Not every book emerging from Scandinavia these days is a murder mystery. In Norway, at least, the most intense discussion this year has focused on an autobiographical novel (or fictionalized autobiography) by Karl Ove Knausgaard, projected to extend over six volumes (and now at volume 4). The title of this magnum opus, Min Kamp, Norwegian for Mein Kampf, clearly means more than “My Struggle,” and clearly Knausgaard is out to provoke readers both with his Hitlerian title and with his Proustian scale (these six volumes will recount the life of a man who has only reached the age of forty-two). Despite their length and their density, all of Knausgaard’s novels, from his debut in 1998, have been Norwegian best sellers; he has also won an impressive series of literary prizes. No one seems to question his stature as a commanding new voice, although critics and readers have ventured to suggest that a bit of concision would not hurt either.
None of Min Kamp has yet been translated into English (the translations of volumes 1 and 2 are underway), but Knausgaard’s distinctive qualities as a writer are already abundantly evident in the recently published English translation (by James Anderson) of his second novel, A Time for Everything (En Tid for Alt), of 2004. At just under five hundred pages, it is a strange, uneven, and marvelous book.
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 …