“My life is surface, depth my yearning” — Knausgaard
About two thousand years ago on a Sunday like any other on the Greek island Patmos, a certain John sat back, said some prayers, perhaps took a swig of a psychotropic brew, and proceeded to have some visions. Christ showed up first and told him: What you see, write it down. John saw flames and plagues, lambs and dragons, trumpets and scrolls, and his visions came to be known as the Book of Revelation, the last, strangest, and most surreal book of the Bible, a book of God’s judgment and the beginning of a new heaven and earth.
Fast-forward to twenty-first-century Norway. It’s summertime, and a whole cast of overlapping characters are doing ordinary things, like putting their children to sleep, overdrinking, cheating on spouses, and contemplating Christ. But something strange is happening. A star appears in the night sky, brighter and larger than any others, and adults begin misbehaving, worse than usual. Animals act funny, unearthly shrieks pierce the night, and strange, humanoid creatures flit past window panes and between trees. John’s apocalypse is happening in modern Norway. This is the bold premise of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s new book, The Morning Star, his first novel since the monumental My Struggle series.
The Morning Star’s epigraph tips the reader off with a quote from Revelation itself: "And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them. (Rev 9:6)"
This chilling concept of seeking death and not finding it, besides being a statement of Knausgaard’s broader theme, is a fair encapsulation of what little plot there is in the novel: essentially, characters living and suffering. In fact (spoiler alert), the novel ends where it begins: “It [Revelation] has begun.” Aside from a brief stint in the underworld, we don’t get many lion-toothed, scorpion-tailed locusts or bottomless pits or lakes of fire. The drama is limited to the lives of the characters themselves and how they deal with all the bad shit happening to them. Knausgaard wants to get at the gristle, to write about the ugly side of human experience, to understand what it looks like, on a human level, when “the dark forces in the world are set free.” But The Morning Star is first and foremost a novel about these ideas, rather than a living out of them; the apocalypse feels like a deus ex machina to get Knausgaard where he wants to go. The novel’s multi-layered narrative doesn’t cohere, and, if anything does, it is the discussions of Kierkegaard, Christ, and death. It may be that reading the novel alongside Knausgaard’s recent collection of essays, In the Land of the Cyclops (2020), bears the most fruit. The Morning Star ends, after all, with a fictive essay.
What does it look like when the dark forces of the world are set free? Pretty bad, it turns out. Over the novel’s two day span, Arne the university professor (whom previous readers of Knausgaard will recognize as a thinly-veiled version of Knausgaard himself) crashes his car, alienates his daughter and mother, and takes his unresponsive wife to the psychiatrist for an extended stay after she tears the head off the family cat; Kathrine the priest sees a dead man multiple times, loses all interest in her marriage, and questions her vocation; Egil, the dilettante cabin-dweller living on inheritance, idles away the hours with booze and desperately avoids visits from his teenage son who lives with his ex-wife; Turid the nurse chases a runaway patient into the woods, narrowly avoids some humanoid locusts, and finds her son unconscious after a suicide attempt; Jostein the journalist, Turid’s husband, goes on a drinking binge, unabashedly cheats, and ventures into some kind of Dantesque underworld in search of the suicidal son he’s neglected; Iselin the unhappy psychology student runs into a creepy former high school teacher and sort of floats around unhappily; three members of a satanic death metal band wind up decapitated and skinned (by agents of the apocalypse); a man’s six year old daughter gets hit by a bus then reappears underneath a tree in a park; and a million cigarettes are smoked.
Events-wise, this is the gist. The characters see the morning star appear in the night sky, a repeated image from the Bible (including twice in Revelation) that in some instances signifies Christ, in others the devil. They see demons, madmen, and dead children. Then, inevitably, they go back to their lives. As in Gogol’s “The Nose” or Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the characters learn to live with their strange new realities without asking too many questions. This, we feel, Knausgaard gets right and is all too human.
The novel is told from nine different first-person perspectives, which itself is a notable departure from Knausgaard’s previous work. Most of his fiction is marked by a first-person but more-or-less autobiographical narrator, as exemplified by My Struggle. Recasting Biblical stories is not new for him (his 2004 novel, A Time for Everything, reimagines Old Testament stories in light of human interactions with angels), but he’s never written from a woman’s perspective, for example, or a doctor’s or a priest’s. Knausgaard is nothing if not ambitious, and whether he’s read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (or McEwan’s Atonement) or not, he attempts something similar in The Morning Star, showing the same events happening from multiple interwoven perspectives.
Attempts. The central failing of the novel is how unconvincing the different narrators are, how little we are swept up by their inner worlds. Where all the minutiae and mundane details in My Struggle compel and enliven because of the utter coherence of voice (writer = narrator), the detailed writing of the characters’ lives in The Morning Star bores because of the felt distance between writer and narrator. The prose is spare, understated, and matter-of-fact — more so than in any previous work of Knausgaard’s. And many of the characters are flat or just end up sounding like obsessive, burning, well-read dads. At one point Iselin watches her favorite Ariana Grande video then immediately plays some Billie Eilish: “I put bad guy on and leaned back against the wall. The music, so incredibly cool, made me want to go out, just fuck everything and go out drinking and dancing.” Oof. When the long spells of everyday life, interior monologue, and dialogue are broken, it is by ugliness, which somehow repulses more than it fascinates. The novel doesn’t earn its ugliness. When Knausgaard does reach for emotion, as with Jostein’s trip to the underworld to find his son, it feels hollow. “Son!” he keeps calling into the void, “Son! Son!” And we don’t believe him. Of course, the stated aim of the novel is to explore the dark forces of the world, but whereas John’s Revelation has the saved and the damned, the wheat and the chaff, Knausgaard’s modern version leaves little room for redemption.
The characters that do come alive in The Morning Star do so precisely in accordance with the degree to which they correspond to Knausgaard’s voice and interests. Arne, the professor, Egil, the independently wealthy thinker and idler, and, most interestingly, Kathrine, the priest who is working on a translation of the Bible, are all natural vehicles for what Knausgaard wants to talk about. That is: the absolute, the vertical, the divine, and death.
Cyclops, Knausgaard’s only collection of translated essays, is a sort of key for The Morning Star, presaging many of its thematic concerns. His winding thoughts, true assays, go from Francesca Woodman and Sally Mann’s photography to Hamsun and Kierkegaard, from Norwegian myth to the role of the editor and the idiocy of critics. But, as with The Morning Star, the essays always come back to Knausgaard’s full-hearted yearning for the authentic, the vital, and the absolute in what, he makes clear, is a relativistic, disenchanted, alienated world given up to the leveling influences of capital and mass conformity. “I want real and authentic,” he writes in one essay that touches on the northern lights, Proust, Douglas Adams, Pascal, Joyce, Don Quixote, and Hamlet, “I want the world back.”
Of particular interest from this collection is an essay on Kierkegaard titled “Life in the Sphere of Unending Resignation” (sounds about right). Here we get this classic Knausgaardian viewpoint:
"Nothing significant has changed in the human realm since biblical times: we are born, we love and hate, we die. But the archaic in us, and in all that we do, is as if soaked up into the quotidian, the culture we have created and which we comprise, where reality is horizontal and the vertical reveals itself to us only exceptionally, and then only in glimpses. All it takes to grasp it really is to look up, for there suspended in the sky is the burning sun, and it is the same sun that burned for Abraham and Isaac, Odysseus and Aeneas."
There, burning in the sky for the characters of The Morning Star, is the morning star, and still they don’t grasp the full divinity of the situation at hand (life). But Knausgaard himself lives among these people, is one of them, and he knows it. “My life is surface,” he says in the same essay, “depth my yearning.” And for the depths he continues to yearn. He describes Kierkegaard as “a horizontal (relativistic) writer who writes about the vertical (the absolute),” but he could just as well be talking about himself.
Knowledge of death was brought into the world by the Fall from Eden, Egil says in an essay tacked to the end of The Morning Star. That’s how inauthenticity came to be. “The truth of death, delivered to us by the Fall, is so terrible,” he says, “that we must live as though it did not exist.” Seldom are we confronted by the strangeness of death, but when it happens, it happens. In a passage in Cyclops that recalls a young Hans Castorp in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain seeing his dead grandfather, Knausgaard writes that death is "on the one hand abstract, dark, and sometimes alluring, gilded with romanticism. . .on the other hand the most repellent and repulsive of all, for what is a corpse but the stench of rotting, liquefying, infested flesh? It is within this duality, in the space that exists between our gaze, with its beautified sky of images, and our bodies, that we live our lives."
In modern times, for Knausgaard, the situation has only grown worse. The advance of science has brought death into the light, so to speak, at the same time as death’s reality has been shuttered behind the walls of institutions and language, the morgue and the hospital. In his essay, Egil writes what may well be the thesis of The Morning Star: "What is occurring with death is that it is becoming smaller and smaller, and so compelling as this development has been, it is no longer inconceivable that death at some point will reach its zero-point and vanish."
It is hard to say precisely what is meant here, but it surely has to do with the believed reality that we inhabit — our culture’s reality. Because we believe no mysteries remain, no mysteries remain. George Bataille, a twentieth-century French philosopher, is quoted saying something similar: “As we know, death is not necessary.”
Knausgaard has always been interested in the diminishing role of death and its correlate, the divine, in the modern world. All of My Struggle is animated by the death of his father and begins with the sentence: “For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can.” But now, more than ever before, in Cyclops and The Morning Star, Knausgaard reaches toward religion, God, and even ancient shamanistic practices as sounding boards for these questions. The answer that Knausgaard points toward, through his characters, is that precisely in our aliveness toward and acceptance of death are we set free.
But it is Egil, not Arne, who finds God in The Morning Star. Egil is a freer, more unencumbered version of Arne, who resents Egil’s lifestyle, his “pretentious” writing, and who finds on one of his wife’s paintings the words “I want to fuck Egil” scrawled three times over. This is telling. Knausgaard, for whatever reason, cannot find God with his guy, Arne. As he’s written in different words in many places: he, Knausgaard, is a man of scepticism, a man who wants faith but cannot possess it. His portal to neverland is the same as it has always been: art. It is only through Egil or Kathrine — in other words, from a remove — that Knausgaard reckons God. But what do they say?
Both Kathrine and Egil suggest that God is a matter of perspective. Kathrine, who begins the novel in somewhat of a crisis of faith, recalls some advice a fellow priest once gave her (part two of which is recycled from My Struggle): 1) everything looks different when you take a step sideways and 2) one must fasten one’s gaze. “Life itself was never the problem,” she says, “it was the way you looked at it. Providing, of course, that it was a life without hunger, need or violence.”
Egil begins his culminating essay with a Foucauldian insight into the nature of reality: “People in [the Middle Ages] knew that miracles were a part of life, and they saw them, whereas we today know that miracles are not a part of life, and we see them not.” But Egil is a modern man of books who fights his conditioning and comes to faith through a book, The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air (by Kierkegaard, of course). He finishes reading the book, alone in his cabin at night, and realizes God’s kingdom is here:
"The trees, the forest, the sea, the lily, the bird, all existed in the moment. To them, there was no such thing as future or past. Nor any fear or terror. That was the first turning point. The second came when I read what followed: That which befalls the bird does not concern it. It was the most radical thought I had ever known. It would free me from all pain, all suffering. That which befalls me does not concern me."
Jesus was unspeakably radical, Egil realizes, in his formulations for how one ought to live. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests,” Jesus says, “but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.” And: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” And, finally, in Luke:
"And He said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God. And another also said, Lord I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house. And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God."
Kathrine sees Jesus’ message as equally radical. Her word is “subversive”:
"The teachings of Christ were practical: he did not write about those he went among, did not write even for their sake, but went among them. Talked with them, listened to them, included them. All were equal, all were a part of something greater, and in that which was greater was God. And in God grace, in God forgiveness, in God the fullness of being."
It is all simply a matter of relinquishing the self. But it’s easier said than done, and Egil and Kathrine both struggle to stay in their hard-fought states of enlightened certitude. For a man of no faith, Knausgaard finely captures Egil and Kathrine’s bouts of doubt and fervor.
It is ultimately through art within the novel that we get some of the clearest visions of the events that are unfolding. Arne stumbles into his wife’s workshop to find a painting she’s made of a “humanoid being of some sort” with a star shining down upon it. Hadn’t she done this before the star appeared? he wonders. He feels the dry paint. How did she know? Kathrine recalls a beautiful and mysterious Rilke poem that first gave her a sense of God: “My God is dark and like a web: a hundred roots silently drinking. This is the ferment I grow out of. More I don’t know, because my branches rest in deep silence, stirred only by the wind.” And, finally, at the end of Egil’s essay, in the last paragraphs of the novel, we get the Knausgaardian refrain: “And as I wrote, it was if something opened up inside me… in glimpses I saw the world behind language, a world of transformation and mystery, and one night I saw my mother, Torill, in a dream.”
It truly is a refrain. In Cyclops, Knausgaard writes that “the activities of writing and reading are essentially about freedom, about going out into the open, and it is this striving toward freedom that is fundamental.” Everywhere in Knausgaard is this longing for the open, for the absolute, and both The Morning Star and Cyclops circle back in on themselves toward the focal point of art. It is art, Knausgaard says, that has taken the place of the divine in the modern world. But for all that, while Knausgaard may have momentarily conquered death, dissolved the self, and come closer to God in the writing of The Morning Star, its readers likely won’t.