Jon Fosse doesn’t use sentences, or prefers not to end them. When you open Septology, with its smallish print and narrow margins, it can feel like a death sentence – all the more so since the book, much possessed with death, runs to more than eight hundred pages. There are no paragraphs or full stops here. Fosse has called the writing ‘slow prose’ and it lingers on moments – hours even – when nothing much happens, as the main character, Asle, sits gazing at the fjord beyond the window or at the painting he’s just finished (‘two lines that cross in the middle’, one purple and one brown), with little to record except how tired he’s feeling or what he thinks of his annoying neighbour Åsleik, a farmer, who calls on him every day.
‘Mystical realism’ is Fosse’s name for the method, ‘the mysticism of ordinary life’, but the ordinariness soon wears off, not least because there’s another Asle, ‘the Namesake’, a ‘he’ rather than an ‘I’, and though the complications of this doppelgänger aren’t tricksy or bewildering they do add another layer to the narrative, as the illusion of plotlessness disappears and matters of substance (love, grief, art and identity) come into view. The slowness goes, too: the prose is so repetitive and circling that the eye moves quickly down the page, unafraid of missing anything out since every new detail or revelation is sure to be dwelled on at length. This isn’t quite the same as skipping, but it does convey the oddity of reading Fosse, when what threatens to be heavy proves lightsome. You put on your boots to wade through the mud and find yourself floating along.
Septology is a seven-novel sequence covering seven consecutive days in the lead-up to Christmas. It was originally published in three volumes – The Other Name (novels 1 and 2), I Is Another (3, 4 and 5) and A New Name (6 and 7) – before Fitzcarraldo brought the lot together in a single book. When he’s not sitting at home and failing to sleep, Asle drives to a nearby city, where a gallery exhibits his work. En route he passes places that trigger memories of his life as a child and young adult: how he left home to board near high school, close to where his grandmother was in a hospice, but then got a place at art school and met Ales; the happiness of their courtship and wedding is set in contrast to the miserable marriage of the other Asle, whose wife, fearful of his departure, attempted suicide. At times the two Asles merge, and even when they’re distinct there’s a sliding doors effect, as though each is having the life the other might have had, bar random events along the way.
Fosse writes in New Norwegian, Nynorsk, one of Norway’s two written forms (Bokmål is the other), most common in western Norway. The fidelity of Damion Searls’s translation is impossible for an outsider to judge but it reads very fluently; it seems Searls is to Fosse what Anthea Bell was to W.G. Sebald, the best possible intermediary. There’s such carry in the prose that you quickly stop noticing the lack of full stops, though if you pause to examine the resources Fosse uses to move things along from one observation to the next it’s striking to see the alternatives he finds to the ever dependable ‘and’ and ‘but’. On one page I counted ‘I think’ more than a dozen times and – perhaps with a nod to Molly Bloom – there’s many a ‘yes’, as in ‘yes, maybe yes, yes maybe it’s a distance, he thinks, and now he has to go pour himself a little drink’. Joyce had fun with sentencelessness and so more recently did Mike McCormack in Solar Bones and Lucy Ellmann in Ducks, Newburyport. But Fosse’s way with it is more inward and incantatory.
The bigger transitions in Septology – switches in time from the sexagenarian Asle to his childhood self or from one Asle to the other – are usually prefaced with an ‘I see’:
should I ask Åsleik to put the chair in front of the window there, I think, but no, how can I even think that, of course Ales’s chair has to stay where it’s always been, how can I even think otherwise, I think and I go and sit down in my chair and I look at the spot out there in the Sygne Sea that I always look at and I look at the waves and I see Asle sitting on the bus from Aga to Stranda and he’s thinking that actually it’s going pretty well at The Academic High School, because even if he put it off much longer than he should have he did eventually talk to The Teacher
Asle is fussing over the chair because it belongs to his dead wife, Ales, the letters of whose name he shares without her being his namesake, and for whom he’s still grieving, though it’s many years since she died. Widowhood is one of several differences between him and the other Asle. Asle 1 (from whose perspective most of Septology is narrated) lives in Dylgja, a tiny village; Asle 2 in Bjørgvin, more commonly known as Bergen, the second largest city in Norway. Asle 1 has been married just once and though there may have been a lapse in his drinking days with a woman called Guro (who also has a double, in the shape of Åsleik’s sister), he has shown no interest in women since Ales’s death; Asle 2 is also single but was twice married and divorced, first to Liv, then Siv. Asle 1 is childless; Asle 2 has three grown-up children. Asle 1 is deeply religious; Asle 2 inclines towards non-belief. Asle 1 has always wanted a dog; Asle 2 has a dog, Bragi, which Asle 1 adopts. Asle 1, once a heavy drinker, is now teetotal; Asle 2 is an alcoholic.
It’s because of this last difference that we first see the two men together, though Asle 2 is anything but together at the time. Asle 1 has driven to Bjørgvin, for the second time in a day, hoping to find his double in The Alehouse, but comes across him lying in the street, covered in snow and barely conscious. He thinks it an act of God that brought him there (much as it was an act of God that he met Asel on his first day in Bjørgvin); if he hadn’t Asle 2 would have frozen to death. Even so, it takes a lot of persuasion (and a few more drinks) before Asle 2 agrees to be taken to The Clinic, where he remains until the end of the book.
Capitalised common nouns are a feature of Fosse’s work: The Clinic, The Country Inn, The Lane, The Wharf, The Academic High School, The Art School, The Hardware Store, The Beach, The Dock, The Shore, The Fiddler, The Baker, The Baker’s Wife, The Bartender, The Landlady, The Bus Driver, Mother, Father, Sister. The capitalisations confer a generality, as though we could be anywhere and with anyone. Perhaps a similar instinct leads Fosse to give his two main protagonists the same name, as though they’re types. For all their differences, they resemble each other, not just physically – long hair, black velvet jacket, brown shoulder bag (‘it’s unbearable how much the two of them look alike’) – but because they studied at the same art school and have made their living as painters, with Asle 1’s reputation established from an early age and the gallery owner, Beyer, who exhibits his paintings every Christmas, convinced that ‘a day will come when they are recognised as the most important works of Norwegian painting, nothing less’ and Asle agreeing that ‘deep inside I probably do know something like that’.
I don’t know if Fosse puts himself on the same pedestal. He began publishing in the early 1980s and has been tipped for the Nobel Prize, with plays (widely translated and staged in many countries), poetry, essays and fiction all part of his oeuvre. As a mark of esteem, the Norwegian government has given him lifetime use of a building next to the Royal Palace in Oslo. But he will be conscious of the claims of other Norwegians, including Per Petterson, Dag Solstad and Karl Ove Knausgaard, who was a creative writing pupil of his back in the 1980s. (In a Paris Review article Damion Searls depicted them as a literary fab foursome, with Knausgaard the cute Paul and Fosse the spiritual George.) Fosse did once dabble in painting, though his greater passion was for music (‘I came to writing from rock music. A kind of almost imperceptible transition, from the guitar to the typewriter’) and there’s a scene in Septology in which the teenage Asle quits the band he’s in because he thinks his guitar playing isn’t good enough.
As with Knausgaard you often wonder what’s fiction and what’s autobiography. In Scenes from a Childhood (published in the UK in 2018), Fosse says that his goal was ‘to write about my own childhood, the ways things really happened’. He sometimes uses an ‘I’ and sometimes appears in the third-person as Asle. The book contains numerous motifs and episodes that are reworked in Septology: an old couple giving drinks and ice cream to a little brother and sister; a boy’s affection for his ailing grandmother; long hair, fjords, a drowning, a nagging mum, deep cravings for a guitar and a dog. Only in the fifty-page story ‘And Then My Dog Will Come Back to Me’, about a man who murders the neighbour who has killed his dog, does Fosse depart from his usual script and produce something closer to Scandi-noir. Sad drownings are his thing, vengeful murders are not.
In Septology Asle’s reflections on painting give a clue to Fosse’s notions of fiction (‘when it comes right down to it literature and visual art are the same thing’), notably when he talks about the way images stick in his head and how only by setting them down on paper can he hope to get rid of them: ‘I have to paint a picture in a way that dissolves the picture lodged inside me and makes it go away’. More pertinent still is his idea of art as a ‘shining darkness’, attainable if you sit and stare for long enough into the ‘empty nothingness’ of the day and of yourself:
what it is is, yes, a kind of light, a kind of shining darkness, an invisible light in these pictures that speak in silence, and that speak the truth, and then, once I’ve entered into this vision, or way of seeing, so that it’s not me who’s seeing but something else seeing through me, sort of, then I always find a way I can get farther with the picture I’m struggling with, and that’s how it also is with all the paintings by other people that mean anything to me, it’s like it’s not the painter who sees, it’s something else seeing through the painter, and it’s like this something is trapped in the picture and speaks silently from it … and, I think, it’s the same with the writing I like to read, what matters isn’t what it literally says about this or that, it’s something else, something that silently speaks in and behind the lines and sentences
Fosse has said that he wrote Septology at night, in stints that ran from 4 or 5 p.m. until nine in the morning, and that ‘when I’m writing well, I have this very clear and distinct feeling that what I’m writing on is already written … I just have to write it down before it disappears.’ The rhythms of his prose feel like night rhythms or, as he has put it, like the sensation he gets when out fishing in a boat on the fjord, with the waves rocking. The aim, as with fishing, is to transcend the silent ‘empty nothingness’ and catch something.
Asle has a lot to say about God and each section of Septology ends with a prayer, partly in Latin. Given his head Fosse would have made the book more theological still: he cut a hundred or more religious passages from it, mostly spoken by Ales, whose stern influence on Asle got him off booze and made him convert to Catholicism. (In 2012 Fosse had to be hospitalised to stop himself drinking and became a Catholic convert.) The prayers remain, and here the heathen or non-Catholic reader really will skip. The religiosity seems very old-fashioned, pardonable as a formal device, as its cadences ring through the prose, but puzzling as an article of faith, since the burden of the narrative – that life is hard, lonely and bleak – does little or nothing to uphold it. ‘It’s always the darkest part of the picture that shines the most,’ Asle thinks, ‘it’s in the hopelessness and despair, in the darkness, that God is closest to us’. This idea is consoling to a man who has lost his wife, his friend Sigve and his beloved sister, but as he admits when arguing with Åsleik it’s not an idea that makes rational sense: ‘You can’t come to faith through reason, belief is grace’.
Talk of grace sets Fosse apart from Beckett, with whom he’s often compared, and from other writers he admires (Trakl, Kafka and Hamsun). Beckett’s comic spirit is largely missing too. There is one great comic scene when Asle’s boat-maker father, defying his wife to buy a car, drives it so slowly and nervously on a first outing that Asle, then a small boy, jogs past it. Asle’s uselessness with numbers and terror of reading aloud in a classroom also add moments of humour. But as a grown-up he’s melancholy and some of his childhood experiences are gruelling. There’s a long, ominous sequence in which he and his little sister, Alida, wander away from home and are given lemonade by a creepy old couple, then see a boy their age messing about on a boat, from which he falls and dies. Alida later dies too, suddenly, in bed one morning. And Asle is sexually abused by the Bald Man, about whom he has been warned. It’s enough to turn anyone off God, or make them despair of life, and Asle does so briefly, but art and Ales bring him round.
Ales stays as Ales in Septology but in Aliss at the Fire, a novella written in the same largely sentenceless mode, the character with that name is given a new one: the Norwegian title is Det er Ales, translatable as That’s Ales, but Damion Searls didn’t want an English-speaking audience to think this was a book about beer – hence Aliss. The novel is set in 2002 but no less so in November 1979, on the stormy day that Signe’s husband, Asle, unaccountably went out in his rowing boat and never returned. Here the past coexists with the present even more than in Septology, with Asle’s drowning mirroring that of his seven-year-old namesake in 1897, whose grandmother is the Aliss of the title. Fosse himself has spoken of a childhood accident he had at seven which almost killed him, and in Scenes from a Childhood he describes blood spurting from his arm after a fall and being rushed to hospital (‘I’m going to die even though I’m just seven years old’).
In Aliss at the Fire the time frame is mentioned repeatedly – 1897, 1979, 2002 – whereas Septology is undated. Asle drives a car, but that and other small details aside the story might be happening whenever. The elemental ousts the sociological. There’s no room for metaphor, either: except for that image of ‘shining darkness’, this is language stripped of decoration – plain, colloquial, stumbling towards truth and comprehension, unsure where it’s going next. You could call it stream of consciousness but it’s very un-modernist. Only twice does it rush to dizzying effect, once when alcoholic Asle is shaking with DTs, the other time when teetotal Asle is dropping off to sleep. Erotic possibilities break in here; elsewhere sexual jealousy briefly flares up. But sex itself is almost absent.
For the two Asles there are different endings, the first wholly bleak and predictable. The other is more ambiguous but tinged with hope. For years Åsleik has been bullying Asle to spend Christmas with him at his sister Guro’s house. Asle has always declined, giving Åsleik one of his paintings each year as a Christmas present for Guro but staying home alone. This time, after the tough week he’s had, or because he has finally acknowledged how diligent Åsleik is in looking out for him, he weakens and accepts. They arrive at Guro’s place to a smell of lamb ribs and the sight of Asle’s paintings on the walls. In the guest bedroom, Guro makes a pass at Asle, putting her hand on his fly, and he pushes her off (‘But my wife and I are still married, I say. You can’t be married to someone who’s dead, Guro says’). When she leaves, not especially offended, he lies on the bed and thinks of the lives he and the other Asle have lived, now intertwined. When he fingers his rosary beads it’s a cue to the invariable ending to each of the seven novels, but with a difference this time, in that as he prays ‘a ball of blue light shoots into my forehead and bursts and I say reeling inside myself Ora pro nobis peccatoribus nunc et in hora.’ As a signal of his hour of death it’s no less forlorn than the green light at the end of The Great Gatsby, though to Fosse, you can be sure, it’s a moment of triumph, a gargantuan novel completed and a good Catholic off to meet his maker.
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