Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Serendipity--or divine intervention?

One of my favorite books of 2009 was Karl O. Knausgaard's A Time for Everything, a moving, disturbing, haunting Norwegian novel about evil and good, history and myth, angels and man, and our age that tries so strenuously to deny the existence of all but the last of those subjects. Two years ago, I wrote that the book reminded me of Tolstoy:
Imagine Tolstoy's ruminations on history shifted to ruminations on the role of angels; his empathy applied to a Cain who watches Abel, crazed by visions of angels, begin to lose his moorings. Imagine a Tolstoy who chooses to retell the story of the flood, not from the perspective of Noah, but from that of his doomed sister. There is real horror here: the human cost of divine anger has never, in my experience, been more clearly, achingly described. At the same time, the loving attention lavished on characters whose fates we know--and dread--reminds us of the necessary role of love in all creation, authorial or divine.
In a review for Bookforum, Eric Banks doesn't evoke Tolstoy, but he does discuss its fundamental earnestness--Knausgaard is serious about these stories--and places it in an old tradition:
Knausgaard's rotund novel seems itself out of time, a throwback to the grand European novel of midcentury; it is at once a sort of faux theological disquisition; a philosophical quest for the meaning of time, decay, and exile; and an unabashedly literary excursion into storytelling, with digressions narrating the psychological dynamics of Cain and the deprivations of Noah's extended family in Nod. 
The intertwined sadisms of God and man in A Time for Everything call to mind a line from E. M. Cioran's Tears and Saints: "The creation of man was a cosmic cataclysm, and its aftershocks have become God's nightmares." From the earliest days, when God posted an angel with a flaming sword at the edge of Eden, through the devastation of the flood, to the present, when the the book's narrator mutilates himself in hopes of understanding the infinite, Knausgaard makes us see the strange dance of divine and human. Two years on, what comes to mind most often are the horrors of a world where divine punishments is believed in because it is seen in undeniable action; the dread conjured up by Knausgaard's image of a mad Noah stumping around the farmyard or a sadistic Abel tormenting a wounded shepherd remains vividly with me.

Just after Christmas, I was thinking about A Time for Everything--prompted, I think it's safe to assume, by the more benign angels of Christmas decorations--and wishing another book by Knausgaard might appear in English. And (to stick to appropriate language) lo, and behold, when I got home that night, I found in the mail a galley of a new book by Knausgaard that Archipelago Books will be publishing in May! My prayers had been answered! (Well, as nonbeliever, I hadn't exactly prayed, but if any deities attend to half-formed hopes, it's surely the Gods of the Book-Drunk, right?)

And, um, it's called My Struggle. Really. That can't be ignorance, so it must be a joke, but wow, that's gutsy. Oh, and it's Book One. According to the copy, it tells the story of novelist Karl O. Knausgaard's struggle with self-doubt after his father has drunk himself to death, as Knausgaard "breaks his own life story down to its elementary particles, often recreating memories in real time, blending recollections of images and conversation with profound questions in a remarkable way."

The title makes me a bit skeptical, the subject a bit more so, but Knausgaard earned so much credit with me through A Time for Everything that I'm inclined to trust him. And then, on page two, a passage like this--
The moment life departs the body, it belongs to death. At one with lamps, suitcases, carpets, door handles, windows. Fields, marshes, streams, mountains, clouds, the sky. None of these is alien to us. We are constantly surrounded by objects and phenomena from the realm of death.
--reminds me of why. The book won't be published until May, so you probably won't hear more from me about it until then, but suffice it to say I'm grateful to the Gods of the Book-Drunk for delivering it to my doorstep.

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