‘A Time for Everything’ by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Review)

IMG_5284Like many readers, I’ve been sucked into following Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, his epic struggle with himself and the minutiae of modern living.  With the books only coming out at the rate of one a year, though, many of you will now be feeling the need to scratch the Knausi itch, so today’s book, then, is one for you.  It’s an earlier work, one with excellent writing, an intriguing premise and hints of what was to come in his later books.  But, before we start, a question – do you believe in angels?  And, if so, what do you think they are?  Now, that we’re warmed up, let’s see what Uncle Karl Ove has to say on the topic…

A Time for Everything (translated by James Anderson, review copy courtesy of Portobello Books and Australian distributor Allen & Unwin) is a slightly revised version of an earlier edition (A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven), with no difference except for a return to the original Norwegian order of the early pages.  In his second novel, Knausgaard turns his undoubted attention to detail to a topic slightly less personal than that which many readers will be used to – the nature of angels.

Starting with an anecdote about a sixteenth-century expert on the topic, Knausgaard moves through the book by retelling bible stories.  Cain and Abel, Noah, Lot and Ezekiel all get the Knausgaardian treatment before we return to our angel-obsessed friend.  Then, there’s a coda, one in which Knausgaard talks about – a fictional version of himself.  While it may not sound like it, the common thread running through the book is the nature of angels, with our writer friend coming to some rather bizarre and disturbing conclusions…

I was slightly disappointed by the most recent of Knausgaard’s odes to his youth, so this was the perfect way to move on from that.  A Time for Everything is a wonderful book in which the writer makes great use of his style of meticulous analysis and an inability to leave any intriguing aspect of a story undiscussed.  The prose in general is excellent too, with Anderson producing a flowing, expansive text that never feels clumsy or forced.  With such an eye for detail, the writer is able to bring events off the page, breathing colour into what could be dry, turgid tales.

One of the most impressive aspects of the novel is the way Knausgaard has developed it.  The over-arching structure and theme of angels is woven in and out of the work, yet the book actually contains several stories which could be novellas in their own right (a missed marketing opportunity there).  Early on, in setting up his journey into the past, the narrator accuses modern readers and writers of attributing modern thoughts to people from the past, frowning on this revisionism:

“Even if the events and relationships of his life were to correspond exactly with a life in our own time, one that we understand and recognise, we would still come no closer to him.”
p.13 (Portobello Books, 2015)

Then, of course, he proceeds to do exactly the same thing himself in his stories – what follows is less biblical and more Thomas Hardy in its bucolic descriptiveness (or George Eliot in the focus on thoughts and motives).

Once the preliminaries are out of the way, we move onto the tale of Cain and Abel.  Confined to a mere handful of verses in the Bible, Knausgaard expands it here to nearly a hundred pages, developing a superb story of two brothers and their fate, a psychological tale of love and envy.  I don’t want to give too much away, but let me tell you now – Knausgaard’s interpretation is rather more sympathetic to the exiled Cain than the Biblical version…

We then move on to The Flood, which in Knausgaard’s hands again becomes a sweeping epic.  It’s a moving drama, one which often leaves Noah hammering away at his Ark, instead focusing on the plight of the rest of humanity.  As the rain keeps on and the sea levels rise, with tidal waves and floods chasing them higher and higher, a small group of people do their best to reach sanctuary.  Much of this section focuses on the back story of Noah’s family, and with this knowledge in mind, the well-known ending packs an even bigger punch.  As much as it’s a Bible story, it’s one of struggle, with people trying to carve out an existence in the face of disaster – and very moving it is too.

These two sections are detached, neutral narratives, but in other places Knausgaard uses a very different style.  For example, in his retellings of the stories of Lot and Ezekiel, the writer narrates the events, providing a running commentary along the way.  He examines each word, stopping to question the motives, not only of the people but also of God and his representatives, and the  way he steps back and ponders events allows us to see the stories in a new light.

A good example of this is where the writer considers how Ezekiel’s ravings would have appeared to the people around him, especially after the novelty had worn off.  With hindsight, it’s easy to condemn those who looked down upon him as a raving madman, but for those watching and waiting (in vain) for anything to happen, turning their back on him was the sensible option.  And then, of course, there’s Lot, led away with his family in the middle of the night:

“What’s going on, Dad?” says one of the daughters.
“We’re going away,” says Lot.  “And we’re going now.”
“But it’s the middle of the night!” says the other.
“No buts!  When I say now, I mean now! says Lot. (p.405)

These lines might not fit in with the aesthetic of Biblical language, but it’s certainly more realistic of how teenage daughters might have reacted…

While I haven’t mentioned the angels much in examining the stories Knausgaard develops, they are a constant presence even here, their light shining in the distance.  The subject is handled in more detail, though, when he returns to the story of Antinous Bellori, a man examining the nature of angels and coming up with some unorthodox claims (in a time when straying from the orthodox often led to torture):

“In his major work, On the Nature of Angels, he argues that scripture is only one of the myriad manifestations of the divine, neither more nor less important than the others, and so invalidates the contradiction that has arisen between scripture and the world in a different and more sincere way than his contemporaries, who merely exchanged one value for another, without understanding that, in reality, they were two sides of the same coin.” (p.360)

The key point here is the question as to what actually angels are – are they closer to God or humanity?  Are they eternally the same or capable of change?  Bellori and Knausgaard have their own personal insights into the matter, leading to a shocking conclusion (one, again, I won’t reveal here).

However, A Time for Everything, while dealing with the divine, is more about the human.  The book deals with human nature and the way mortality drives us to be ambitious and plan for the future.  I realise that for the more religious reader, the interpretation will be slightly different, so perhaps a small trigger warning might be appropriate at this point.  This is a work of literary fiction, and Knausgaard’s interpretation of biblical events may not reflect orthodox Christian beliefs…

And yet there’s more…  Knausgaard’s Coda, a War and Peace-esque appendage to an epic story, takes place in Norway in the late 90s, where a certain Henrik Vankel (a very thinly veiled Knausgaard) is living in solitude on a small island.  It might seem a bit of overkill after the main event, but it does serve a couple of purposes.  Firstly, it puts the theory into practice, showing how a man’s life can be rendered meaningless in light of the revelations explained in the main part of the book.  Secondly, it’s fascinating for the reader of the My Struggle series, containing future echoes of Knausgaard’s more autobiographical books.  As well as touching on issues such as self-harming, conflict with a father figure and deliberate isolation, fiction begins to blend into real life as A Time for Everything is what he was working on during the period covered by A Man in Love.  We can see why he was so driven, and frustrated, at anything, including his family, that got in his way during a time of intense productivity.

A Time for Everything is a wonderful book, one I’d recommend to anyone, especially those who have already enjoyed Knausgaard’s work.  While it might shock the odd Bible literalist, most readers will appreciate the way Knausgaard handles the texts (just to show how much depth he went into for this book, he was subsequently used as an advisor for a new translation of the Bible into Nynorsk).  The big question, though, is what his view on angels actually is.  I won’t go into that, but the verdict of Antinous Bellori is worth considering:

“The angels have fallen.  They are out there somewhere.” (p.240)

I’m really not sure if that is meant to be comforting or chilling…

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