The Morning Star: A Novel
By Karl Ove Knausgaard. Translated by Martin Aitken.
Penguin Books, 2021.
Paperback, 688 pages, $19.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Wald.
In “Feodor’s Guide,” David Foster Wallace’s 1996 review of Joseph Frank’s four-volume biography of Dostoevsky, Wallace ponders the gap between Dostoevsky’s fiction (that not only asked the Big Questions, but presumed to articulate Big Answers), and the fiction of Wallace’s time (reclining at a safe ironic distance from meaning, purpose, passion, and moral/religious ideology):
So, for me anyway, what makes Dostoevsky invaluable is that he possessed a passion, conviction, and engagement with deep moral issues that we, here, today, cannot or do not allow ourselves.
But Wallace holds out some hope for the future of fiction, arguing that the “nihilists,” “the laughers,” those who “make jokes of profound issues…could not laugh if a piece of passionately serious ideological contemporary fiction was also ingenious and radiantly transcendent fiction.”
Now twenty-five years later, does Wallace’s assessment endure? A casual glance at the last few years’ National Book Award and PEN/Faulkner honorees suggests that ideology—whether around political, environmental, racial, sexual, or gender issues—is currently in. Ideology rules the day. And yet, Dostoevsky’s chief interests—and the ones that Wallace seems to laud—are still mostly ignored: ideologies around religion, God, the Devil, and Biblical morality. If someone were to write a Dostoevsky-style novel, with all its existential weight and moral meatiness, with characters grappling non-ironically with God and the Devil, seriously considering the truth (or lack thereof) of God’s incarnation in Christ Jesus, with said characters living out their ideologies to blessed or disastrous consequences, wouldn’t he (or she) be laughed out of town? Or more likely in our day, canceled?
But then there’s Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian novelist made world famous for his enormous (in page count and popularity) six-volume autofiction series, My Struggle. Knausgaard’s latest novel, The Morning Star, is perhaps the closest we can hope to come to Dostoevsky this side of nineteenth century Russia.
Admittedly, Knausgaard is no Dostoevsky. As far as I know, he is not a Christian. He is thus no ideologue for Christianity, or religion, or even necessarily belief in God. But what he does do—and which is reminiscent of Dostoevsky—is to pose questions and throw existential bombs at us sleepy Western readers. What is the meaning of life? What is death? Is death the end? Do humans have a soul? What is a soul? Is the soul eternal? What is all this stuff around us, this matter, these trees, and bugs, and animals and such? Are they signs of something immaterial and immortal? Who is Jesus? Is the Devil real? Is Hell real? Will I be judged? And if so, well, ummmm, what’s going to happen to me eternally? Ultimately, Knausgaard asks the reader to stop, observe, listen, ponder, and question—and hopefully open up to wonder and mystery, transcendentals that the pervading twenty-first century secular materialism rejects. In so doing, Knausgaard has written a piece of “radiantly transcendent fiction” that I think would surprise and delight Wallace.
In this review, I don’t wish to belabor character analysis, plot description, and the like. The setup is simple enough: nine main characters, two days, an enormous new star appearing in the sky with strange things happening. Instead, I want to emphasize the way in which Knausgaard engages the reader with wonder, with life and death, with the banal and the transcendent. He does this in three layers.
First, he is incredibly descriptive about banal, ordinary tasks and objects. Descriptions such as “I rinsed the glass under the tap, rubbing the bottom and rim clean with my fingers, drying it with the tea towel and putting it back on the open shelf above the sink,” and “I switched off all the lights, put some more milk in my tea so that I could drink up in one gulp, went upstairs to my bedroom, undressed, folded my clothes, pulled the duvet aside and got into my bed, making myself more comfortable on my side, hands folded under my cheek, the way I’d done ever since childhood,” exist on almost every page. Paradoxically, Knausgaard’s detailed descriptions and sequences do not stall the narrative thrust or hinder the experience of the transcendent; rather, they are a medium for transcendence. The reader becomes aware of things—cups, bowls, blankets, bugs, sugar drinks, etc.—that he takes for granted. What else is the reader taking for granted? Is she sleepwalking, not paying attention, not aware?
Notably, after Wallace’s death, a typed note was found in his papers that laid out the idea of his unfinished novel, The Pale King:
Bliss—a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.
Knausgaard’s obsession with the banal and ordinary has an almost Catholic sacramental quality. For a Catholic, even a drop of wine, or a crust of unleavened bread, can not only point to the Divine, but be Divine. And like Wallace before him, Knausgaard appears to shout: pay attention!
Second, Knausgaard pans out from the ordinary to the extraordinary: an enormous star appears in the sky. Is it a supernova, indicating the dying of an old star? Or a new celestial creation? Those who perhaps have become conditioned to ignore the small things in life cannot ignore this huge star. They cannot help but be reminded of the “star in the East” that appeared and guided the wise men to Jesus. But this new star is more ambiguous—does it portend good or evil? One character recognizes this ambiguity, noting that both Satan (in Isaiah) and Jesus (in Revelation) are known by the title “The Morning Star.” Either way, the star in the sky appears to have apocalyptic foreboding. Strange things begin to happen after the star’s appearance. Thousands of crabs begin migrating across a road. A patient who is declared dead comes back to life on the operating table. Odd beasts roam the forest. The border between living and dead seems breached. Again, Knausgaard shouts, pay attention; do you not see that star in the sky? Can you keep living your disenchanted, meaningless lives? Wake up and pay attention, for the Kingdom of God (or of Satan) may be upon you.
Third, if the fictional accounting of mundane human action, or of a seemingly supernatural reality, cannot wake the reader, Knausgaard turns to another layer: the direct essayistic approach. The novel ends with a 52-page essay written by Egil Stray, one of the novel’s main characters and a Christian convert, titled “On Death and the Dead.” This essay has certain resemblances to the monologues employed by Dostoevsky to express various ideologies. It is perhaps even more akin to Hermann Broch’s masterpiece, The Sleepwalkers, which also ends with a lengthy essay titled “Disintegration of Values.” If Knausgaard was not clear in his first 600 pages, he is straightforward in the last 52: his novel is about dying, death, and the afterlife. As Egil writes, “I fully comprehend that one day will be my last on this earth. But I do not believe it, not properly.” Don’t we all experience this, to some extent? Don’t we all lack a bit of belief in our own death? Once we did not exist. Now we exist. One day we will die, and no longer exist, at least in this form. Then what? And how does my view of the afterlife impact how I live my life now? Am I sleepwalking? Knausgaard’s (through Egil’s) meanderings through Egyptian and Greek views on death, and then to Christianity, Nietszche, Holderlin and others, is not only gripping, but also, awakening. We are all going to die (well, if you agree with Paul, “we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.”) Dying. Death. The afterlife. So what?
Unlike Dostoevsky, who would have shouted in response, “Christ is the Answer! Love Christ and your fellow man!” Knausgaard does not provide an ideological answer. But he is brave enough, braver than most celebrated novelists, to at least ask the question, and, through several characters, propose that maybe Christ and His promise of eternal life is the answer. And remember, Morning Star is just the first of a series of novels; so Knausgaard’s answer to his own provocations may very well loom in the not-so-distant future. I can hardly wait.
Jeffrey Wald writes from the Twin Cities. His writing has appeared in publications such as Dappled Things, The University Bookman, Genealogies of Modernity, and Front Porch Republic.
Support the University Bookman
The Bookman is provided free of charge and without ads to all readers. Would you please consider supporting the work of the Bookman with a gift of $5? Contributions of any amount are needed and appreciated!