I spend a week every summer on my own on the North Norfolk coast – on this occasion I rented a place in Wells-Next-the-Sea – writing, thinking and reading, with beautiful North Norfolk itself to wander around in when I feel like it, and no internet, no company, no dogs, no nothing. It’s one of my highlights of the year. This time I took Karl O. Knausgaard’s strange novel, A Time to Every Purpose under Heaven, which proved to be fit in well with my state of mind.
I say novel, but it’s not a novel in the conventional sense. It begins with an account of a 17th century Italian child’s encounter with real life angels. His name is Antinous Bellori and he stumbles on them in the mountains. Skull-faced creatures with cold eyes, bloodless lips, and green and black wings, they are hunting for fish in a river with spears, and eating them raw. Bellori becomes obsessed with angels and goes on to write a lengthy scholarly treatise on them.
The book then moves on into a lengthy discussion about angels and their nature and then, by way of the fiery cherubim that guarded the gates of Eden, it revisits in some detail the story of Cain and Abel. This is very different from the biblical account. The two brothers, while very different, are both tortured characters, neither of them wholly bad or good, with complex interior lives. They still live in a place so near to Eden that the fiery light of the cherubim can still be seen in the sky, but this place is distinctly Scandinavian. (In a nice touch, the narrator suggests that the story acquired its Middle Eastern details as a result of cultural assimilation, so that the fjords and glaciers of the original setting were gradually lost and forgotten, just as the characters were gradually simplified.)
We then shift to the story of Noah. The setting is again Scandinavian, but in the forests now there are strange giant creatures born out of sexual unions (actually mentioned in the book of Genesis but never explained) between ‘the sons of God’ and humans. (It is suggested that the sons of God must have been angels.) Noah himself is a strange unworldly man, an albino who can only come out at night, and something of a geek. The story follows him for a while, but then shifts to his sister Anna, her marriage, the birth of her children and grandchildren, and it is from her viewpoint that we see the rising waters. The Ark appears when all but the mountaintops have been covered, but Noah and his sons refuse to take anyone on board, killing with cudgels anyone who tries to climb up, as they would have to have done, of course, if the ship was not to be completely overrun by desperate people. Anna and her family all drown, along with the rest of humanity. It’s not clear what purpose drowning them served, and God himself repents of his decision to flood the Earth.
Now we come to the story of Lot who survived the destruction of Sodom with his two daughters, after offering food and hospitality to two angels. It is Lot who offered his daughters to the lustful crowd who gathered outside his house, demanding to… well, sodomise… the angels, Lot whose wife was changed by an angel into a pillar of salt when she looked back at the ruined city. What strange stories these are. How little there is in them which chimes with our own sense of what is either meaningful or just. But as Knausgaard points out, this will one day be the case with the values and ideas that now seem to us to be self-evidently true. And for this reason, he wisely takes older ways of seeing, whether they are Old Testament stories or seventeenth century theological speculation, quite seriously. (If we just laugh at old ideas, we are really saying that how we see the world now, our current idea of what is real, is also worthy of nothing but ridicule.)
The tour of the Old Testament continues with the prophet Ezekiel, who had his own encounter with angels. According to the Bible, they had four faces, the front face like a man’s, the side faces like an ox and a lion, and the backwards-looking face like an eagle. They had four wings each, completely covered with eyes, and each angel was accompanied by a rolling wheel which was also covered with eyes. Strange, strange, strange.
After the birth of Christ, though, angels change. They become less divine, less majestic. Bellori has his own explanation for this, based on the heretical idea (which he has to recant to avoid the stake) that the divine itself is not constant but constantly changed its form, until it eventually became human and died. After all, the Old Testament, as Knausgaard shows, contains instances of God being caught by surprise, and changing his mind, and regretting an action he has taken: very different from the eternal, all-knowing and omnipresent being of later theology.
Having lost their original status and purpose, angels roam the earth like vagabonds – Bellori has another encounter with them, and takes the recently-dead corpse of the Archangel Michael back to his house for dissection – but they continue to diminish, gradually becoming the little cuddly cherubs that we see in eighteenth century paintings. (There is a nice moment where three of these cherubs make a nuisance of themselves in a country house and have to be chased out by servants with brooms.) And even that’s not the end of it, because then they grow feathers and beaks until at last these cold-eyed servants of God become cold-eyed seagulls, which, in this book at least, still have tiny vestigial arms and hands dangling beneath their wings.
Seagulls take us to modern Norway, and finally to the book’s narrator, Henrik Vankel. He is an odd man, emotionally disturbed, physically clumsy, haunted by guilt and self-loathing, and he has exiled himself to a remote island because of some unspecified thing he’s done that makes him feel defiled and ashamed. At first he projects his own negative feelings onto his surroundings, but gradually they change him:
Shame is a social mechanism, it requires a tight set of relationships to function, without that it withers, and this was exactly what happened after a few weeks on the island. The sun of today pushed the shadows of yesterday further and further back, it’s the only way I can describe it, because it was as if more and more light came into my life, while at the same time I moved further and further towards the front of my consciousness, until one day I stood right on the edge and stared out, filled with an enormous ecstasy: I was here! I could see this! It took less and less to kindle the joy of life in me.
* * *
That’s actually a pretty accurate description of what invariably happens when I spend my week on the coast: I move towards the front of my consciousness. It doesn’t happen straight away, and it even when it does happen, it comes and goes (as is also the case with Vankel’s experience, for he descends again into self-loathing and violent self-harm), but always at some point I realise that I’m at home in the world, and no longer distanced from it, to the point where even the knowledge that this state won’t last forever is something that I feel entirely calm about.
It isn’t my normal state. Often I feel far from the world, tied up inside myself, like Vankel in knots of fear, shame, doubt, worry, and with the various activities, many of them meaningless, with which I fill up my life, as if stuffing my face with junk food. Typically, even when I’m in a place which pleases me, I have a sense that I am in some way cut off from it, so that I feel kind of nostalgic ache, even when the object of that nostalgia is physically present. I’ve always assumed that this sense of separation was the common state of humanity – we only exist, after, because, over millions of years, our ancestors have successfully guarded their separateness, as lumps of highly organised matter, from the much less highly organised surroundings into which entropy is constantly tugging them – and I’ve always assumed that the legend of Eden and the Fall was in part a way of describing it.
* * *
But I digress from Knausgaard’s book. I enjoyed this novel and was sorry to reach the end of it. It is a very rich book, both in terms of earthy sensory experience, and in terms of ideas: the fact it is rich in both these ways is appropriate in a book that challenges abstraction and makes ‘spiritual’ beings like God and angels into physical entities. One of the things I liked best about it was that it doesn’t have a plot to hold it all together, and yet it hung together aesthetically and thematically, like a painting or a piece of music. Plot is such an artificial thing, and so prone to take over from everything else.