Innumerable nothings happen in the dim, watery fjord lands of Jon Fosse’s novels and plays. In the novella Aliss at the Fire, a woman named Signe lies on a bench and remembers (or hallucinates) her husband Asle, who disappeared one night two decades earlier, after announcing he would head out onto the fjord. In Fosse’s magnum opus, Septology, a widowed painter, also named Asle, spends hundreds of pages thinking about his wife, his doppelgänger, his neighbor and the painting he can’t seem to rid himself of. Almost nothing occurs. And everything that does, recurs.
Readers don’t appear to mind. It might seem startling that an Anglophone literary culture whose appreciation of contemporary Norwegian literature is mostly limited to a single name—Karl Ove Knausgaard—should have, in recent years, latched onto a writer so neatly Knausgaard’s opposite. One is a mediaphilic materialist who writes arresting, conventional prose; the other a mediaphobic metaphysician whose flowing, recursive sentences span the lengths of entire novels.
Fosse must, if his critical reception is any indication, tap into something that a Knausgaard does not. Far from the latter’s consummate autofictional ego, who has excelled at what the critic Lee Konstantinou has called “the aesthetic gesture … that takes place at the intersection of genre and marketing,” Fosse seems less like a producer of commodities than a country priest distributing pamphlets. A simple, parochial gesture—and yet there is something about this practice that seems to possess us, leaving many readers astonished, rapt; like “feeling the presence of God here on earth,” in Merve Emre’s words, or as the critic David Hering puts it, “like getting hit by a wave.”
But we should hesitate to attribute to divinity what is in fact the work of man. Fosse, though enamored with the divine himself, does not work on us as a god, but as a writer—albeit one with a vision to share. And in order to convey a vision or idea, such a writer will often take a reader to a particular place: a geography, an interior, a zone. It could be Murnane’s plains, Melville’s waterways or Morrison’s Midwest. Where does Jon Fosse take us?
To answer this, as Knausgaard himself is wont to say when asked about his former teacher, we should look to the writer who Fosse repeatedly follows and extends: Tarjei Vesaas. Vesaas, the author of The Birds and The Ice Palace among other classics, can still be found in the backpacks of every Norwegian high school student, so pivotal was he to the development of a new style in postwar Norwegian letters. Yet his canonical stature is grander than the subject matter of his novels. Vesaas almost always takes us to small hamlets, hidden forests and undisturbed farmsteads to work out the nature of identity, the psychology of perception and the fluid boundaries of filial love, romantic love and friendship. He inhabited the linguistic fringe as well, composing irreverently in Nynorsk, a western Norwegian form used by about 10 percent of the country, rather than the predominant Bokmål. Other than Vesaas, who died in 1970, Fosse is the most prominent and prolific writer to have adopted Nynorsk as a literary language.
In his work, Vesaas explored the hidden corners of Norway’s psychogeography, where the mutual isolation of fishing villages and farmsteads ringed by mountains was mirrored in the Lutheran ethic of independence and individual responsibility among the people. This self-interrogation was a matter of some urgency for a country that had been under Nazi occupation during the war: the nation, once on the periphery of European politics and proud of its self-reliance, had all at once become a puppet in the theater of global conflict. The centerpiece of The Ice Palace—a novel about the unlikely friendship of two girls, Siss and Unn, in a remote village—is not the journey to the titular frozen waterfall but an intimate scene in Unn’s bedroom. Unn pulls a mirror off the wall and sets it in her lap beside Siss, and the two of them stare into it:
Four eyes full of gleams and radiance beneath their lashes, filling the looking-glass. … Those pouting red lips of yours, no, they’re mine, how alike! Hair done in the same way, and gleams and radiance. It’s ourselves! We can do nothing about it, it’s as if it comes from another world. The picture begins to waver, flows out to the edges, collects itself, no it doesn’t. It’s a mouth smiling. A mouth from another world. No, it isn’t a mouth, it isn’t a smile, nobody knows what it is—it’s only eyelashes open wide above gleams and radiance.
The mirror acts as a solvent in which the self—sovereign, discrete, contained in a set of eyes—is diffused and blended with another. What Fosse explores across his pages is precisely this kind of phenomenon, the alchemical reactions that dissolve and transform not only the self but also time, allowing no boundaries to stand, as when Signe, the protagonist of Aliss at the Fire (2004), recalls the first moment she met her husband, Asle: “they looked at each other, smiled at each other, and it was as though they were old friends, as though they had always known each other.”
If Fosse follows Vesaas to the limits of the known world, to the gloomy towns and narrow inlets of western Norway, the boundary zones where distinctions seem to slip away, he does so more insistently, and with an urge to extract their unsettling magic. In this way, Fosse also heeds and revises the example of Samuel Beckett, who called these peripheral places where the novelist could go, not only to probe philosophical problems but to play with the novel form itself, “the dim and void”—near lightless and empty. As the critic Pascale Casanova puts it, “The dim and the void are Beckett’s response to the spatial conventions posited by the whole literary tradition as conditions of possibility of literature.” By eschewing literature’s traditional settings, Beckett could also avoid its narrative conventions.
Fosse’s equivalent to the dim and void are the dark fjord lands of western Norway in winter, where sunlight is only ever a brief insinuation on the horizon. Far away from secular modernity, from Bergen and Oslo and their faithless economism—Septology’s Asle sells his paintings almost as a favor to his gallerist—Fosse’s communities are spare (often a single household), his characters stripped of worldly pretensions, his predicaments purely existential in nature. If Beckett uses the void to subject his characters to relentless subtractions, stripping them of names, features and, ultimately, in his late works, their bodies, Fosse uses the darkness of the fjord to see from what elemental material the human is made, what remains when man is plunged into the ultimate solvent. “He is almost at one with the darkness outside,” Signe says of Asle, who stands by the window staring longingly at the fjord (or where he knows the fjord to be in the pitch of night).
At the black, watery boundary, Fosse’s characters, like Beckett’s, also wait. “Why hasn’t he come home?” Signe asks about Asle, “and always the same thing, waiting, waiting.” The Asle of Septology waits for a sign—to stop painting, finally, to give all of his works away; Signe waits for her husband to return home (though it has been twenty-odd years since he disappeared on the fjord outside their house); two-thirds of the cast of the play Rambuku (2006) wait to leave for somewhere else; in Someone is Going to Come (1996), Fosse’s first play, a man and a woman wait anxiously in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, certain that someone is going to come (unlike Vladimir and Estragon, they are proven right).
Fosse plants his works in the troubling paradox of Beckett’s The Unnamable: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” In Septology, Asle thinks, “It suddenly feels like I’ve said what I have to say, yes, like I don’t have any desire to paint anymore, that there’s no more to see, no more to add, but if I do stop painting then what’ll I do with myself?” Must one go on? It is a question Asle returns to dozens of times throughout the book, precisely because he can’t seem to stop. If he wonders whether “I’ve now painted everything I can paint from this innermost picture of mine” over and again, he can’t, for all that, fall silent. “They just say something, just to say something,” Signe says to the Asle of Aliss at the Fire. “They have to,” he responds. And so they carry on talking, painting, writing, repeating themselves.
For Beckett, repetition was a kind of algorithm: with each iteration, as in the process that reduces the narrating “I” of his trilogy of novels (Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable) from a withered man to a disembodied voice, the operation comes a step closer to its asymptotic goal. For Fosse, it is something quite different. In many of his plays and novels, including his own Trilogy (which, published just before Septology, reads like a dry run for the latter), repetition is directionless, a meditative practice that both the narrative and the people in it perform not with a desired end in mind but as an ethic.
Like old coins passed through centuries of rough hands, the repeated use and manipulation of proper names and place names throughout Fosse’s works have the effect of rendering indistinct and blurred the entities being signified. Men named Asle and Åsleik and women named Ales reemerge across his novels, often doubled and tripled within the texts themselves, as in Aliss and Septology, though they are not quite the same people. (Damion Searls, Fosse’s translator and champion, has confided that even “Aliss,” the great-great-grandmother of the Asle at the core of Aliss in the Fire, is actually “Ales” in the original.) Many of Fosse’s texts are also set in Bjørgvin, an old name for Bergen that doesn’t evoke the city itself so much as one of the small, dark, murky towns he invariably prefers for his settings—the closest thing to civilization his isolated characters regularly encounter.
This tendency toward effacement is less about eliminating or blotting out something—a person, a place, an object—but rather getting underneath or behind an image. In Septology, Asle’s ritual of effacement consists of his compulsion to remove the sediment of an existential surfeit through painting: “a picture has something to do with something I’ve seen, something that’s stuck inside me in a way, and that I suddenly see again, yes … it’s like I have a huge collection of pictures stored in my head … I’m trying to get rid of them by painting them.” He claims to want nothing more than to “get rid” of this internal store of images, just as he wants to get rid of his actual store of material paintings. But what lies beneath them is not a revelation he seems capable of granting to himself. Asle therefore repeats the task endlessly, effacing the reserve of images within him, without seeming to know what for—what Freud would call a “repetition compulsion.” It is a balm that can never soothe.
Repetitious practices, for Fosse, often produce two effects that are at cross-purposes. Just as a hole is rimmed by a pile of dirt, acts of effacement in Fosse’s work leave their own accretions. In Melancholy I-II, Lars Hertervig, another painter-protagonist, obsessively masturbates to exorcise his uncontrollable negative emotions but only makes himself more psychologically ill. In Septology, the painting that Asle spends the narrative periodically and obsessively contemplating and touching up is a “picture with two lines that cross in the middle, one purple line, one brown line,” and “the paint is thick.” Repetition accrues into a kind of impasto. Many of the physical paintings Asle manages to get rid of are given to his neighbor Åsleik’s sister, Guro (another doubled personage), who exchanges the gift of a warm Christmas meal for one of his paintings each year. When Asle arrives at Guro’s home toward the end of the novel, he is met with the accumulation of his ritual gesture: countless paintings of his hanging around the house. “I have paintings of yours everywhere,” Guro tells him. “I feel them all again,” he thinks.
At the beginning of each book in the Septology, Asle is brought before the cross he has painted recurrently, and at the end of each, Asle prays the rosary. It is a state of pure attention that draws the chaotic universe into the sphere of a bead and the rhythm of the flesh of the thumb that passes over it. The repetitions in Fosse’s work call attention to themselves as repetitions, the way a skipping record can call attention to the stuff of our enjoyment: vinyl, needles, electronics. When Åsleik, a fisherman, insists to Asle that “painting and fishing aren’t the same,” it is a phrase uttered so many times that it effectively protests too much and begins to mean its opposite. They must, in some sense, be the same thing: the disappearance into darkness, the contemplation of the divine (the painter’s cross, the fisherman’s ichthus). Praying the rosary is a meaningless gesture that repetition alchemically transforms into its opposite.
Across Fosse’s work, there is a longing for transcendence. It is an ethos, a posture, that holds in balance the drive to amass and the drive to shed. In Septology, written seven years after his conversion to Catholicism, “the great silence,” which is death and the totality of human dead, is also where one finds God: “I should say that God is in the great silence, and that it’s in the silence that you can hear God”; in Aliss, where the black pitch of the fjord seems to be illuminated by an ephemeral light within its depths, Signe asks of her husband, “why does he always want to row out onto the fjord, all year round?” Despite the darkness and the peril it portends, or because of them, Asle is fatally attracted to the great silence beyond his window.
Septology and Fosse’s train of sketches and preparations leading up to it, from Morning and Evening (2000) to Trilogy (2014), are so striking and distinct from the other works on our shelves in large part because of their repetitive and meditative nature. They can hardly be said to entertain; instead, they task us with a challenge, that is, to pay attention to the dependency of the present upon the past that preceded it and upon the future that will follow it. This, despite Fosse’s avoidance of any overt political engagement in his work, is a political act. Fosse’s novels stand athwart a stream of cultural productions marked by what Fredric Jameson has called “the end of temporality.” This is the illusion that produces our sense of ahistoricity, our inability to see our own time as being the product of some past (its structures and forces) and the precursor to some future (about which we might yet have some say). Fosse would like to perceive our present the way Signe perceives her husband’s home, where generations of Asle’s ancestors seem to converge in the same place: time is everywhere with us, sedimented upon our thoughts, our speech, our gestures, and upon the landscape. This perception of time, which Fosse finds not in the heart of political community but at the outskirts of the known world, is historicist. His commitment to seeing what happens in the ill-lit inlets of our existence is a kind of salvation; his faith in the shining darkness at the brim of life is utopian, if not anti-capitalist, and represents a conviction that transcendence is not only possible but immanent to us all. Maybe this is why we readers, so disillusioned, so cynical, so lost to ourselves, are so in thrall to Fosse and his radical faith. A faith not only Catholic but catholic.
Fosse grabs hold of us, intellectually and physiologically, and asks that we cleave to a state of mind largely lost to secular modernity: paying attention. One must repeat oneself, performing the same gestures over and again, not in the hope of attaining some end, but in the faith that one will thereby inhabit a practice, develop an ethos and learn to attend—to oneself, the world, the passage of time. Not an algorithm, then, but breathing; an involuntary process made intentional. Like Asle, we might learn to breathe, moving slowly, bead by bead, seeking a cadence: “I hold the brown wooden cross and then I say, over and over again inside myself while I breathe in deeply Lord and while I breathe out slowly Jesus and while I breathe in deeply Christ and while I breathe out slowly Have mercy and while I breathe in deeply On me.”