You’ve probably heard of Karl Ove Knausgård–he’s a living Norwegian cannon and he’s widely known for his series My Struggle, translated by James Anderson and first published by Archipelago. He currently has a series of essays, The Seasons Quartet, published by Penguin. But you never hear about A Time for Everything. This book was recommended by a friend of mine who, years ago, was in the same literary circle in Rochester as me. We read it in our book club. To date, I wouldn’t say that Knausgård is one of my favorite authors (like Krasznahorkai or Clarice Lispector) but A Time for Everything is one of my favorite novels. The premise is simple: a man named Antinous Bellori researches angels as a species. The narration cycles through Bellori’s perspective and also cites (and completely rewrites) stories from the bible in which angels are mentioned: Cain and Able, the Great Flood, and so on. Knausgård, a staunch atheist, knows the literary merit of the bible and re-rwrites these excerpts with a certain pathos—we get access to Cain’s interiority/three-dimensionality, his love for his brother. We watch as Noah let’s his family die within sight of his ark, as they beg him for help. All of this is written in that Knausgårdian style that references biology, epistemology, and historical figures like Galileo, Copernicus, Aquinas. The “Coda” is horrific and traumatizing—a man self-mutilates his body for several pages and in a strange cohesion with the rest of the plot.
The description I just offered is a perfectly adequate reason to love a book. When I review books, I typically keep this question in mind: why language? There are seemingly infinite media with which to tell a story: dance, sculpture, film. The plot is important, but the use of the medium, in this case: form, grammar, structure—is what makes a work a masterpiece on a technical level. Knausgård knows his medium—at least in A Time for Everything––and that’s why he’s often compared to Proust. It’s why he’s revered.
But there’s more to this book for me than its literary merit.
On June 5, 2014, I took a train from Rochester to McNally Jackson because I heard Karl Ove Knausgård was going to be at the launch event for the release of Book Three of his My Struggle series—and that it was going to be moderated by Zadie Smith. I got to Prince Street an hour early and the line was wrapped around the block. I was lucky because the line was cut off just a few people behind me due to fire code. That’s how many people wanted to see him. We were on top of each other on the bottom floor of McNally. I stood on a chair to see him and Zadie Smith the whole time.
Here’s what I remember about this event: Knausgård read from the Norwegian, Zadie Smith read in the English (and if you’ve never heard her read, you don’t really know what Poe meant when he said tragedy and melancholy are the height of beauty), and a Q&A followed.
At one point, early into the Q&A, someone asked if his depression was alleviated by his writing process. He gave a terse “no” and a brief explanation. Then the hands went up. No one was satisfied with this. Didn’t creative expression offer relief and release? It seems impossible to be in a perpetually depressed state. No one accepted his answers, the questions were nearly the same and unrelenting, and all while he struggled with a language barrier. He started getting pissed off. Zadie Smith had to take over the conversation and shut it down. She told the audience to move on. They did, eventually. The Q&A was almost over anyway.
My friend and I went upstairs to get my book signed. I was the only person with A Time for Everything and people around me kept asking about it. Big fans of his who either hadn’t read or hadn’t heard of it. Most were there to purchase Book Three of his series.
I finally got to Knausgård. I apologized for the audience. I told him writing doesn’t do anything for my depression, either. It’s not why I write. It’s not an inspiration and I don’t feel relief after the fact. He told me that the audience’s approach was purely cultural––that in Norway, people don’t ask questions this reductive. Depression isn’t shocking there—hell, it’s where modern black metal came from. And then he told me he was sorry for me, that I lived in a culture that either sensationalizes or completely rejects the reality of a fairly common state of being.
I had three books I wanted to write about—some titles that are rare and signed that I’ve found locally. But I wanted to tell this story because it points to the inherently uniting property of the arts—particularly in music and literature. And it makes it especially clear why we should read books from other cultures—our collective ethos isn’t the only ethos to this or that. (Like how Japan and the Netherlands view suicide from a different perspective than the States and yet those perspectives stem from wildly different origins.) This story also makes clear why bookstores are important—they’re , maybe to an impenetrably and willfully obstinate audience, and he then has something provocative to respond to.
The rippling consequence is that today, there’s a woman with a signed novel—one of her favorite novels—written by a living canon compared to Proust, who spoke to her for under two minutes, normalizing a subject that no longer made her feel deeply alienated. Nearly four years ago she has a tangible and really quite transcendent object that revisits what is an otherwise oxymoronic concept, maybe now more relevant than ever: collective isolation, and conceptually connecting amid it.