In the 2018 Winter Olympics, Norway wiped the snow with its competition, racking up thirty-nine medals—the most of any nation. (Germany, which has a population sixteen times larger, was second, winning thirty-one.) Something similar has been happening in Norwegian literature in recent years, with a concentration of writers so vibrant and assured that they are finally spilling onto the international stage. But just as downhill and cross-country skiing have always been a central part of Norwegian culture, so have its literary paragons. Singular among them today is Jon Fosse, an astonishingly prolific playwright, poet, and novelist who, at sixty-one, has won nearly every Nordic accolade—despite writing in Nynorsk, a less common variation of written Norwegian that is distinct to its rural western counties.1 It tells you something about Norway that the state awards residence on the grounds of the royal palace in Oslo to an artist of merit. For the past decade, that honor—an open-ended appointment—has been bestowed on Fosse.
Yet until a series of translations, beginning in 2018, by the UK imprint Fitzcarraldo Editions—a publishing jewel that has made the writings of Svetlana Alexievich and Olga Tokarczuk, among others, accessible to Anglophone readers—and his inclusion last year on the long list for the International Booker Prize, Fosse’s novels were little known outside Scandinavia. (He is, by contrast, one of the most widely performed living dramatists in Europe.) This late recognition is unfortunate, if superficially understandable. Fosse’s writing is bleak, impassive, mournful, circuitous, almost insistently inscrutable. It is also deeply spiritual—and not in the manner of Instagram-friendly New Age aphorisms.
Fosse converted to Catholicism in 2012, and his latest collection, Septology, is suffused with religious symbolism, taking on, in its incantatory language and formal repetition, the rhythm of the rosary. Fosse has used the term “mystical realism” to describe his writing. Unlike his quickly written plays, he has said, his fiction is an experiment in “slow prose”: simmering novels that undergo certain “transport stages” and many “reflections.” Each section in Septology ends with a recitation of the Ave Maria—in Latin. And each is written without a single period.
This non-movement can make for a deeply moving experience. At times while reading the first two books of Septology, I walked around in a fugue-like state, wondering what it was that I was reading, exactly. A parable? A gospel? A novel bereft of the usual markings of plot, time, and character? The answer appeared to be all of the above, but although I usually balk at anything mystical, the effect was haunting and cumulative. In the hands of another novelist, entire pages given over to the meaning of God—who is “not all-powerful” but rather “powerful in his powerlessness,” the narrator thinks—would seem torturously contrived. But with Fosse they feel essential to his (or his narrator’s) lived experience, as much a part of the natural environment as the hushed fjords or the always present temptation of the local alehouse. (Alcoholics, both past and present, abound in Fosse’s work. He has described giving up drinking the same year he converted. “I think that for some a bottle of wine every evening can be fine. But one shouldn’t add a bottle of whiskey!” he said in a 2019 interview with his Norwegian editor.)
The first novel of Septology is called The Other Name; the second, I Is Another, from a line by Rimbaud that serves as its epigraph: “Je est un autre.”2 Both have been translated into spare, elegant English by Damion Searls, who wrote, in an essay in The Paris Review, that he had learned Norwegian in order to be able to read Fosse. (“The language,” he added, “is one of the deep cores of English, so reading it feels eerily familiar, like a song you half know.”) The titles allude to Fosse’s interest in doubling: both the multitudes we each contain—all the roads not taken—and how we grow estranged from ourselves over time.
The principal characters of these novels are two men named Asle, both of them painters living on the west coast of Norway who are said to look alike, down to the graying ponytail and black velvet jacket. (These are also trademarks of Fosse.) The first Asle, the narrator, is a solitary widower living in a remote village whose uneventful days are interrupted only by long, snowy car rides to the nearest city, Bjørgvin (the historical name for Bergen), to buy paint or show his work to his longtime gallerist. The narration soon dips in and out of the consciousness of the second Asle, who lives in Bjørgvin and has known the narrator since they were both penniless art students. As the first Asle deliberates over whether to pay the second Asle a visit while he is in town, we enter the mind of the latter, who now spends his days drinking to oblivion and contemplating suicide:
And I see Asle lying there on his sofa and he’s shaking, his whole body’s shivering, and Asle thinks can’t this shaking stop? and he’s thinking he slept on the couch last night because he couldn’t get up and get undressed and go lie down in bed.
It’s not uncommon for a novel written in the first person to give the reader access to the consciousness of its other characters. Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary from the perspective of a school friend of Charles Bovary’s who seamlessly transmits Emma’s thinking. But what’s striking about Fosse’s use of an omniscient “I” is that his narrator doesn’t merely bookend the story or hand it over to the second Asle. He remains the central character throughout Septology and extends his omniscience only to one other character: his doppelgänger. When he says, “I see Asle lying there,” he doesn’t actually see Asle, because at that moment he is in his car, driving. Unless—as we come to suspect—the second Asle should be understood as another version of himself, a warning sign of sorts: drunk whereas the narrator is sober, unsuccessful whereas the narrator’s art shows sell out.
In the long tradition of doppelgänger literature, there is, typically, a jolting moment of recognition in which the hero meets his (it’s almost always a “his”) double and feels at once familiarity and alienation, an experience described in German as unheimlich, or “uncanny.” Golyadkin in Dostoevsky’s The Double experiences such a moment when passing a stranger in a snowstorm who looks just like him: “Why, have I really gone out of my mind, or what?” With Fosse, however, the reader is always late to the action, or else the action is deliberately set offstage. By the time the first novel opens, the narrator has already come face to face with his doppelgänger years ago. When, in the second book, Fosse finally describes in a long flashback their first meeting, it is almost prosaic: they happen to be sitting at the same hotel bar, with a mutual friend serving as interlocutor. The narrator approaches the second Asle, they shake hands, note their resemblance and shared name, have a beer together, and discuss art.
This subversion of tradition underscores our uncertain footing in the work. (Two characters named Guro who bear a striking resemblance to each other will likewise casually cross paths.) For Dostoevsky, the moment of recognition severs the protagonist from his hold on reality. For Fosse, such doubling is part of something stranger still, for it suggests a continuous, wholly interior state of being. We are locked inside our narrator’s mind; when we look out, all we see is refractions of him.
Adding to this sense of claustrophobia is Fosse’s circumlocutory style—the constant “think” and “thinking,” the repetition with slight variation:
And he thinks now he’ll make an effort and get up and then go to the kitchen and pour himself a stiff drink so the shaking stops a little and then he’ll walk around the apartment and turn off the lights, walk around the whole apartment and make sure everything is neat and organized, and then leave, lock the door, go down to the sea and then go out to sea and just keep going out into the sea, Asle thinks.
Each repetition is a step further toward death: “Go down to the sea,” “go out to sea,” “keep going out into the sea.” Theater reviewers often compare Fosse to Beckett or Pinter, other masters of repetition and the breakdown of language, and his plays certainly show an affinity with them. (His first, Someone Is Going to Come, from 1996, draws directly on Waiting for Godot.) But in Septology, the use of repetition serves another purpose—it is not a sly comment on the faltering of communication, but rather a depiction of a mind in the process of unraveling. No sooner do we learn about the second Asle’s alcohol-induced tremors than the narrative shifts again and we are back with the narrator, who is driving his car:
He keeps shaking and he manages to put the matches back in his pocket and he bends over the ashtray on the coffee table and spits the cigarette down into the ashtray and I’m driving north and I think I should stop by and see Asle.
The narrator will not stop to see Asle, of course, because he himself is ossified in ways he does not recognize or admit. He tells us from the outset that his late wife, Ales, died “too young,” then immediately adds, “and I don’t want to think about that.” But he can’t help himself. She becomes a frequent apparition in these volumes, as tenuously present as the narrator’s “real” friend Asle or his neighbor Åsleik, a boorish fisherman-farmer who barters lamb ribs, cod, and firewood in exchange for the narrator’s paintings. (Even these characters’ names, all of them variations on the narrator’s, attest to their dreamlike presence in these works.)
Åsleik brings to the novels their only sense of levity—if you can call it that. At one point the narrator returns home to find his neighbor already there, greeting him with “Glad you could drop by.” Åsleik tells the narrator that he looks like a little girl, or “actually more like an old woman,” and keeps pestering him with invitations to spend Christmas with him and his sister. “I don’t know how I’ve been able to stand him all these years,” the narrator thinks. Later, however, when he considers the people closest to him, he remarks, “There aren’t many of those people, I think, strictly speaking there’s just Åsleik now.” (How much Fosse is able to convey with that fussy “strictly speaking.”)
Åsleik serves another function, too: he is a vestige of an old Norway that is fast disappearing, a stand-in for their fictionalized village of Dylgja, where, the narrator says, “just a few people still live, good people, none of them lock their doors when they leave the house, or go on a trip, not that they do that very often, and most of the people who live there have lived there their whole life.” Åsleik is nostalgic for a time before any road connected the village to the outside world, when men still had to row their boats to the general store. Fosse spends part of the year in a tiny hamlet called Dingja, in western Norway, on which Dylgja appears to be modeled. He lets the hapless Åsleik represent this Romantic view of a pre-Europeanized Norway without the narrator commenting on it.
Fosse has said in interviews that he shies away from political writing. Indeed, one thing that unites his work across various genres is its unmooring from time or history. These volumes could just as easily have been published in 1921 as in 2021. With barely a mention of phones, the rest of Europe, or the Internet, it’s as if the entire century has swum by the narrator. The sense of timelessness is alluring—it’s almost as if these works are primordial—yet bewildering. Even a figure as solitary as Asle must wonder at times about the state of the world outside his window. As it is, one of the only inklings we have of a Norway in flux is a hackneyed symbol: a reproduction of the Bridal Procession on the Hardangerfjord, a sentimental nineteenth-century oil painting depicting traditional Norwegian life. The image, which Asle clipped from a textbook when he was a schoolboy, is described as so torn and fraying that “it was basically impossible to see what the picture showed any more.”
It is another painting that gives shape and possible meaning to these books. The first two books of Septology open with an identical scene in which the narrator stands in front of a canvas showing two diagonal lines that intersect in the middle. It’s unclear whether the painting is finished; the narrator doesn’t think it’s any good. But he’s unable to let it go. The two lines, in brown and purple, are said to blend and drip “beautifully” into each other, and this saltire cross becomes a guiding metaphor for the two versions of Asle—the sense in which “I is another.” That such an abstract work can serve as the basis for these novels shows the kind of plotless narrative that Fosse is aiming for. At almost every point where he can choose action—or “conflict”—over a quiet mundanity, he chooses the latter. Few novelists would handle a scene in which a lonely man away from home meets a tipsy and solicitous woman who invites him over to spend the night the way Fosse does:
And I think that I’ve never really liked going into other people’s homes, I’ve always been shy about that, yes it was like I was doing something I had no right to do, like I was intruding, forcing myself into other people’s lives, like I was getting to know more about their life than I had a right to know, like I was disturbing their life, or at least I felt disturbed by their life, their life intruding on mine, yes, like another life was sort of filling me up, I think, and for someone to come into my house, well that’s one of the worst things I know of.
The narrator turns down the woman’s offer, checks into a hotel room, gets into bed, and prays. Only toward the end of the first novel do we have something different: an arresting sequence from the narrator’s childhood that is all action and little thought, involving a drowning accident and a troubling tale of molestation. Coming as it does after our imprisonment in the narrator’s mind for more than two hundred pages, the scene is all the more staggering.
A single night passes between the end of the first installment and the beginning of the second, and yet something in Fosse’s tone lightens, opens up, breathes. Perhaps that’s because, while the first novel juxtaposes the narrator with the character of the second Asle, the second novel juxtaposes the narrator with his younger self. Suddenly these pages, which have been populated until now by lonesome figures, fill with the sound of untuned guitars and schoolboy banter (“fuck that fucker, he says”). In that sense, I Is Another comes closer to the conventions of a bildungsroman. It shares certain recurring images with Fosse’s “Scenes from a Childhood,” a personal essay that reads like short journal entries and appears in his collection of essays by the same name.3 It is also reminiscent of the writings of Karl Ove Knausgaard, who studied under Fosse and is greatly influenced by him: long, evocative descriptions of beers, bands, and bristling ambition. The piling on of specific, seemingly trivial detail in I Is Another could easily have been at home in any of the six volumes of Knausgaard’s My Struggle:
And I say I want to go start the car and turn on the heat and brush off all the snow of course and Åsleik says he can help me with that and then I put on my black velvet jacket and I go out into the hall and put on my black coat and a scarf and then I slip into my shoes and then I go out and start the car, and it starts at the first try like always, and then I open the back and find the snow brush and then I brush off the car and then we start carrying the pictures I’m going to drive down to The Beyer Gallery out to the car and we put them down carefully in the back.
Yet if Knausgaard is interested in portraying the everyday precisely as it is—in that sense I think of him as a deeply secular writer—Fosse is interested in what lies beyond. Call it God. Or call it poetry. For the narrator, at least, these two impulses, of religion and art, are complementary:
For me these two ways of being in the world go together well since they both create a kind of distance from the world, so to speak, and point towards something else, something that’s both in the world, immanent, as they say, and that also points away from the world, something transcendent, as they say.
Fosse is not the first to articulate this idea about the immanence and transcendence of both religion and art. Yet the way in which it unspools in these installments appears thoroughly organic, without artifice. The voice that animates these strange and original works is full of the linguistic fillers we use to buy time in order to formulate thoughts: “so to speak” and “as they say.” It’s a voice that takes on the relentless chatter in one’s head, the way in which thoughts issue forth from one another, unexplained. I hesitate to compare the experience of reading these works to the act of meditation. But that is the closest I can come to describing how something in the critical self is shed in the process of reading Fosse, only to be replaced by something more primal. A mood. An atmosphere. The sound of words moving on a page.
The third installment, A New Name: Septology VI–VII, also translated by Damion Searls, will be published by Transit in March 2022. ↩
Scenes from a Childhood, translated by Damion Searls (Fitzcarraldo, 2018). ↩