Although his works have been translated into more than forty languages and he is frequently touted as a contender for the Nobel prize in literature, the Norwegian novelist and playwright Jon Fosse has never had much of a following in the anglosphere. However, with the monumental Septology – seven short books published across three volumes, both in Norwegian and English, between 2019 and 2021 – “the Beckett of the twenty-first century” (Le Monde) has finally gained some recognition in Britain. The first instalment of Septology, The Other Name (2019), was longlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2020, and now, following I Is Another (2021), the final segment, A New Name, appears in another superb translation by Damion Searls.
The action, or rather non-action, of the septet, follows the ageing painter and widower Asle, a recovering alcoholic and Catholic convert who shares many traits with the author himself. In the first two volumes, Asle endures a form of self-imposed exile on the storm-battered western Norwegian coast, where he spends his time grappling with his art and God, while mourning the loss of his beloved wife Ales. In the neighbouring city of Bjørgvin (a fictional Bergen) lives another Asle, a less successful painter who has failed to beat the drink. In The Other Name, drunk Asle blacks out in the snow and is saved by his sober namesake. In A New Name, it is late advent, and sober Asle is waiting for his new friend to be released from hospital. He has decided never to paint again.
Each volume of Septology opens with the same scene: Asle is contemplating a painting of a brown and purple St Andrews Cross. The two lines cross each other and seem to blend in the middle, much like the two Asles. Fosse’s works are full of enigmatic doppelgängers; this is the third novel, after Det er Ales (2004; Aliss at the Fire, 2010) and Trilogien (2014; Trilogy, 2016) to feature a character named Asle. In Septology, the two Asles seem to represent parallel courses of life, but their lives often merge, and at times it is impossible to know who is who.
Such confusions add to the dreamlike quality of the narrative as it switches between tenses and timelines. The entire septet seems to take place in a state of limbo; Asle stares out over the sea, and as the old man looks back on his life, the point of view changes from the first to third person in the space of a single, unpunctuated sentence. He sees his younger self walking hand-in-hand with Ales on the day they first met, kissing fiercely in an abandoned alleyway and exchanging phone numbers on scraps from his notebook. We are then dragged back to the present and to Asle’s tortured contemplations. He is tired of thinking the same things over and over. Now he wants silence to cover him “like snow”.
These vivid recollections are the most intriguing aspect of Fosse’s project. The memories are in no way extraordinary. At times humorous, occasionally erotic, most often mundane, they are bittersweet testaments to a life now fading with grief. Though Fosse has largely done away with punctuation altogether, opting instead for sudden line breaks, his dense, sinuous prose is never convoluted, and its effect is mesmerizing. Asle’s thoughts stream and ebb, broken only by the odd “I think” (“I can’t call again right away, I think, something must be wrong with me for me to even think of it, I think”), or segments of restrained, Pinteresque dialogue:
Women over, right, Asle says
Now I need to go, Ales says.
The author converted to Catholicism in 2013, and of all the three volumes, A New Name is the most explicitly theological. But, like Graham Greene, Fosse is not content with simply being a “Catholic writer”, and the metaphysical discussions are firmly anchored in the everyday: in Asle’s attempts to make sense of his life, in his chopping of potatoes, his frying of bacon and boiling of lutefisk, in his perpetual longing for Ales, and in his art.
Fosse’s one-time pupil Karl Ove Knausgaard once stated that all writers envy painters and musicians for their ability to access emotion directly, without the need for words. In Septology, there is a constant tension between the mundanity of what is expressed on the page and the gravity of the “painful pictures” in Asle’s head, which he attempts to “paint away”. For Asle, both faith and painting can point the way to transcendence, but in the concluding volume of Septology all that remains is his faith. He knows that the “foolish” story of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is “just a way of trying to put something into words”, and perhaps the same is true of Jon Fosse’s trilogy, as Asle attempts to confront the inexpressibility of his grief.
This review was first published in the Times Literary Supplement