The novel begins in 1551 when late at night by a stream in a forest an 11-year-old boy Antinous Bellori stumbles upon two angels eating fish. Though terrified, he studies them: "Their faces are white and skull-like, 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" (translated by James Anderson).
Bellori himself is so affected by what he sees that he spends the rest of his life studying the subject and takes six years to write On the Nature of Angels. On reading this far one may assume such a long novel would focus on Bellori's life and times, his struggle to publish an heretical thesis and to avoid burning at the stake. But no. The focus is instead a repetition of Bellori's investigation into the fundamental question: why have angels become mere animals, living in remote locations and avoiding contact with humans?
Bellori thereby disappears from the foreground and for over 400 pages is replaced by retellings of the stories of Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood and Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, each narrated as if the characters where protagonists in a standard historical novel. They live in an indeterminate pre-modern time with the same hopes and fears as ours. Noah's sister Anna has a strained marriage to a man who owns a farm next to a fjord that turns out to be no more than a hut in a field. Yet angels and the threat of apocalypse are as present to them as dolphins and terrorism are to us. The prose follows the easy-reading pace of 500-page novels and Knausgaard is vulnerable to criticism for stamping out generic passages from a stencil:
"You've made it nice here," said his father, looking around.Yet such prose in the context of biblical stories has the odd effect of naturalising events we would otherwise place at a distance. When Abel announces an expedition to the Garden of Eden, it is as supernatural as the North Pole. And when he is attacked by angels resisting his approach, they may as well be polar bears. Reading the novel late into the night I wondered if this is what genre fans enjoy in large volumes of speculative fiction, science fiction and fantasy: imaginary worlds presented in unadorned prose to evoke – albeit temporarily – an enchantment of the current, prosaic one. But the worlds and ideas they generate are weightless in comparison to this: our culture is founded on Bible stories. Every event becomes vitally real to us as they were for generations of Jews and Christians.
"It's good enough for me at any rate," said Cain.
A shiver went through him.
In Knausgaard's retelling, the space between a world with God and his angels and one without is recognised and felt in a manner that affects not only how we perceive the current world but how we perceive our perspective. Enthusiastic claims that "science fiction has emerged as the literature best able to articulate the relentless pace of social change" is faint mitigation when teleology is limited to this and the lives of characters in an exciting story. In A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven, the presence and degradation of angels becomes a question of the absence of meaning in the modern world, an absence over which Knausgaard's writing keeps watch.
In a coda to the novel, the narrator following up Bellori's thesis reveals himself to be a young Norwegian man called Henrik Vankel who has isolated himself on a small island after an unspecified breakdown on shore. He describes a relationship with his father in terms with which readers of My Struggle will be very familiar. He is also fascinated by Bellori's book and why, after many years of intense work, he suddenly abandoned writing. His speculative answer emerges from an unforgettable interpretation of Giottto's Lamentation as seen through Bellori's eyes. He saw what the death of Jesus meant for the angels in the painting.
Christ never wrote, is an entry in one of Bellori's notebooks. It would have contravened the fundamental meaning of incarnation. The divine became a body: arms and legs, head and belly, heart and lungs. The divine lived in a specific place at a specific time. There was no universality about it, only a singularity. And that was where the meaning lay. That the meaning of Jesus' life lay in every single unique moment that he had been here was something churchmen didn't understand, they who had raised that bloody, crucified body into the language, and dissolved it in philosophy's abstractions. But the people understood. The hysterical medieval worship of relics was an expression of it: God was here, among us, like us. Not all the time, just once. And at that moment, when Pontius Pilate was procurator in Jerusalem and Augustus emperor in Rome, he'd set foot there, laid his head there, placed his hand there.In this passage we can appreciate Vankel's turn to solitude in nature and Knausgaard's need to write the six-volume My Struggle: gathering evidence of the divine, right here, right now.