A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven, By Karl O Knausgaard

This theological fantasy is a heavenly delight

What a strange book this is. Look at the subtitle – "A novel of the nature of angels and the ways of man" – and you'd reasonably think, that it is about angels, and the history of their interaction with mankind. And it is, sort of.

Its central figure is Antonius Bellori, a 16th-century Italian, who as a boy stumbles across a pair of angels, high in the mountains. "Their faces are white and skull-like," we learn, "their eye sockets deep, cheekbones high, lips bloodless. They have long, fair hair, thin necks, slender wrists, claw-like fingers. And they're shaking. One of them has hands that shake." They are standing by a river, fishing disconsolately for their dinner. This is a far cry from the cherubim and seraphim of the Bible, with their mighty swords and their blazing light.

Stricken by what he has seen, Bellori devotes his life to the study of angels, and concludes that they, and so too the divine, have altered since the time of the Creation. By the time he sees them again, in his 50s, the angels have degenerated further: now they crouch over the carcass of a dead deer, ripping at it with their teeth, no better than animals.

If this quasi-theological fantasy was all the book was, it would certainly still be of interest, but Bellori's obsession is not the half of it. We only ever read him indirectly, through the words of a long-unidentified narrator. This narrator pauses his account of the Italian's life for two extended takes on familiar Bible stories. The first, at a novella-length 100 pages, treats Cain and Abel; the second, at twice that length, the Flood.

It is here the book's true weirdness and brilliance shine out. We see life among those early people from Genesis: tilling the soil, building houses and preparing sacrifices to God, always aware of the glow of the Cherubim guarding Eden, over the mountains. But wait: they have stoves, and button-fly trousers, and guns.

After the pedantry of Bellori's angels-and-pinhead sophistry, it is a relief to give yourself over to the achingly patient, serenely anachronistic descriptions of this pioneer life. And then, with 50 pages to go, the book changes again, casting a severe, contemporary light back over all that has gone before. Not just strange, this is a quite extraordinary novel, and completely original.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in