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’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.
October 14, 2010