Monday, March 1, 2010

Douglas Messerli | Extinguishing the Fire (on Karl O.Knausgaard's A Time for Everything)

Susan Bee, Angels in Lamentation, 1981

Douglas Messerli
Extinguishing the Fire

Karl O. Knausgaard A Time for Everything, trans. from the Norwegian En Tid for Alt by James Anderson (Brooklyn: Archipelago Books, 2009)

One of the most interesting books of 2009 was Karl Knausgaard's A Time for Everything. Generally books with religious or spiritual themes do not particularly attract me. But this year I not only reread all the publications of Flannery O'Connor—works immersed in her deep Catholicism—but for four weeks buried myself in Knausgaard's profound retellings of Biblical stories from Abel and Cain, Noah and the Flood, Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Ezekiel, and other tales involving angels. I also reread these works in the Bible, rediscovering in the process how significantly this Norwegian author has expanded them, psychologizing his figures, and placing them into an anachronistic setting that would remind one of the novels of Knut Hamsun. Indeed, the Old Testament figures of Knausgaard's versions live a in world of fjords, wooden houses and barns, and changing seasons that resemble his native Norway.

For that reason, of course, most fundamentalists would abhor this religious fiction; in fact even some church liberals might describe the work as heresy. Yet Knausgaard's complex sentences draw one into to the Biblical stories in a way that helps one to make sense of the spiritual issues of each.

In this writer's retelling of the Cain and Abel story, for example, Abel is a talented and appealing figure, drawing everyone to him through his singing and storytelling and intense good looks. He is beloved by all, particularly by his Father. Cain is more stolid, less attractive, slow to speak; yet in many respects he is the more loving of the two as he carefully analyzes family relationships, painfully seeking a way to ingratiate himself with both his father and brother. Because he is so gifted, Abel is also often cruel, unable to contain his sometimes destructive curiosity. When a family shepherder is found dying of wounds inflicted by a bear, the brothers agree that they must kill him so that he no longer suffers. Yet Abel draws out the process in an attempt, so it appears, to explore the body parts; Cain is forced to step in, ending the boy's life quickly by thrusting a rock upon his head.

Later, Abel tries to reenter Eden in an attempt to find the Tree of Life, and is horribly burned by the Angels. In his deep love for his brother, Cain gently nurses him again to life, yet Abel, thought to be in a coma during his illness, later mocks Cain's gentle musings. Ultimately, Cain's murder of Abel seems almost inevitable, the only way, perhaps, to save Abel from his own self-destruction.

Similarly, the simple Bible story of Noah is focused less on Noah and his construction of the Arc than on the family he has left behind in the valley, fleshing out their daily activities, their loves, fears, and hates. The God who destroys them indeed is an angry and jealous God, and the dark black visage of Noah and his arc rises up in this telling as a kind of cruel and uncaring force, not unlike the all-white Moby Dick.

Threading these various tales together is Knausgaard's retelling of the story and writings of the Sixteenth century figure Antinous Bellori, who, after seeing two angels at the age of eleven, spent most of the rest of his life studying and contemplating the lives of the angels, collecting his findings in On the Nature of Angels.

His questions are profound. Why, for example, did God destroy the Earth? Yes mankind had been evil, but how had that evil changed so significantly that God was determined to begin the process over again, to destroy all but a single family? Why did the angels appear infrequently as messengers from God in the early part of the Bible, but appear more often to people in later ages until finally, with the Birth of Christ, they completely disappeared, only to return after Christ's death with increasing frequency, this time as small and bothersome baby-like beings, "tubby little infantile figures" who, as the composer Scarlatti reports, had to be rooted out of the house because of their robbery of food and dirty activities?

In an attempt to understand these radical changes, Knausgaard, with Bellori's help, explores the changing role of angels, from messengers to beings who sometimes behaved, in the case of the Lot story, more like men. Knausgaard through Bellori believes he can explain the cause of God's anger and his destruction of mankind through apocryphal writings in The Book of Enoch and The Book of the Apocalypse of Baruch which suggest that the angels had taken wives and partners in their mingling with human beings, producing the "giants in the earth," the Nephilim, described in the Bible. According to Enoch, beside their carnal lust, the angels had grown too close to man, sharing with human beings "knowledge about everything from medicine, mining, and weaponry to astronomy, astrology, and alchemy," knowledge that man, apparently, was never meant to have. It was not mankind that had changed, it was the relation of man and the sacred that doomed the human race.

The various changes of the angels themselves are explained by Bellori in a manner that is strangely similar to Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection. According to Bellori, Christ was not just a symbolic or temporary manifestation of God the Father, but was God himself, the spirit become a carnate being in order to save Man. His death, accordingly, was also the real death of God, and with God's death the angels had nowhere else to go. In order to survive among mankind they transformed themselves from the fiery, fearsome and horrific winged beings who Bellori witnessed as a child and who later may have killed him into more appealing looking figures, resembling human infants. With God's death in Christ, they were forced to extinguish their own inner fire. When that transformation also failed, so Knausgaard seems to suggest, they become, as legend has it, seagulls, the highly intelligent birds of the Lariade family who have small, finger-like appendages under their wings.

If all this text (452 pages before the "Coda") sounds a bit like heretical nonsense, one might recall that Bellori's writing was labeled as such. But Knausgaard's work is not so much a religious exegesis, but a fictional speculation in the guise of a religious exegesis, a form, I am certain, that will put off many readers. Some English critics (where this book bore the less lyrical title of A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven) criticized the work for its extended arguments and overinflated sentences.

Yet any attentive reader can realize that Knausgaard is a superb stylist (as is the book's excellent translator, James Anderson), capable as he is also of a more pared-down narrative evident in his "Coda."

This last section "explains," or perhaps I should say "reveals" those significant changes in the relation of humans to the divine. In Henrik Vankell's isolated and gull-covered island, man is represented as a sinner who has no one to turn to, but is able only, as so much Scandinavian literature and film reiterates, to turn within. We are never told what terrible crimes Vankell (a character who appears in two other Knausgaard fictions) has committed or what awful act of self-destruction his father committed that helped mold Vankell's being. We only know that he has run from human company and finds his only solace in the silence of this barren but beautiful landscape.

On the day we follow him he does, primarily, what he does every day: walk various routes along the ocean according to set and ritualistic patterns, eat, fish (quite ineffectively), and watch the few islanders move about. But on this day, his mother calls having had bad dreams which she sees as tokens of something about to happen. A ship that inexplicably enters the harbor, terrifies Vankell. Yet there are no other signs that he might accomplish the horrifying self-immolation that by book's end he has achieved. Slowly, without explanation, he cuts himself down his chest and mutilates his arms and face, sitting in a hot tub of water, apparently awaiting death.

But then who could be telling this first-person story? Despite his self-punishment he has perhaps survived, a survival which may signify that despite this man's immense separation from his spirit, he has found a way of truly forgiving himself, perhaps in the telling of this spiritual story.

Los Angeles, December 6, 2009

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