stamping out generic passages from a stencil") suggests a possible reason:
Yet such prose in the context of biblical stories has the odd effect of naturalising events we would otherwise place at a distance. When Abel announces an expedition to the Garden of Eden, it is as supernatural as the North Pole. And when he is attacked by angels resisting his approach, they may as well be polar bears. Reading the novel late into the night I wondered if this is what genre fans enjoy in large volumes of speculative fiction, science fiction and fantasy: imaginary worlds presented in unadorned prose to evoke – albeit temporarily – an enchantment of the current, prosaic one. But the worlds and ideas they generate are weightless in comparison to this: our culture is founded on Bible stories. Every event becomes vitally real to us as they were for generations of Jews and Christians.
The speculation about science fiction is worth considering, but I love the point that the apparently flat "readable" prose "naturalizes" these stories for us. In any event, I was riveted throughout. The story of the Flood, for one, is terrifying and devastating. I also enjoyed how Knausgaard, or his narrator, seems gleefully unconcerned with anachronism in these Biblical stories, with respect to geography (e.g., fjords) and technology (guns); the scientific wave of the hand in which these are casually explained away is brilliant.

The story of Bellori's solitary life and his investigations is so convincing that it did not occur to me till rather late in the novel to doubt that he actually existed (he did not). The short coda turns to the narrator, and his father, and is somewhat puzzling as to its relationship to the novel, yet it appears to point us toward the writing of My Struggle. In my remarks and comments elsewhere about this book, I keep reaching for superlatives such as astonishing, remarkable, and so on, but it really was like no other book I've ever read.

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