A Time for Everything by Karl O. Knausgaard, translated by James Anderson (Archipelago Books, 2009)
|DETAIL FROM LAMENTATION (C. 1305) BY GIOTTO, SCROVEGNI CHAPEL
We were made into the likeness of God. Our ways and nature had been much investigated by thinkers and storytellers since the old days. Yet no one fully understood God, the divine. There were just too much assumptions and uncertainties involved in the contemplation. One of the ways the nature of the divine can be explored was through a study of an intermediate being, someone between man and God. The angels – less than God, more than men – could hold the key to an understanding of the nature of the divine. What angels are like was intermittently depicted in the Bible and in church murals. The fertile ground of literature was also used in dramatizing the acts of the angels.
A systematics of the angelic orders, based on the above premise, was what the Norwegian novelist Karl O. Knausgaard attempted in A Time for Everything (in UK: A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven). The literary imagination, along with its unlimited sympathy and generosity, was a robust stage in which to construct, from available materials, the conditions and assumptions on the angels as the direct link between the human and the divine. The manifold riches of a modern novel, unshackled by dogma, could approximate the variety of life experiences and their daily miracles. Its prose and form could hold up large vistas of physical and spiritual landscapes. The religious order of readers was constantly inducted into the novel's power to mesmerize, to quicken the senses and open up selves to radical ideas and identities.
Knausgaard did for the selected stories of the Bible – mainly from the Genesis – what José Saramago did to the gospels in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. The stories were familiar to us such that they had acquired the status of the "definitive, official version". Yet for Knausgaard, the Biblical stories must be calling for a creative adaptation.
The only things that have always been remembered are the story of the first people who were driven out of paradise and into the valley, the story of the two brothers Cain and Abel, and the story of the great flood. But all the details about these people and the world they lived in were gradually erased. And as each new age is convinced that it constitutes what is normal, that it represents the true condition of things, the people of a new age soon began to imagine the people of the previous one as an exact replica of themselves, in exactly the same setting. Thus Cain and Abel became nomadlike figures who lived and operated in a flat, burning hot, sand-filled world, of olive and fig trees, oases, camels, asses, robes, tents, and little whitewashed stone houses. Gone were all the pine trees, all the fjords and mountains, all the snow and rain, all the lynxes and bears, wolves and elk. In addition, all the infinitely delicate nuances in the relationship between the brothers were lost over time, such that only the bare details remained: Abel was good, Cain bad, Abel was a shepherd, Cain a tiller of the soil.
And so Knausgaard recreated some "lost" details in the Old Testament, retouching the obscured details like an art restorer working on a fresco that has faded from the accumulation of dirt and grime. He wanted to capture the "infinitely delicate nuances" (emphasized above) of the stories of the creation, of rival brothers Cain and Abel, of Noah and the great flood, of Christ on the cross, etc. This time the stories were not just centered on the fury of God but on the human and angelic struggles.
The selected characters acquired subtlety and realism beyond (or against) their traditional portrayals. The fount of these stories was God, the Author, but he probably will not appreciate the telling.
It is clear the whole time that the human condition is not something [God] has experienced. If he knows anything about it, it isn't from within. Only someone who lacks insight into the human condition could despair over its evilness, as the Lord does time and time again throughout the Old Testament. Perhaps he knew mankind, but he couldn't have understood them – or he wouldn't have been so surprised that they ate from the tree of knowledge, despite his emphatic prohibition, or that they could kill their own brothers, or that they built a tower almost up to heaven.
God, the narrator of the novel was implying, was not a good novelist. Being an inquiry into the angelic orders, the framework chosen to approach the divine must necessarily imbue the composition with an anthropocentric (novelistic) concreteness, tangibility, portents and omens, and subversion.
The story was framed by the figure of Antinous Bellori, an eccentric sixteenth century theologian who wrote On the Nature of Angels (1584). Bellori was a melancholic figure in the mold of Sir Thomas Browne – presumably there are two lines in Sir Thomas Browne's Pseudodoxia epidemica of 1646 that referenced Bellori's book – and Robert Walser, with Bellori's specialized system of microscopic handwriting similar to Walser's "microscripts". The structure of Bellori's book was loosely that of the present novel.
On the Nature of Angels consists of three parts. The first contains a catalog of all 189 angelic manifestations in the Bible, and the second discusses what conclusions can be drawn about the angels from these. The third, which initially looks at angels' non-Biblical appearances, ends in a discussion about the question that is the work's main theme: Can the nature of the divine undergo change?
It was a plausible structure to ascertain the (changing) nature of the divine. The third part ultimately led to the exposition of Bellori's thesis on the mutability, and hence fallibility, of the divine, and it was closely tied to how the novelist fulfilled the requirements of the structure. How exactly the evidences to support Bellori's thesis was teased out by the narrator/commentator (a writer figure that conveniently distanced the novelist from the story) was a pleasure to behold. The conclusion was already provocative but the "proof" was a daring combination of logic, scientific deduction, art criticism, and literary speculation. It necessitated the evaluation of the concept of the divine through variegated narrative registers. Absolute categories were interrogated; official versions were glossed over; and the religious abstractions, viewed from a new prism of understanding.
Knausgaard's brand of prose, similar to that of his protagonist Antinous Bellori, was closely related to "his religious speculations": "While writing On the Nature of Angels, [Bellori] studied every conceivable and inconceivable text in which angels figured, and thus formalized his intuitive insight into angelic mutability". The product of this rigorous research was reflected in the book's hyperrealist prose: the descriptions were individually particularized in space and time, making every detail not only "a detail" but this detail:
Bellori contemplated everything he saw. Whether it was fish, waterfalls, trees, mountains, birds, insects, or flowers, he saw only the unique. If one reads his notes consecutively, from beginning to end, a feeling is gradually fostered of the infinity of the world. Not "trees" nor even "a tree" but this particular tree right here, now, as it is. Not "fish" nor even "a fish" but this unique fish right here, now, as it darts suddenly across the sandy bottom through the clear, sun-spangled water. Its tail's rapid movement from side to side, the stream of water through its gills, the flat shadow gliding over the bottom beneath it ...
The particularities of details were evident in the sumptuous landscapes and character sketches. Against the fleeting moment of time and the constrictions of space, those details seemed to float in the reimagined pastoral landscape of the Bible. The novel was a sobering call for curiosity and open-mindedness in an age of uprightness and morality. Skepticism could be a form of enlightenment if it did not compromise unconditional beliefs for something hardly understood. Lamech, Noah's father, contemplated a single piece of advice to give to another son of his. What he came up with was simple enough: Always ask yourself: what if it's the complete opposite?
A Time for Everything is an intelligent novel that dared to think the opposite of things and to rethink the dogmatic abstractions of the divine. With the passage of time, God had become an abstract God and the idea had become unassailable. The reverse, in fact, was always an option [emphasis added]:
It is hard to imagine, as Bellori said, that God and his divine creatures would exist without any sort of link with the human, raised completely over matter, as Thomas Aquinas and like minds maintained. As far as they were concerned, God in all his forms was absolute – absolute purity, absolute enlightenment, absolute perfection – but just what that absolute really was, or how it really developed, apart from being like light, is unknown. But because God in this way is defined as everything man is not, and never can be, it's easy to accept it and believe that things really are that way, and that this abstract God is the true God, when really it's the opposite: the abstract God is the more human, precisely because it equates with mankind's concept of what the most beautiful, the most elevated, and the most perfect is.
Despite such grand pronouncements, the book's intellectual rigor was not solemnized but rather metafictionally weighed. The fascinating story and religious speculations of Bellori, the adapted Bible stories, and the narrator's psychology at the end were all welded together by traditional suspense and vaulting improvisation. Each narrative block was a stunning set piece and, collectively, they carried Bellori's theory on the fall of the angels. What was brilliant about the whole thing was how within the novel's broad structure (borrowed from Bellori's fictional book) which the narrator was loosely mapping, the biblical stories were intricately tracing out the basic thesis through their own internal structures. The story of Noah, for instance, demonstrated a suspension of the linear narrative through successive digressions. As each digression closed its loop, the characters were revealed as chastised by the momentous events in their lives or shaken to the core by their encounters with angels – divine proxy – in any of their mystical forms. Readers might yet surface into the world with a more nuanced perception of God. And Bellori's mantra of negation might as well see us through: We know nothing. Nor is there anything to know.