It opens with the account of how the Italian Antonious Bellori has an encounter with two angels in the 16th century, which inspires a lifetime of research into angels. This narrative level is reminiscent of Eco and Borges in its analytical, essayist style, and not least in treating the subject of angels as if it were as scientifically valid as those subjects we currently deem scientifically valid.
I am not well enough versed in the Bible and accompanying religious writings to know, but I assume that while Biblical references are correct, most or all references to old writings on angels are as fictitious as Bellori himself. The result is a philosophical treatise that touches on far more than angels and is for the most part challenging, but enjoyable.
Old Stories in a New Light
This narrative level is broken up by two lengthy stories that reimagine events from the Bible. First, there is the story of Cain and Abel, for the most part told from Cain’s perspective. The portrayal of Cain as a socially awkward but hard working and basically good person who is continually outshone by his extrovert but equally troubled brother, is a powerful story of how we always judge and misjudge one another. Similarly, the story of Noah and the Ark is as much about the family dynamics in Noah’s family and the personal growth of his sister Anna, as it is about the flood. Here, too, the narrative is personal and intimate, creating strong emotional bonds of empathy to the characters.
In short, these Biblical stories are by far the best sections of the book. The characters are distinct and well-rounded, the pacing excellent, and they embody a kind of Romantic preoccupation with nature description that you also see in Knut Hamsun. Yes, it is that good. For most of my reading of these sections, I completely forgot that they were based on Biblical characters and events – I can’t imagine a stronger endorsement of Knausgård’s achievement than that!
The final narrative level is in present time and envelopes the two previous ones. The Norwegian narrator, Henrik Vankel, is writing a book about angels, using Bellori’s treatise as his main source. Its frankly preposterous theory of what happened to the angels makes some sense within its fictional universe, but the portrayal of the narrator comes too late in the book to make as much emotional impact as is probably intended. As a result, the coda is a bit of a let-down compared to the narrative levels preceding it.
This is my third Knausgård novel (the others being My Struggle 1 and 2), and I see a trend here. He has an extraordinary way with words, enabling him to infuse everything he writes about, both the serious and the banal, with philosophical and emotional power. However, he is also a baroque writer who follows his own whims and lacks the ability to curb himself. The self-berating he does as Henrik Vankel suggests he is aware of the problem:
All that damned talk of mine, when I never quite knew where to draw the line, and therefore let it flow out in all directions. (485)
However, he does not rectify it. If he wants to tell a story loosely based on a childhood experience or an embarrassing anecdote, he will do so whether it fits or not. In this case, he and his editor should have paid more attention to the fact that there is a time for everything, and some stories, no matter how compelling, should be cut.
Nevertheless, if you have the patience to stick with it when the text veers too far, you will be rewarded with a great reading experience.