Imagine two manuscripts. One impeccable, a pile of white pages bound in gold, every numbered page smooth and unmarked. The first lines take us into a conversation between two lovers who seem to be about to part. Then they are making love in the car on their way to the airport. It is all mildly interesting. They are nice people, dedicated Christians with a cat called Joshua.
The other manuscript is an untidy bundle tied up with string. The pages are tattered and water stained and marked with tears. They reek of tobacco smoke. They have different types of paper stuck in with addenda and crossing out. Some blocks of text are slashed out, others have text circled and marked with arrows to shift it to another part of the story. And when we begin to read we find a boy, Antinous Bellori, lost in the forest outside his town. We are in the sixteenth century and Antinous is about to see two angels. Because we are in a world where angels still lurk at the back of things.
Both books are about religion and human life, but otherwise completely different in style and subject matter.
The Book of Strange New Things, by Michael Faber concerns the New Testament and the attempt by Peter Leigh to take the message of love for your fellow man into outer space.
A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven by Karl Ove Knausgaard is what Henry James once described as ‘a loose baggy monster’ and it is difficult to say what it is truly about. Because while Faber’s novel is a long thread of transparent narration, with very little rambling or complexity, Knausgaard, as we have come to expect from him, wanders through dense thickets of description, jumping around in time, with many different voices.
Peter Leigh and his wife Bea have, what one friend (thank you, S.T.) described as ‘faith based love.’ I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that Peter was a homeless drug addict when he met Bea, a Christian nurse and she saved his life. She has a strong belief in Jesus as Saviour, and while Faber doesn’t specify an actual creed, she is a practical Christian, doing all the good she can in her work and life, and deeply believing in the teachings of the New Testament. When Peter finds the same belief in himself he dedicates his life to ministering to the poor and lost.
And he is so good at this that when he applies for job at USIC, the corporation that is developing a colony in outer space, he is successful and is sent into space (through the Jump) to satisfy the demand of the Oasans for a new minister. We see the whole story unrolling from Peter’s perspective; the only other voice is that of Bea in her long letters chronicling the frightening decline of the England Peter has left behind.
Knausgaard as ever mostly uses close third person to tell his rambling tale. At first we are in the mind of Antinous, who becomes a theologian obsessed with the study of angels, and the book is to some extent framed by his life story. But with the presence of angels in many of the tales of the Old Testament we experience the story of Cain and Abel in what one could call excruciating detail. The path of their lives, and the obsessive love and jealousy Cain feels for Abel is such that it is almost a relief when Abel is slain. Before this of course we see Adam and Eve being thrown out of the Garden of Eden, cherubim attending. The most intensely created lives are those of Noah and his family. There is a long scene where Rachel, Adam’s niece, gives birth as the waters of the great Flood are rising, assisted only by her mother Anna. The pace and tension of the writing here is extraordinary.
The next few hours were a torment. The contractions returned with the same regularity, and Rachel fought them with all her strength. She lay down in the marshy grass and rolled to and fro, she beat the tree trunk in front of her with her hand, she tore at her hair as she shouted and screamed.
And all the time the rain pours down and the waters are rising.
From Noah, Knausgaard goes into academic mode and discourses on Isaac Newton and Sir Thomas Browne and then back to his character Antinous Bellori. And then he calls in Ezekiel as his only witness on the true nature and appearance of angels.
They had the face of a man in front, the face of a lion on the right, the face of an ox on the left and that of an eagle at the back.
Meanwhile back in Oasis Peter is in the cafeteria listening to Bing Crosby in the world of bland and Bea is back in an increasingly dystopic England and in danger of losing her faith.
There is an irony at the heart of The Book of Strange New Things, which I will not give away, but there is a surprise at the end of A Time to Every Purpose Under heaven, which I will.
I was staggered to read the last forty pages of Knausgaard’s book and to find we were in the first person, back in his life. The life we know from My Struggle, down the river with Dad and big brother, on the beach fishing for crabs, and again revisiting the emotions and places he has written about in Boyhood Island. And then to find a more grown up version, who may well appear in the later books of My Struggle, living all alone on a remote island, in the depths of despair.
I reeled out of this book exhausted. I just can’t imagine taking this untidy bundle of manuscript to Harper Collins, say, or any conventional publisher. They’d tell you to go home and have a cold shower. But I still feel as if I’ve read something remarkable.