Starving for Some Deep Mystery by Frank Freeman

The Morning Star
By Karl Ove Knausgaard
Translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken

Penguin Press, 2021
$30   688 pp.

With The Morning Star, we find ourselves back in the world of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s second novel, A Time for Everything (2004), a retelling of the Genesis story set in primeval Norway and not keeping strictly within standard biblical interpretations. (For instance, Cain comes out looking better than Abel in his version.) Knausgaard wrote about writing A Time for Everything in his six-volume “autofiction,” My Struggle: he describes holing up in his office with books on angels by early church fathers. Though I prefer his more realistic or “this-world” writing, I have to admit that A Time for Everything was a fascinating, powerful read. So, to a lesser degree, is A Morning Star.

Knausgaard began writing as a music critic when he was a teenager, then attended a famous Norwegian writer’s school. His first novel, Out of the World (1998), won the Norwegian Critics Prize for Literature, but today it is frowned upon because it describes a teacher falling in love with a teenaged student. Then came A Time for Everything, which also won awards and praise. But it was the massive, three-thousand-page-plus My Struggle that made Knausgaard world famous. Although I have not finished reading it (I am almost done with book five), I have to say it contains some of the most powerful and moving writing I have ever encountered. Part of the reason why I have not finished is because once I am reading it, I have trouble doing anything else: the novel compels total absorption, and I have my own life to live. This was not the case with The Morning Star, however. It is powerful and intense, as all Knausgaard’s work is, but it did not enthrall me in the way some of his other work has.

In the world of The Morning Star, preternatural things appear to be happening: a supernova (the “morning star” of the title) no scientist has predicted or can account for has appeared in the sky; people clinically dead and about to be harvested for organs suddenly come back to heart-beating, brain-wave-fluctuating life; children mangled in car accidents and who should be dead still have pulses; crabs crawl clattering out of the ocean and scuttle over the roads and forest floors. But there is a downside to this seeming eruption of the “life force,” or whatever one wishes to call it. One of the characters in the novel, Egil, a divorced, middle-aged, semi-retired documentary filmmaker, begins to understand this when he thinks of the supernova as the morning star. Egil knows the Bible fairly well and remembers that the term refers both to Lucifer and to Jesus. So which morning star is it?

In Knausgaard’s world, Eros, the force of life and love, appears to be stirring in unusual ways—but so does Thanatos, the death force. More than one character in the novel sees a huge bird with scales instead of feathers flash by between tree trunks. Others see figures with arms and legs who move like humans but are not. All we are told about them is they have huge heads and blond ponytails descending between their shoulder blades. Three out of four members of a death metal band have been found in such a mutilated state that investigators wonder how a human could have done it. At least two people have someone say to them—in one case a psychiatric patient says it, in another one of the walking-around deceased—that they are “doomed.” Are we being primarily blessed by new life or condemned to a world of strange, violent, primeval rituals? Knausgaard won’t tell us in this first book of a series, which ends on a cliffhanger and then an essay by Egil about death and its meaning and the fluidity, perhaps, of the line between it and life.

The Morning Star has nine narrators, varying in age and sex, who tell their version of the two days when the morning star appears in the sky and all heaven and hell breaks loose. There are connections between a few of the major characters—for instance, between Arne, the first narrator, a father of three and professor of literature whose artist wife is on the verge of a psychotic episode, and Egil, his neighbor in the country where Arne has a summer home and Egil lives year-round—and also minor ones. One character watches as a man scrambles out of the woods, rushes up to her door, and bangs on it screaming for help, while another sees this same young man at a different stage of his journey. Various events and themes are taken up, put down, and taken up again throughout the novel, like motifs in Wagner’s music.

The two most interesting characters from a religious point of view are Kathrine, a woman priest of the Church of Norway, married with two children, and the aforementioned Egil. We meet Kathrine as she is catching a flight home from a Bible conference. On the plane while texting her husband, Gaute, she is suddenly revolted by the thought of going home to her family. She feels nauseated, is able to stifle the feeling for the moment, then decides to stay the night at a hotel in town. The next day she goes straight to work instead of returning home. She lies to Gaute and says she has missed her flight. It is not that she is in love with anyone else; she casts about within herself to explain this sudden aversion to her family, and the only thing she can come up with is that she longs for freedom. She wonders to herself “when I had last told Gaute anything that no one else knew?” She remembers how she felt about God when she was a teenager:

As a teenager I’d read an absolutely staggering poem in The Book of Hours by Rilke. My God is dark, it said,

     and like a webbing made
     of a hundred roots that drink in silence.
     I know that my trunk rose from his warmth, but that’s all,
     because my branches hardly move at all
     near the ground, and just wave a little in the wind.

It was the first time the thought of God transcended me and what was mine.

The trees were living creations, and God was their creator.

The darkness, the earth, the moisture: this was the God of the trees.

She thinks of Mary and her Magnificat and how “The Lord she exalted was subversive”:

And the child to which she gave birth, Jesus, later went among the ostracized and the unliked, the sick and the poor, lepers and whores. His message, that we are all of us equal before God, cannot live as theory, for the majority are excluded from theory, which was precisely why Jesus went among the disenfranchised rather than aspiring to join the Scribes, or the theorists, as I tended to refer to them. . . . All were equal, all were a part of something greater, and in that greater thing was God. And in God grace, in God forgiveness, in God the fullness of being.

That was my warmth.

But what good was it when I couldn’t even sustain my relationship to the people who were closest to me in my life?

Things don’t go well when Kathrine gets home. Gaute suspects her of having an affair and is officious and passive aggressive about it. She knows that years ago he had fallen in love with a young woman, though he had never told her about it, and that he had never slept with her. There is a comic scene where Kathrine meets her mother to tell her about what is going on and the mother says matter-of-factly—she is not a religious woman—why don’t you play the field a bit, make an arrangement? Mom, Kathrine says, that would be wrong. Okay, okay, the mother says, I take your point.

What is refreshing in these passages is the way Knausgaard keeps us caring about Kathrine and Gaute and the mother. We see how annoying Gaute can be, but Kathrine seems stubborn, willful, and uncommunicative herself, and the mother is who she is and doesn’t care what anyone thinks. It is also refreshing to see a religious character who is neither mocked nor portrayed as a naïve simpleton nor a bigoted traditionalist, but rather as someone who believes in an authentically human way. Above all of the characters rises the morning star. They, along with everyone else, gaze at it and wonder what it means, if anything.

Egil, the other character with religious leanings, is also portrayed with his faults and foibles but in such a way that we understand and care for him. He is lazy and selfish—a trust-fund child—and hardly ever sees his 10-year-old son, Victor, from a previous marriage. Nor does he want to see him. He has come to believe in God, researches various projects deeply, goes for long walks in the woods, and tools around in his boat. A child would get in the way of all of that.

When his ex-wife leaves Victor with him unannounced and flies off to Rome, Egil is forced to deal with him. Egil thinks that Victor may be on the autistic spectrum, but his ex-wife refuses to entertain the notion. Victor smarts off to Egil and acts out by upturning the supper table and stomping outside. Egil manages to not be provoked: cigarettes and alcohol help, even when Victor tells him that his ex-wife calls him a “sad alky.”

After Victor finally falls asleep one evening, Egil goes for a walk in the countryside he has known since childhood. Having caught a whiff of apples in the bus station where he picked up Victor, he comes across an old apple tree where he smells the original smell. He also sees what looks like a mast set up in a clearing with a fire in front of it. When he gets home, Victor is frantic because he has seen someone looking through the window—someone, he says, who is “not human.” When Arne comes by the next day to say goodbye to Egil for the season, he can find neither son nor father. But he does find an essay by Egil entitled “On Death and the Dead.” He reads a sentence or two and judges it to be second-rate philosophy, but we get to read it as the last section of the novel, and it is anything but.

The essay is partly a meditation on death and partly a remembrance of an encounter Egil once had on a train with a man who calls himself Frank. Both parts are very compelling: Knausgaard is one of those writers who can tell a story and explain a series of ideas, that is, both as a storyteller and essayist. This is one of the things that makes My Struggle so absorbing, that it both tells stories and develops thoughts about life and its meaning at the same time.

Earlier in The Morning Star, Egil has told of how, when he was younger, he wanted to be someone “without a name, without a history. To be nothing more than a human being.” One day he reads The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air: Three Godly Discourses by Søren Kierkegaard (a book that Knausgaard mentions in one of his essays as having profoundly moved him) and comes across a passage that confirms him in wanting to be silent before God’s world:

God’s kingdom was the moment.

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. What happens to 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. What happens to me does not concern me.

As we have seen, though, this conversion is a bit suspect because of the distance with which Egil treats others, most especially his son. This is one of Knausgaard’s major themes: how tangled is the interplay between our ideas and our actions. All the characters in The Morning Star struggle with what they know and what they actually do. On top of the usual struggle between faith and doubt, loyalty and betrayal, freedom and commitment, the ambiguous morning star begins to change the world.

In his essay, Egil explores definitions of life and death according to various philosophers as well as the idea that perhaps in dreams the two meet. Thus, the following:

The German philosopher Hans Jonas believed that to the first human life was the given, the natural default, while death was the mystery. To them everything was living—the wind, the water, the forest, the mountain—and the dead had accordingly also to be living, only in another way, or in another place. To us the opposite holds, Jonas wrote, for now death is the given, and is everywhere around us, whereas life is the mystery. Death, that is, in the sense of the lifeless, the dead matter, the stones, the sand, the water, the air, the planets, the stars, the emptiness of space. And in the same way, we consider the living to be dead in another way: the body is but body, matter, the heart a mechanical apparatus, the brain electrochemistry, and death a switch by which life is shut down.

This reminds me of the teaching of Aquinas, which he got from Aristotle, that everything in the universe has its own kind of soul. Vegetables have vegetative souls, stones have inorganic souls, animals have animal souls that are not immortal (though, like Will Rogers, I want to go to the place where dogs go if they’re not allowed in heaven), and humans have immortal rational souls.

The second part of the essay tells of Egil’s encounter with Frank on the train. Frank, a doctor, is on the way to his young daughter’s funeral. He tells Egil he has had to attend to many emergencies in his life, and that recently, when he has done so, he has seen other people standing around—people who, he realizes later, no one else has seen. After a while he realizes they are the dead, either related to the family or from the area where the emergency has occurred. Of course, Egil doesn’t believe him. Nor does he know how to comfort Frank.

Frank begs Egil to stay with him and go to the funeral. When they arrive, it is obvious that everyone in the family hates Frank, who had left the family a few years ago for another woman. The woman priest, Kathrine, speaks Frank’s deceased daughter Emma as being a “tiny flower” of God. This enrages Frank, and he storms out with Egil in tow. They end up at a public swimming pool. Across the pool, on the hillside, Frank sees Emma and strides over to her. Egil follows, and when they reach the girl, her dress is blood-spattered and the side of her head is crushed. Frank tries to talk with her, but she seems not to see him and wanders off into the bushes. Now Egil believes Frank’s story. The whole chapter is reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, not so much in theme as in form: an idea is set out in an essay, and a story is told that illustrates it. It’s a masterful way to complete the novel, and we finish wanting to find out how all this unworldly activity is going to resolve.

In My Struggle, Knausgaard sometimes seems to be akin to Augustine before he converted: religion and God fascinate him, but he finds it irrational and impossible. Now, with The Morning Star, he makes you wonder if he is on the verge of a conversion or testing the possibility of one. Whatever the case, it appears he wants to explore the full gamut of human experience, which includes the religious and the irrational, the mystery of things.

Frank Freeman’s work has been published in America, Commonweal, Dublin Review of Books, and the Weekly Standard, among others. He lives in Maine with his wife and four children, dog, cat, and four chickens. He hopes to have his books published some fine day.

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