Long before the back and forth between religion and science, literature has been an irritant and a helpmate to belief. Because the continual transmission of spiritual practices relies on the transformative power of storytelling, there is a kinship between the appeal of Scripture to the catechumen’s sensibility and the grander aims of secular literature. In both instances, the success of a text may be reckoned by its potential to modulate a worldview, or bring clarity to universal concerns.
That said, at least since the time when Plato anointed itinerant versifiers with myrrh and wreathes before shooing them away from his utopia, the subversive potential of literature has been appreciated. Censors throughout the millennia have grasped that dogma is not literature’s forte. At heart, fiction and poetry are wildcards capable of shoring up a perceived truth or pillorying it, or zipping between both extremes on the fly.
In his impressively ambitious book, A Time for Everything, the Norwegian novelist Karl O. Knausgaard uses fiction’s license to advance and undermine piety. Charting the relationship between humanity and the divine, in light of the angelic manifestations in the Bible, Knausgaard adds a new coat of palpability to a selection of Biblical stories by injecting them with emotional resonances that are latent or missing from the source material. The liberties he takes are generally compelling.
In his retelling of the story of Cain and Abel, the angels figure on the periphery as sentinels posted at the entrance to the Garden of Eden. Initially, the plot canters along a psychologically pedestrian bridle path; Cain is portrayed as loner, who is forever being eclipsed by his extroverted younger brother. Then at one gruesome point, the tale shrugs off its predictability by ascribing Abel with a touch of sadism. This enriches the nuances of the brothers’ relationship exponentially.
Though a tragic outcome is never in question, Knausgaard’s creative inventions lend the story an intensity lacking in its laconic, scriptural counterpart. It should be said that sometimes these Miltonic attempts to supplement, daresay, outperform the Biblical narratives are undermined by rather hammy anachronisms–e.g. Noah’s future brother-in-law plays poker. While it could be postulated that Knausgaard lards his book with such details to display an easygoing side, he does this fine in other places (Lot and his wife are a hoot) without these garish wink-winks.
A Time for Everything prosecutes the case for divine mutability. The narrator, whose identity is explored in the coda (which one could imagine as a fully fleshed out treatment for a Lars von Trier film), is versatile at voicing this claim along literary and hermeneutical lines with fluctuating seriousness.
Donning a pleasant, scholarly tone, he engages in a close reading of the Bible that pays heed to God’s changing behavior toward mankind: The punitive deity who sends the Flood; the lamenting deity who bids Ezekiel to eat the honey-flavored scrolls; the radical deity who, by incarnating himself in the figure of Christ, quests for total empathy with his creation. For the narrator, these and other examples attest to a creator who has a finite understanding of his creation, which should not be construed as an attempt to divest God of His grandeur, but as cogent assessment of His attributes.
Christopher Byrd is a writer who lives in New York. His reviews have appeared in publications such as The New York Times Book Review, The American Prospect, The Believer, The Guardian, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Wilson Quarterly.