Patricia Lockwood · Strap on an ox-head: Christ comes to Stockholm · LRB 6 January 2022

2021-12-23 07:16:16 By : Mr. Peter Zhao

I might have ​ met him once. In September 2015 I flew to Norway for a literary festival. Knausgaard was the headliner, but he cancelled at the last minute and was replaced by an Elvis impersonator. Instead of pictures of Karl Ove smoking the cigarette of the camera down to its smouldering butt-end, the newspaper coverage of the event included photographs of a pastorally beefy Elvis in a white rhinestone jumpsuit, gazing through dark glasses into the bright sun. Oh he was beautiful, with long uncut hair.

I went to see his act on opening night: the narrative temptation was too great, and I’m only human. It was my first time in Europe, and I was overcome by a desire to swallow Norway whole and draw its intact skeleton out of my mouth by the tail. The performance was held in a church and it was impossible, since I was then obsessed with the black-metal documentary Until the Light Takes Us, not to imagine the place burning down. I could hear the crackling: floors, ceiling, walls. The Elvis impersonator’s Norwegian tumbled over me, interspersed with uh-huh-huhs, which represented the exact intersection of our understanding. At one point he stood and did the hip thing, lit from behind like Christ. I laughed in another language. It was as good as Knausgaard. It was better. Instead of seeing the author when I opened The Morning Star, the first book in Karl Ove’s new cycle of novels, I saw Norwegian Elvis.

If you had never heard the name Karl Ove Knausgaard before, I might begin by telling you this: a Norwegian Bible translator has written a book about the end of the world. I might say he was a Christian, a man who once saw Jesus in the floorboards of his Swedish apartment; a writer who, in an essay about art, pondered the unmistakable image of Christ in a photo of a man’s scrotum. I could tell you that he’s scared of both snakes and genetically modified Red Delicious apples. It is another kind of narrative temptation, actually, to write about The Morning Star without ever mentioning that its author is one of the most endlessly disseminated writers of the age, a man whom most of us encountered staring back at us from the first volume of My Struggle like something both ancient and fresh: a stone-tablet model, a yassified Noah.

This latest novel embodies all of Knausgaard’s known qualities. It takes place over two days, and it lasts forever – well, 666 pages, to be exact. The long, looping sentences of My Struggle have been replaced with something shorter and sharper, drier and more reportorial. At first it feels like you’re being shot with a BB gun full of cat food, but somehow the rhythm takes hold of you. You are a cat, and you’re HUNGRY. Within ten pages, however, an actual kitten gets stomped to death by a Scandinavian woman with bipolar disorder, which lets you know what kind of novel this is going to be. It is a book of revelation, full of unlucky numbers on the march; a book where animals crawl and die as omens. It is structured in sections, each narrated in the first person by one of nine main characters: Arne, who must bury the kitten; Kathrine, a priest in the Church of Norway; Jostein, a wildly unedited journalist; Emil, the worst young lyricist in the world; Solveig, a nurse; Turid, addicted to some nice-sounding drug called Sobril; Iselin, the teen girl Knausgaard should have been writing about the whole time; Vibeke (picture not found); Egil, the writer and documentarian, the near mad, the pillar-sitter. We find them in a seaside town in southern Norway, where one day a star appears in the sky. That’s all, really. Note to young writers: a new star in the sky is a cog, a wheel, it turns the pages on its own. ‘Adult version of Comet in Moominland?’ I theorised, when the light on the horizon first made its appearance. ‘Possibly written by Stinky?’

The star shines on fuckers and saints alike, and the saints are fuckers too, or so the Bible tells us. It shines on the characters as they plan parties and drive drunk; it shines on the dumbass Emil as he drops a baby on its head at his nursery school job. (He’s so stupid that the act takes on a mystical aspect, as if the baby he drops is himself.) It shines most brightly, perhaps, on Iselin. I love Iselin and I believe in her. She just wants to eat Burger King and then more Burger King, while inner-monologuing like this:

What was it I’d thought in the loo while I’d been doing my make-up?

That I looked exotic with my gold eyeshadow. Arabian nights, passionate and strong.

On my way out for a date.

I wanted her to go on forever, juicy as a burger until the end of time. Iselin is accommodating enough to throw us one of those Knausgaard parties where teens are drinking screwdrivers, spreading slices of bread with liver paste and throwing old boxes of head lice treatment on the floor. I would have died at one of these parties, I know it – falling head first out of a window, probably, after Karl Ove had prematurely creamed at my entrance. (Don’t worry, we’re safe here: he doesn’t read reviews.)

What does the star interrupt? Do people know that they are in the Bible? From the changed sky, modest plagues descend. Turid sees freaky birds with human heads sail through the air; crabs in their hundreds cover the roads; Egil finds a shed skin, as long as a child is tall; Arne hears a cat sing ‘Watch the sunrise’ in English. The dry rattle of the sound kalikalikalikalik clicks through the text. The plagues progress to human sacrifice: an extreme death-metal band is found murdered in the woods in what appears to be a ritual killing. The sexy journalist, Jostein, races to the crime scene with his tip still wet from last night’s hook-up: ‘The three lads were lying on their stomachs, their heads wrenched back, facing the wrong way, it was like they were looking down their noses at their arses. All the skin on their bodies had been stripped off, leaving a bloody mess of flesh and tendons, with veins and arteries exposed here and there.’ Yet people live the same mundane day even in extremity, rushing around with grocery lists, only occasionally glancing up at the apocalyptic sky. Plagues are not plagues, then, or if they are, we count as one too. There is a sentence that Egil keeps repeating, with the same shock of conversion he felt when he first read it: ‘What happens to the bird does not concern it.’ What happens to me does not concern me. This is Kierkegaard: it is both a piece of theological and philosophical immortality and something it is necessary to believe at the end of the world.

When I say ‘mundane day’ I mean it. As long as Knausgaard’s characters are simply thinking, we are in good hands, but as soon as they’re roused to act – to participate in the world around them – the reader is forced to climb with the author on the eternal staircase. This is precisely the punishment that lovers of Knausgaard’s work enjoy: to be locked into the step of life, to carry a coffee cup from the table to the sink in perpetuity. There is never a jump cut. He would die. He would stop breathing in that interstice and Kathrine would have to bury him to the accompaniment of tame pregnant heresies. He wants it to be difficult, for him and for us: as he writes in Book 1 of My Struggle, ‘why should you live in a world without feeling its weight?’ If someone scans an item at a till, someone else must pay for it. If someone drinks coffee, they must later wash the cup. When Knausgaard mentions an off-ramp, he must actually merge into traffic: if he doesn’t inform us when he shifts into first, he will surely crash the car. He is keeping us in safety – both the father telling the bedtime story and the child begging him not to leave anything out. He may write short, staccato lines, but he never collapses the distance between characters, they must be depicted as real people, always on the way and never quite arriving. In The Morning Star he hurries along as if he has someone to meet – his daughter, mother, wife, a cloud artist with a great ass, God, the devil, the end of the world. He is a sped-up heartbeat and a prickling forehead for time, no matter whether Arne, Jostein, Turid, Solveig, Iselin, Emil, Kathrine, Vibeke or Egil is speaking. He is a whole crowd of people with a single thought: ‘The fact is that we cannot think human thoughts alone.’

Knausgaard sits in the same place inside everybody’s consciousness, centre-forward, like a jewel in the head of a toad. If Jesus himself were one of his characters, there he would be, centre-forward and listening to Peter Gabriel, carrying his coffee cup to the sink. Being ‘closely bound to the moment’ is a paradisiacal state, as Egil explains. We are certainly that. The moment, according to Kierkegaard, was ‘the very gateway to the Kingdom of God’. So Knausgaard’s completeness, his refusal ever to take the shortcut, is not just his attempt to make us all feel secure, but to regain the Kingdom. Animals live there, as do children, the mad, the dying, criminals, bad teenage drummers – you don’t get there by being good, but by being inside the beat.

The Morning Star is divided like Knausgaard’s consciousness, his history even. We know these rooms; we have visited before. Solveig, who watches her patient Ramsvik die on the table and seemingly come back to life, exudes, like Knausgaard’s mother, a geological care and patience bordering on diffidence. In Arne’s wife, Tove, a passionate and prophetic artist who leaves slips of paper around the house as she descends into psychosis, there are parallels with the second marriage depicted in My Struggle. Both Arne and Egil could be taken as proxies for the author – but they seem less like Knausgaard the individual than some embodiment of the wide-ranging, loving conversations between Karl Ove and his great friend Geir. Then there are the rest: the young band idiot, the shy and desiring girl, the disgraced journalist rampaging through town in a blackout, the helpless husband and inadequate father, the caretaker who allows her charge to escape into the wild, the woman with her head bumping like a balloon at the ceiling of the Bible. Together they form one body, the witness, the unifying human form of the novel whose eyes are rolled up to the sky.

All of this understandably calls into question Knausgaard’s imagination. He has stated publicly that he does not have one. His fear, during his long apprentice days in Bergen, was that he would write about literature instead of writing literature itself. ‘I couldn’t describe a forest,’ he panicked at one point, ‘neither seen from above nor from within.’ There is a moment in every writer’s life when they realise that they don’t know the names of trees – it’s our version of the Age of Reason. Yet his imagination functions perfectly, as the surgeon might say, folding back a flap to lay it bare. Just as we begin to wonder where he is taking us, whether he is capable, he gets us there. Actually he does what we might never have expected of Knausgaard: he carries us into a Land, like a part-animal or genderless guide. It’s like discovering, in the last twelve seconds of a song, that someone can yodel.

At the climax of The Morning Star, we encounter a character lost in a forest, a place he has always hated, experiencing something like dissociative amnesia. (‘“Hello, my name’s …” I said in the hope a name would come. But it didn’t.’) His body propels him forward on a matter of great urgency: someone he loves is in need of rescue, but first he must rediscover who he is. ‘Was I anyone at all, if I didn’t know who I was? A nobody? A somebody? All I needed was just that little fragment of something familiar, I sensed, then everything would fall into place.’

What facts of your life would you call to yourself to raise your identity from the dead? Would you search your pockets for old receipts, a driver’s licence, a notebook? ‘Did I live with Son? And his mother, perhaps? Did I have a wife? I closed my eyes and tried to think of Wife. No face appeared, not even when I tried to picture Son, to conjure up an image of Wife.’ It almost reads like fantasy: could the body of the novel be set free of Knausgaard, the writer-turned-icon? Could Knausgaard be set free of his own specificities – could he lose, say, the memory of his father, lying still among empties with a bloody nose? Could he forget what he has made it his vocation to preserve? And if he did, what would that day be called – Armageddon for everyone, or just for him? Inside the nameless and hurrying figure, the same voice sits centre-forward, breathing in and out on the phrase ‘I am’, while around him, the elements of the unknown world sleepwalk at a chopped and screwed pace between the trees. And what is it that finally brings him back to himself? A cigarette, of course.

On the far horizon, Egil’s thoughts begin to hover near the star: ‘What is happening here is that death is becoming smaller and smaller, and so compelling has this development been that it is no longer inconceivable that death at some point will reach its nadir and vanish.’ Egil is at work on a grand unifying theory; he is writing the essay that will become the final section of the novel, ‘On Death and the Dead’. In it, he quotes John the Divine: ‘They shall seek death, he wrote, and death shall flee from them. I believe “those days” to be near. I believe “them” to be us. But if it is the case that death one day will be gone, what then of the already dead?’ Where does our grief go, as the fireball begins to roll us up? The dead are not dead, even as a fine spray of bone is rising from their chests. They are appearing at gas stations across the world, dressed in their same clothes, staring straight ahead, not acknowledging us – as we did not really see them while they were alive, as they did not really see us, but we would, this time, if we got another chance! Give them back to us, in whatever form!

Is it good? I have no fucking idea. It is enormous, unwieldy, a hoarder’s house, full of sliced ham, possible to become obsessed with, one of those books where someone must write himself out of what he has made. Steel grows in the right hand as you read, to cut, cut, cut. But what balance would that disturb? If the sentences are not always interesting then the whole phenomenon is: the star, the weird Guinness Book decision even to do this, like walking on a tightrope not between skyscrapers but between the post office and the grocery store. Karl Ove gives us permission to step sideways from our own lives, become larger. I saw Elvis at his desk, writing.

When people dislike Knausgaard’s books, there is often a sense of personal insult, as if they were watching him sit down across from them, tuck a napkin into his collar and make a long meal of their time. But as the worst book of the Bible, Leviticus, tells us: ‘All fat is the Lord’s.’ All your time will be eaten by someone – why not him, who has made such a huge crazy claim on it? It is a reassuring fact of human beings that they are not particularly delicate in their processes, not particularly discerning in their tastes. They can, in short, digest tin cans, and in more than one sense enjoy it. The literary stomach of the world is a goat’s, not a hummingbird’s, and Knausgaard knows it. He tosses us crumpled newspapers, cardboard cups, grocery lists – all the detritus that makes up a life – and we find it delicious. We are no longer feeble myopics with carpal tunnel syndrome, we are fit, strong, dirty, survivalists. We would probably look good in a motorcycle jacket. At the end of his long day we could eat anything – his own life, our own time. Who knows if it will all stand up; we are here with him now.

K arl ​ Ove Knausgaard was born – just kidding. His life has been obsessively documented in the six books of the My Struggle series, published in Norway between 2009 and 2011 and respectively titled Death, Please Linda (Don’t Make Me Go To Rhythm Time), I Am a Child, Boner in Class, Didn’t Read This One and Hitler. There are too many pictures of him and they’re all too good. After a while, scrolling through, you start to feel like a cave creature. (‘A photographer once told me that taking pictures of me was like taking pictures of a lump of wood,’ he writes in Book 2. This is either irony or a statement made by the world’s foremost driftwood photographer.) He is beloved of my generation thanks to a single passage, in which his friend Jan Vidar describes him in the grip of a teenage blackout:

We were watching TV. A Garfield cartoon. Then you got up and beat your chest and shouted: ‘I’m Garfield.’ Then you sat down again and chuckled. Then you did it again. ‘I’m Garfield! I’m Garfield!’ Then you threw up. In the living room. On the carpet. And then you were out like a light. Bang. Thud. Sound asleep. In a pool of vomit. And it was absolutely impossible to communicate with you.

The first volume of My Struggle begins with a brief meditation on the human heart. In the second sentence the heart stops, and soon, in that shift from the black macro to the red micro that will become his trademark, we are in the body of the eight-year-old Karl Ove. It is 1976 and his own heart is racing because he has seen a face in the sea on the news. He runs to tell his father, and his father asks him if it was Jesus’ face. Karl Ove stays up late that night to watch the news again – he has never dared do such a thing before, but he must know if other people can see what he sees – and from his hiding place behind the sliding door he hears his father laughing. ‘The force of the sudden shame was the sole feeling from my childhood that could measure in intensity against that of terror, next to sudden fury, of course, and common to all three was the sense that I myself was being erased.’ Well, erasure can be fought, and autobiography is one way to do it. But this laugh becomes a kind of music, playing on and on through the text. Sometimes you cringe along with him, hearing it. At other times it seems to be coming from you.

He has nostalgia in its original form, as a sickness. The books operate like actual memory: even their longest and most essayistic digressions seem to glide easily along the curves of your mind. His family remains central throughout: his mother, Sissel, whose presence in the house young Karl Ove can feel; his older brother, Yngve; who both shelters and betrays him; his uncles Gunnar and Kjartan; two sets of grandparents. His father, whose name you go searching for at the end of the first volume before realising it was never used – a necessity, since Knausgaard’s uncle Gunnar threatened to take him to court over it, but also a trick, since it means you go through the text merely thinking of him as father, as Dad, not wondering whether Karl Ove’s father is coming home but whether your own is. Knausgaard originally planned My Struggle to be a single volume – the longest Norwegian novel! – in which ‘the 10-year-old reflected on sweets, the 29-year-old on pop music, the 35-year-old on parenting. Oh, it was going to be brilliant! Six books! Fuck, I was going to wipe the floor with them!’ He tells his life so completely that after a while the text induces a sort of highway hypnosis. No event seems privileged in its immediate telling; each passes at almost the same speed, and only later becomes central through reiteration, because Karl Ove must circle back again and again. Later, however, a rotation of small moments moves through a spotlight in the memory: Karl Ove laughing over Chaplin’s tramp in a movie theatre (he claims to laugh only once every six months); Karl Ove deliberately cutting his face with broken glass in the early days of dating both his first two wives; Karl Ove dressed in a Superman costume, sobbing over the death of his grandmother.

Critical response to this undertaking has been maniacal. Jonathan Lethem calls Knausgaard ‘a living hero who landed on greatness by abandoning every typical literary feint, an emperor whose nakedness surpasses royal finery’. That is objectively an Orson Welles parody, but here’s the thing: I was as excited as anyone. As I read I pictured myself as a small pink cartoon character jumping furiously up and down on a pile of mattresses at the city dump, which is how I know I’m having a good time. Why do we react to him in this way? I think it’s because he gives us an experience that is equal parts abject and sadistic. He induces painful, cartwheel-in-the-stomach physical sympathy – the more relentlessly I read the 3600 pages of his autobiography the more I felt that I was mercilessly tickling him, just between the third and fourth ribs. Yet I was also suffering, as I bore witness to his trembling attunement to his father, his inability to roll his ‘r’s, his tucking of sardine tails into his trouser pocket. As a child I felt this physical sympathy reading about other children wetting their pants and also as I went through the Stations of the Cross – now the sponge of vinegar! now the whip! – but there was pleasure in it too, as if I were inflicting the story on them. We become his brother Yngve, alternating between kindness and cruelty, now saving our bathwater for him because he is afraid of the sound of the pipes, now leaning in to intone, ‘I am not Yngve,’ knowing that this is his greatest fear – that those who walk among us, our loved ones, have been replaced. Not dead and not themselves.

He continues to think along these lines as an adult: he is a tall, twitching antenna walking among forms, the only colour character in an A-ha video. There are remarkable passages describing Stockholm in which he shows himself to be as aware of the movements of the city as he was once aware of the movements of his father, aware of the hospital across the street, aware of the porn shop round the corner, and aware of the shadows that file into them in a steady and nameless stream. ‘In the same way that the heart does not care which life it beats for, the city does not care who fulfils its various functions,’ he writes, like a satanic Richard Scarry. If he is one of these streaming figures, one of these replaceable shadows, what better project can there be but precise documentation?

If this is his sense of the city, his sense of the Earth is religious, evangelical even. ‘The setting was wild and beautiful,’ he writes, viewing a dark pink sunset in Kristiansand. ‘Actually everyone should be in the streets, I thought, cars should be stopping, doors should be opened and drivers and passengers emerging with heads raised and eyes sparkling with curiosity and a craving for beauty, for what was it that was going on above our heads?’ He laments ‘the idea that had led to the systematised existence that we had now, where unpredictability had vanished and you could go from nursery to school to university and into working life as if it were a tunnel’. What he means is that biblical existence has been eliminated, the life in the wilderness that is in all ways preferable to the one where the path is provided for you. In the wild you are listening for a voice to lead you out or lead you deeper, for you to follow without ever looking down at your feet. And in the wild it doesn’t matter that we are largely undifferentiated: in that place it is a holy thing to be one among your pack. ‘What does a fly think when it sees another fly?’ Arne wonders in The Morning Star, with a catch of 118 identical fish in his basement. ‘Do they know they are many?’ Knausgaard knows that we are many, and his competing desires are to be one among his pack and to be absolutely distinguished from all others.

Hyperattunement makes you either a weird limp bed-angel, like Proust, or a tense too-ready animal. Knausgaard’s animal body circles and whines, obsessed with entrances, ways and exits. As he walks through the world, he sniffs out the long story of who has been there before him. He passes a cluster of people – in the middle of the street at New Year, say – and senses a door: either he will enter and be among them or else he will be barred. These doors also present themselves on a higher plane, along the path of what he calls ‘pure existence’. He encounters them in drunkenness and raw air and mountains, in the women who swim in a sea of limbs towards him, and most of all he encounters them in death. ‘As I stepped out of the house that morning and followed Yngve to the car, for a moment it was as if I was entering a larger story than my own.’ Then: ‘The sensation of the great story had gone. We were not two sons, we were Yngve and Karl Ove; we were not going home but to Kristiansand; this was not a father we were burying, it was Dad.’ He knows both when he is Karl Ove and when he is not: like a dog, he loves his name, and he knows when it lifts from him and when it is called. From the Bible into your own life, from the Old Testament into Tolstoy.

Back to the beginning, to that face in the sea:

My picture of my father on that evening in 1976 is, in other words, twofold: on the one hand I see him as I saw him at that time, through the eyes of an eight-year-old: unpredictable and frightening; on the other hand, I see him as a peer through whose life time is blowing and unremittingly sweeping large chunks of meaning along with it.

His father’s monstrosity is located not just in his behaviour but in a sort of sixth sense: he always knows what Karl Ove is doing, has been doing, is about to do. If he knows this about his son, he also knows it about himself: he is frozen in his smallness, he cannot move. The drunkenness that he comes to in middle age, and which leads to his death, also releases him from the cringing pinpoint he has long inhabited: it makes things happen – for better or worse, it opens up the world. Karl Ove, too, will live at these two poles. The fear, the feeling of erasure that he carries forth from his childhood, is the kind that makes it hard for a person to take up a normal amount of human space. Either he must be blushing, minuscule, sober, mute – ‘Good chilli,’ he is reputed to have said at a party once (his only verbal contribution to the evening) – or else the size of mountains, with poetry in his mouth. And how do you write against the knowledge that you are a single dot, a speck of dust, except by exploding to the size of the universe, where the smallest thought in your mind is the centre? ‘A rush of happiness surged through me,’ Knausgaard writes in Book 5, a new student just arrived in Bergen. ‘It was the rain, it was the lights, it was the city. It was me, I was going to be a writer, a star, a beacon for others.’ Who on earth thinks that? Well, some of us do.

Certain writing has this quality: a person’s youngest, fiercest, most burning desire reaches out and somehow makes its way to you, forms a fist and knocks on your forehead. That is what you are experiencing. ‘I knew I had it in me, because my yearnings were so strong and they never found any rest. How could they? How else was I going to crush everyone?’ he writes in Book 1. You are the one he will crush, twenty years in the future. It’s why we make myths of these writers, and also why some of them go through periods where they think they can box. You are in direct contact with someone’s ambition. This is often a marked characteristic of ‘male writing’ – and make no mistake, Knausgaard is a Dude. ‘There were few things I found more beautiful than cranes,’ he writes serenely. But the boxers of the canon almost always present a paradox. Many of Knausgaard’s passing observations about masculinity would slot nicely into one of those ‘Fellas, is it gay to have a birthday?’ tweets. The counterbalance, however, is that he cries all the time – like, as the comments section of the world would call it, a wemon.

I t turns out ​ that this was the exact combination of traits the 21st century was waiting for in a male novelist: not just the man who would take his baby to Rhythm Time, but the man who becomes explosive with rage and lust while he is doing it, who dances with his baby in front of a roomful of bourgeois Swedish mothers knowing that he must be in hell. (‘I was also given a rattle to shake,’ he intones at Rhythm Time.) We wanted a house husband to mop the floor with us. We wanted him always to take the hard way, to lift up the heavy suitcase because he refuses to be feminised by its tiny wheels. We wanted him walking around Stockholm’s streets ‘with a furious 19th-century man inside me’. We wanted him to tell all and to leave nothing out, and most of all we wanted his shame. Writing is a way to cast out shame, Knausgaard has said, and this must be true – that’s why the act of reading him seems not just voyeuristic but involved. We are inflicting the story of his life on him, the laugh that echoes through the pages is our own. It is all happening to Karl Ove, but as long as we read we are at the centre of the universe too. The scapegoat’s role is to cast collective shame out of the people, but here we are seeing a curious thing: the scapegoat casting shame out of himself, while feeling himself to be all people at once. It’s like watching a drunken man streak through the town square, wearing a model of the solar system on his head. An emperor whose nakedness surpasses royal finery. Jesus, Superman, Chaplin’s tramp. I’m Garfield! I’m Garfield!

At one point in The Morning Star, Egil describes a revelation he had on a Greek island – neither Patmos nor Hydra, he assures us, neither in the New Testament nor in the older myths. He asks himself the sort of question you sometimes ask yourself on a walk in a foreign country, where the sea is blacker and the sky more velvet than at home, and where the particulars you encounter around every corner stand a world apart from your own:

Could a person simply be a human being on earth, who could go wherever they wished without interpreting what they saw in terms of any kind of system, but thinking quite freely? In other words: seeing what they saw as if for the very first time, in every instance? Could a human being simply exist? Without ambition, without plan, without theory? Could I live, not as Egil Stray, but simply as someone, anyone, no one? A human being through which the world streamed without attaching itself, and who for his part likewise streamed through the world, without attaching himself?

Or, to put it differently: could a person be completely free? That was the vision I had. To be a person without a name, without a history. To be nothing more than a human being.

Later, in a summer house, Egil picks up Kierkegaard’s The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air and reads:

Would that in the silence you might forget yourself, forget what you yourself are called, your own name, the famous name, the lowly name, the insignificant name, in order in silence to pray to God, ‘Hallowed be your name!’ Would that in silence you might forget yourself, your plans, the great, all-encompassing plans, or the limited plans concerning your life and its future, in order in silence to pray to God, ‘Your kingdom come!’

Your kingdom, the kingdom of the moment – where we have a name for a while, and then let go of it like a balloon, to float up and join the great identity.

I watched every disaster movie ever made during the first months of the pandemic: meteors and tidal waves, tornadoes and swarms of bees, earthquakes and monkey diseases, ice wolves in the public library. My favourite was Dante’s Peak, in which a pair of teens fondling each other in a natural spring get boiled to death when a dormant stratovolcano begins to heat up. The disaster movie is a landscape painting that ruptures; its action is convergence to a point that is death. Still, it offers comfort, since people band together, we are told, in the same way at the end as they do in the beginning. ‘The first humans were a local occurrence,’ Egil writes. ‘They could have known each other, all of them.’ Nine names, parallel stories, all moving you along at the safety of second hand. Buildings burn, rivers empty, women pour screaming down the street in high heels and, among them, a father who pauses to zip up a child’s coat carries her into the beat and the kingdom.

There are things we need to believe: that we can only experience our own portion of the apocalypse, just as we can only experience our own portion of grief, of suffering, of Rhythm Time. But maybe, at the end, we experience it all. Maybe what we have built on earth is a bigger body. When the star appears, so does the promise that it will roll us up in one wave, great kings and dropped babies, Norwegians and Americans, singers and impersonators, Karl Oves and no-names. We will disappear to the roar of the crowd, all at once and equally famous. There are compensations to this, of course. Surely some writer is looking at the end of the world and thinking: thank God, I won’t have to write anymore. It is probably not Knausgaard. He will use those final minutes well. Come Armageddon, he will strap on an ox-head and begin to bleat, he will steal the bitter scroll and start scribbling on it, he will continue to translate the Bible as they lay him in his shroud, because guess what! Elvis! Not dead! He represents an indomitability: maybe we’ll make it. Maybe there is a way for the future to know everything about our time, to see the present through the eye of my kitchen clock, this afternoon, disappearing even as I type these words.

The Editor London Review of Books, 28 Little Russell Street London, WC1A 2HN letters@lrb.co.uk Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

The Editor London Review of Books 28 Little Russell Street London, WC1A 2HN letters@lrb.co.uk Please include name, address and a telephone number

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