By the time Antinous Bellori encounters angels in what we can euphemistically call the flesh, the creatures are no longer those divine messengers familiar from the Old Testament. Nor have they yet mutated into the chubby, rosy-cheeked babies hoisting puffy clouds that Tiepolo et al. gloried in depicting. The eleven-year-old Antinous, lost in the darkening forest near his northern Italian home circa 1562, stumbles on a pair of the flickering fallen ones just as they're sinking their bared teeth into a raw fish. The sight is horrible, more sublime than miraculous: "Their faces are white and skull-like, their eye sockets deep, cheekbones high, lips bloodless. They have long, fair hair, thin necks, slender wrists, clawlike fingers. And they're shaking. One of them has hands that shake." As they devour their sushi, their rolled-back eyeballs make them look blind—or even dead. Then with a dazzling light they depart; for Antinous, the experience is transformative.
According to Karl O. Knausgaard's A Time for Everything, the encounter leads Antinous to a life of restless theological inquiry, eventually yielding his anonymous On the Nature of Angels, published in 1584 but consigned to oblivion until its 1859 rediscovery in London. By then, of course, to speculate about angels is to be embarrassingly reminded of the superstitious past. The Norwegian author's epic biography of the fictional Antinous is one layer peeled from the strata of stories constituting A Time for Everything. This baroque novel folds a text within a text within a text to tell what happened to the nature of the divine over the course of all history, from creation to the present. Running parallel to the story of Antinous are stories of the angels' salad days, the long span between the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden and the explosion of God's wrath in the great flood.
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 embedded novellas—of Cain and Abel, of the peasants of Nod as they flee up the mountainside in advance of the seawater that will exterminate them, of Abraham and Lot and Ezekiel—are themselves wrenched out of historical time: Cain and Abel wear britches and leather boots; the people of Nod tote hunting rifles, take notice of the quality of the morning light on the fjord, and build frame farms to take advantage of the lucrative market in mink breeding. In one delirious scene, Noah's father is pictured in the riotous summer market, a county-fair setting filled with pickpockets, carneys, and a freak show featuring the corpse of a murdered Nephilim, the antediluvian half-angel, half-human that, according to the Apocrypha, was the fruit of the angels' lust for female Homosapiens. Where are we? Knausgaard roams a strange landscape that resembles nothing so much as the pastoral 1800s Scandinavia of early Knut Hamsun.
Our delight in Knausgaard's virtuosity (and daring) in evoking these dreamy, ersatz settings is the payoff for his gamble in engaging an outsize theme—he is, after all, setting foot on terrain where Dante, Milton, and Blake dared to tread—and for his at times tedious digressions into angel scholarship. Knausgaard's mysterious, deadpan narrator is one of the book's more dizzying effects. It has become second nature for readers to greet this sort of reflexive novel by looking inside the collar for the irony label, but A Time for Everything wears its earnestness on its sleeve. In place of knowing humor and self-deprecation are startling episodes of Bosch-like violence and buffoonery. When Cain and Abel find their companion Jared mauled but still breathing in the forest, Abel slits his eyeball Un Chien Andalou–style and pulls his intestines out of his living body in order, Abel says, to experience his pain. Noah's father, dealing with a gangrenous big toe, saws off the digit with a knife before throwing on sock and shoe and continuing his chores.
Toward the book's conclusion, the narrator reveals himself; he is one Henrik Vankel, a young man living in self-imposed exile due to some unspecified transgression committed in the late 1990s on an island off the coast of Norway. There, he bleakly fishes for his lunch, desultorily reads Northrop Frye on Blake (OK, I guess there is a little ironic ha-ha here), and, in a bout of masochistic fury, slices his face and chest with a broken drinking glass in an attempt to, through pain, make contact with the infinite. The bloodletting doesn't work its magic—like the angels, Vankel is too removed from divinity to transcend this earthly existence. If Knausgaard drives home the message of A Time for Everything literally, it comes as no surprise. This is a literal-minded novel about a visionary subject—a grand mismatch of terms, a happily mixed metaphor, and an audacious effort for that.
Eric Banks is formerly the editor of Bookforum.