A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven, By Karl Ove Knausgard, trans. James Anderson

A luminous flight of fancy on the nature of angels, man and God
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The most surprising thing about this extraordinary novel is its success. It was greeted with awed admiration and awards in its Norwegian homeland; translation rights were snapped up. What was it with Knausgard's second work, 500-odd pages of fictionalised biblical exegesis?

The author's pitch might have run: "My novel will argue about the actuality of the divine and how the Old Testament was right all along. Another theme will be: what happened to the angels? I'll refer to a 16th-century scholar – me – who's supposed to have spent years inquiring into the nature of angels. I'll add versions of the stories of Cain and Abel and Noah, set in a glorious, Norwegian-style landscape, and then go on to Ezekiel and Lot, stressing the role of angels.

"Next, the scholar's ideas about God as vulnerable to time and to mankind's devices, and his thesis that angels became trapped on Earth and began to change shape. Eventually, the scholar realises that God is dead and is himself killed, probably by renegade angels. Finally, a coda about a modern, solitary and disturbed 'me'."

It is a credit to Knausgard's publishers that they bought into this scenario. Christian themes have been resurfacing throughout the secularised West. I'd like to think they realised that here was a fine writer with a fearless mind, and that his proposal would become a fascinating if flawed work.

Knausgard's handling of argument is masterly, but the premises shift with mood and time, as does his idea of God. Initially hands-on, God struggles to get a grip on mankind's waywardness. His incarnation as Jesus is the final attempt. The fate of the Heavenly host reflects the ascendancy of man. The angels' decline accelerates as they turn into Renaissance cherubs, Victorian fairies, and end as greedy, cold-eyed gulls.

This kind of speculative tale needs very good telling not to read like mad pedantry or utter tosh. Knausgard and his translator, who writes like the author's soulmate, veer close to both. Yet the writing glows with an intense awareness of the here and now, and loving observations of landscapes and objects. In the coda, irony turns to bitterness. The self-harming narrator stands for man alone in a world bereft of meaning. For God is truly dead.