It has never been the novelist’s job to solve the world. As the late Milan Kundera put it: “A novel does not assert anything; a novel searches and poses questions.” But in our manic and precarious times, fiction that conveys no sense of a world in upheaval can feel partial. There is so much pressing on all of us; so many things feel urgent again.
With “The Wolves of Eternity,” the Norwegian distance runner Karl Ove Knausgaard brings us his second massive speculative novel in three years. Like its predecessor, “The Morning Star” (2020), the new novel comprises multiple narratives filtered through various characters. The two also share the conviction that we live in edge times and that the stakes for all of us are now very high.
Knausgaard’s title is drawn from a poem by the Russian writer Marina Tsvetaeva: “However much you feed a wolf, it always looks to the forest. We are all wolves of the dense forest of Eternity.” His epigraph is from Revelations and includes the phrase “there shall be no more death.” An idea of the novel’s metaphysical scope is figured from the start.
The bulk of “Wolves” is parceled out archipelago-like among four characters, with the expectation that the connections between them will be the big reveal. The first half of the novel, a section titled “Syvert,” is the anchor narrative. The year is 1986. Syvert is a young Norwegian man arriving back home to his small town after completing his military service. He is 19. He moves in with his mother and younger brother, and around his disaffected meanderings a world slowly materializes. And after a time — no hurry — the first hints of mystery are introduced.
Soon after his return, Syvert has a dream in which his father, who died some years earlier in a car accident, confides that his marriage was not a happy one. He is more vivid in the dream than in Syvert’s memory. This is the first slight bowing of the bass strings.
Knausgaard is known to be the Homer of the day-to-day. “I poured myself some juice, took a couple of slices of ham, then spooned a couple of dollops of the rice porridge onto the plate,” a typical passage begins. A good bit of this ordinary life plays out before Syvert looks through his father’s boxes in the barn one day and comes upon a stack of Russian books. Then he finds a cache of handwritten letters in Cyrillic. He searches out a man who can translate. There was another woman, another life.
Still, except for Syvert’s nagging unease, things seem normal enough. Reconnecting with old friends, he joins a soccer team. He meets a young woman, Lisa, at a club. He spends time with his brother, Joar; sometime later, when their mother falls ill and is taken to the hospital, he becomes the boy’s caretaker. To keep the family afloat, Syvert takes the only job he can find — as an undertaker’s assistant. He writes a letter to a Russian address he found, but there is no response. The section ends in suspense with his mother still in the hospital and Lisa sending him mixed signals about her feelings.
Time passes and other narratives follow. We meet Alevtina, a Russian scientist who is giving lectures to students. This is now the Putin era. Alevtina is about to set off for her home village to celebrate her father’s 80th birthday when she unexpectedly encounters her estranged friend Vasilisa. Their interaction, like their bond, is mysterious. Vasilisa is a writer, working on a project she says is running away from her. Alevtina is, by her own admission, adrift in life.
In their respective sections each woman indulges her soul-revealing obsession. At her father’s house, Alevtina remembers the time she spent at a rural retreat of scientists. Knausgaard zooms in, allowing her to retrace at length her growing interest in the life of trees, their symbiotic fungal networks and her thoughts about the possible kinds of symbiosis between human and natural worlds. These thoughts, which go on for many pages, have reach:
Life emerged when something was held firm, and whatever did that has never let go. That something was information, in the form of a very particular language in a code that had remained unchanged ever since.
Vasilisa, meanwhile, is researching early-20th-century Russian sects preoccupied with the resurrection of the dead and the afterlife. She focuses on one Nikolai Fyodorov, a savant who in his day was a great influence on both Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. The dead can be revived, Fyodorov believed, and the earth repopulated with all who ever lived. A mad zealotry. For Vasilisa he embodies a drive to somehow counter the terrible carnage of recent wars. She sees a link to our current explorations of transhumanism, the use of technology to counter physical death.
The task of any novel is to absorb its materials, to finish what it started. On the emotional level, Knausgaard mainly succeeds. After the publication of his six-volume series “My Struggle,” he was tagged by some as the avatar of the troubled white male ego, and the charge was not so easy to refute. But in this novel he makes a turn; he brings to life — even celebrates — the complex and ambivalent give-and-take between men, between women and between men and women. These relationships, full of misunderstandings, concessions and reconciliations, feel real, without agenda.
On the intellectual level, however, the great tension of warring concepts is unresolved. That might be the point. Knausgaard has spackled his narrative with several of these obsessive reflections. I noted a strong kinship with Don DeLillo’s “Underworld,” which likewise proceeds in sections, covering great spans of time, carries the weight of extended reflections and ends hovering on the brink of what feels like some spiritual revelation. There, too, are more questions than answers.
Well into the novel, Syvert returns to the page. Four decades have passed. He and Lisa are long married; he presides over a number of funeral parlors. Life has stabilized. Until one day, out of the proverbial blue, he receives a letter in the mail. It’s from someone named Alevtina. Now at last comes the click, the hunting horn in the hills, the renewal of the promise that all scattered elements will come together at last.
And they do, the human-scale ones, anyway. The eventual — and of course inevitable — meeting in Moscow between two fate-fractured people is fraught at first, but arrives at gratifying resolution of decades’ old trauma and exposes its ongoing repercussions. We feel the genetic pulse that moves between generations.
“The Wolves of Eternity,” like some 19th-century Russian novel, wrestles with the great contraries: the materialist view and the religious, the world as cosmic accident versus embodiment of some radiant intention. Is this world shot through with meaning or not? Has there ever been a better time to ask?
The convergence of human fates does not solve the larger polarities, but right near the end comes a tantalizing visitation. One night Syvert spots a glowing orb — a “new star, shining magnificently from an otherwise inky night sky.” He registers an anxious vibration. Is this an astronomical anomaly, or a portent? “The extreme heat had perhaps affected the atmosphere,” he thinks. “Strange optical phenomena were by no means uncommon.” His theorizing rings hollow.
The sense of things in anxious flux — we feel it throughout. The clincher for me was when I felt the words on the page become a stark premonition. The fierce, unending heat wave dominating the last sections of the novel — first published in Norway in 2021 — was straight out of our own summer’s headline news. It was as if the covers had opened directly onto the world outside the door.
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