Monday, January 10, 2011


Above is a 9-pound 500-page novel that I expect to finish reading tonight while I am babysitting for the serenely sleeping Mabel Watson Payne. I described it to a friend on the phone the other night as one of those books that you enter like an alternative life or a completely convincing dream and during the time it takes to read it you have to keep switching back and forth from foot to foot, one foot in the everyday-world and one foot in the novel-world. The Makioka Sisters was a book like that and (of course) Remembrance of Things Past and The Golden Notebook and (most recently) Wolf Hall – well, everybody has a personal list but probably all the books on the list need to be BIG books and the products of times or cultures remote from your own.

Karl O. Knausgaard published A Time for Everything in Norwegian back in 2004. The non-profit, noble-minded Archipelago Books of Brooklyn published James Anderson's English translation five years later. Personally, I would certainly hate to have the job of summarizing or categorizing Knausgaard's vivid, digressive history of angels from the creation of the world up to the present day. And anyway, no great book is really "about" what the plot is about. The Archipelago web site reproduces a review by that estimable Renaissance scholar Ingrid D. Rowland. She does a bold and successful job, I think, of telling people what is up with this story. For my part, I'll settle for the short sample paragraph below, allowing the author to speak for himself.

As we know, the actual theory of evolution was developed by Charles Darwin and published in The Origin of Species in 1859. This was a huge success in scientific terms, and to this day has completely dominated our view of living things and their history. Other theories have been pushed out into the cold. It's easy to imagine that the battle between them was fought out at the end of the nineteenth century, but this wasn't so, by then the path had already been cleared for Darwin's theory, the victory assured. To find the real struggle, one must go back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There it is harder to decipher, as the different attitudes, which to us seem like complete opposites, and totally incompatible, could then exist side by side. Not merely within one and the same culture, but within one and the same person. And because these people not only thought differently about the world than we do, but also thought differently about themselves, it's almost impossible to gain a clear picture of what they really believed. Reason and emotion, historical events and mythological episodes, hard facts and wild speculations, were all mixed up inside them. And all this, that was going on inside their heads, went on to permeate their bodies. The thoughts they thought, the heart that beat, the lungs that breathed, the hair that grew, the wounds that healed, the eyes that saw, the ears that heard, all merged together, just as they do in us, without us realizing it, just as they didn't realize it: only in retrospect does the human aspect become clear, in the form of what separates them from us. The things they thought that we don't think. The things they believed that we don't believe. The things they saw that we don't see. And from this we can draw the following conclusion: one day, in a few hundred years' time, the human race of the future will look on us in the same way. What for us is an obvious truth, something we regard as so self-evident we don't even think about it, because we can see it, it is like this, will to them be completely incomprehensible. Perhaps they'll laugh at us, perhaps just be fascinated by us, even say they have respect for us, but no matter what they say, they will end up feeling superior to us. For they know. They can see.