“Maybe wee, you big creep,” a bird says to a reporter, or at least that’s what the reporter thinks, in “The Morning Star”, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s new apocalyptic novel. “Poucou, and no sleep.”
The bird isn’t the only strange warning sign. A shining and strange new star, “as beautiful as death was beautiful”, has risen in the Norwegian sky. People are filled with terror and wonder, especially the former.
The animals began to act strangely. Crab landslides slam the roads; birds with scales screech in the woods. The weather is also acting strangely. That man over there, wasn’t I just at his funeral? What are these huge, humanoid, ox-like creatures doing in the woods?
“How can we be modern,” Knausgaard asked in volume two of his epic “My Struggle” series, “when there is death all around us? In “The Morning Star,” he grabs this question, as if it were a rugby ball, and runs sideways off the pitch with it.
It’s a strange, Gothic, Bible-obsessed novel, mixed with black-haired themes and hints of horror. It takes place over two days at the end of summer. A group of figures contemplate the same bewitching sky. There’s Arne, a literature professor who worries about becoming plump – Knausgaard men hate being seen as gentle – and his wife, Tove, an artist.
There’s Kathrine, a priest and Bible translator who is tempted to break up her boring marriage, and Iselin, a once promising student who now works in a convenience store. There’s Jostein, a lecherous, chaotic and faltering art journalist, and his wife, Turid, a nurse, as Knausgaard once was, in a mental hospital.
(Turid is one of those names, like Shakespeare’s Titus, for which it is crucial, when spelling, not to omit the second vowel.)
Fans of the “My Struggle” six-book series – I’m one of them, with reservations about the final volume – will want to know: Does “The Morning Star” cast the same kind of spell as these novels? The answer, for a long time, has been yes.
Knausgaard retains the possibility of locking you, as in a tractor beam, in his narration. It takes the mundane things in life – the need to run away, the joy of killing pesky flies – and essentializes them. On the details of everyday existence, it manages to be, without suspicion on lyricism, twice as absorbing as most of the other big brands.
It’s a novel about people in distress, even before that shining new eye opened in the sky. There are a lot of bad fathers and declining health and relationship issues. His people are pleasantly realistically bored a good deal of the time.
Ray Bradbury once said that one way to start writing a short story or a poem is to make a list of 10 things you hate and start tearing them down. Knausgaard is a master in this sort of scattered attack.
To this prosaic world, the author begins to sew aspects of horror. He adds these details slowly, maybe too slowly. Although there is disgust at the end – members of a death metal band are skinned by something worse than the critics – Knausgaard never interferes with his script. Simmering does not become boiling.
If this book were “The Shining”, Jack Torrance would finish his novel. He, Wendy and Danny would see crazy things out the window, and sometimes a screaming madman would pound on the basement door. Scatman Crothers would introduce himself so that he and Jack could talk about the essential nature of isolation for a few hundred pages.
“The Morning Star” becomes, in other words, a somewhat programmatic novel of ideas. Knausgaard chews up notions of faith, free will, transmigration of souls, the nature of angels, meaning and nothingness in the poetry of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and Rilke.
A woman named Sigrid says it, and it is surely true: “These are all bad people who talk about God. It is hardly surprising then that no one believes in it anymore.
Knausgaard remains haunted by death. One character says: “Our perception of death has not changed. Einstein knew as little about death as the first cave dwellers. “
Knausgaard is one of the best living writers out there, but there is something narrow about his work when he approaches ideas directly, instead of diverting them. His struggle with “Mein Kampf”, over hundreds of pages, slowly capsized the final volume of the “My Struggle” series.
The serious struggle here is with how we think about mortality. At times one feels that he is in close contact with all the oldest and deepest wisdom; at other times the stream is shallow.
The translation from Norwegian, by Martin Aitken, is subtle and transparent. I have a complaint. No one in this novel “sips” or “drinks” a drink, be it beer or orange juice. Instead, they “slurp” it, making scene after scene unintentionally comical.
I recently reviewed Joy Williams’ “Harrow”, another bestselling novel by an important writer on peril, dislocation and the end of times. One line in that book fits the themes of this book perfectly: “Do you ever feel like you’re dead,” Williams asked, “and walk among those who might also be dead but don’t say it?