Melancholy: Obsession & Vulnerability

Jon Fosse; Melancholy; Trans. Grethe Kvernes & Damoin Searls; Dalkey Archive Press, 2006

I have come to consider the experience of reading Jon Fosse’s books as submersion. I mean by this the feeling associated with actual underwater submersion, in a lake, perhaps, where the bottom is not visible, nor is the mottled hues of brown, green, and black light in the water particularly welcoming. First there is the commitment to do so, which for me has always invoked a particular inflamed imagination verging into panic, but really the true difficulty, once under the water, is the inevitable opening of the eyes, to glimpse that aquatic, alien world, and the anticipation of what will be seen, or more dreadfully, not be seen. And yet, when a moment has passed, there is the undeniable, liberating, and peaceful feeling of floating in opaque darkness, there is an impression of true isolation that sparks a sense primal happiness. These conflicting elements of claustrophobia and airy expanse are the spiritual core of Fosse’s books, and to read through them all successively generates a similar reaction.

His work is dark, earthy, and menacing, but he equally achieves humor, spirit, and compassion. These qualities, certainly the heavy matter of great books, are also delivered in a distinct prose style that Fosse has made his own. I have come to see and read the blocks of repetitious text, made jagged by sparse lines of unquoted dialog, as bodies of water, and once the reader is fully invested, there is little to be done but move with the current. His books may feel to some as tedious, repetitive, or self-indulgent, but I would argue, to extend the aquatic metaphor, that to lower one’s shoulders beneath what seems a cold surface, will likely bring on a strange comfort; his strings of sentences, clauses and terse dialog become incantatory, penetrating, and the combination of this written approach with the spiritual tension present in his work, makes one feel as if they’ve just experienced an obscure ritual.

The tension of the secular and non-secular, or perhaps in less loaded phrases, the spiritual and the earthy, is the hallmark of Fosse’s oeuvre; some works verge overtly into the former, such as Morning and Evening, with its ghosts and afterlife elements, and others lean heavily into the latter, including Melancholy, a work that prods deeply and unrelentingly into human psyche as it exists in society.

Melancholy is unlike the other books, in that at 284 pages it is nearly three times the length. The other books, which I read before this one, are short blasts of experience, where signature Fossian traits seem to flash into the reading consciousness, whereas this title reads more like the slow burnout of a star, a condition that allows the residual matter to rest in growing layers on the mind. I found this text difficult at times, due to its length and repetitions, which seem to be more pronounced here than elsewhere, but this discomfort is enhanced by the fact that the “menacing” element is placed in the very foreground as opposed to its spatial presence in the other works. This element is the mental unhinging of the main character, Lars Hertervig, a Norwegian man studying painting in Germany. What at first reads as an energetic if slightly unstable monologue by a socially awkward (a common theme in Fosse is the very given awkwardness of social life) ego turns further and further into a full-blown mental collapse. It can be quite unpleasant at times, hearing in your mind as your read, the same disparaging or desperate, or vulgar remarks over and over again. These two components of the text, in the end, may slightly detract from its power, in the way a teasing game of tickling or poking becomes tedious then irritating. Though I believe Fosse could have achieved the same ultra-immersion into a difficult mental landscape with less, the extent of these detracting factors also, I realize after finishing the book, enhance the claustrophobic grip on the reader, making the inability to escape ultimate. Indeed, the last portion of the “Asylum Lars” [my title] section (there are three distinct narrative sections) focuses on this entrapment to such a degree, that the character ultimately resigns his pushback and gives into to his madness.

The three narrative sections of the book happen chronologically. The first and the majority of the book, brings the reader to Germany into the mind of Lars Hertervig (1830-1902), a historical figure in Norwegian Romantic landscape painting. On this particular day of the narrative, Lars is asked to leave the home in which he boards while undertaking his painting studies, a proposition his mind can barely grasp with, and it seems that possibly this request is the trigger that sets his mind cascading into a cyclical loop of paranoia, speculation, and outlandish behavior. The central interest of his, or rather his discomforting obsession, is the homeowner’s teenage daughter Helene, for whom his intense passion is repeatedly stated in his hyper-focused mind. This unhealthy relationship, likely quite one-sided and perhaps even a delusion, is the reason he’s asked to pack, and his reluctance to do so increases the tension in the home. The second point of contention is his total lack of comradeship among the other painters. As numerous as his professions of love are his disparaging remarks about the other students’ total lack of talent – the phrases “can’t paint” and “can paint” appear often. The degree to which his mind has loosened its grip becomes apparent when he begins to convince himself that the reason for his expulsion from the home is that his “girlfriend” is really more interested in having an incestuous affair with her uncle, the man behind the eviction. Lars wildly veers from love and caring of Helene to graphic accusation of her motives, and this all in his mind, while outwardly he typically says very little to those around, in fact its this juxtaposition of external paralysis and internal storm that makes his display of madness effective. At one point, the internal diatribe becomes heightened with Helene and he makes a random internal comment about killing her, and the reader knows that this is a new reality for Lars, a reality of conflicting realities. After a long shameful scene in a pub, the humiliation at the hands of his peers, Lars inexplicably attempts to return to the boarding house, where he is finally arrested.

The second section of the novel takes place in Gaustad Asylum in Norway, where Lars is a resident/patient. He has succumbed to the mental illness that wrecks his life (though not directly stated, it seems he suffers from a form of schizophrenia and paranoia) and is given to mostly the disparaging commentary that marked the onset of his collapse. Women are now whores and declares he will kill the painters. This section is much shorter than the first and is quite effective. Fosse also uses this opportunity to play up a bit of humor, not at the expense of mental illness, but through the juxtaposition of those with mental illness, individuals who are perhaps aware of their status and those mild-mannered personalities in charge of them. In this case, we meet Hauge the attendant, the man in charge of caring for Lars and the other men in his room, in the early morning when he catches Lars masturbating under the sheets. “No not again, can’t you stop with that, even once,” or “you had a bath yesterday and everything, you’re a fine one,’ or most often he responds to Lars’s disturbing comments with a passive “all right now.” Mental illness is certainly not humorous in itself, nor is masturbation inherently funny, nor is an individual in involuntary confinement, but the odd structure of domesticity these scenes offer does create a form of absurdity that can be comical, dark as it may be. Much like the ending of the first section, where Lars spends much energy trying to deny his situation and to literally escape it, at the asylum the same pattern emerges, feelings of superiority and escape give way to defiant behavior, acceptance, and madness. These patterns in Lars of irrational behavior followed by resignation will structure the final and perhaps keystone section of the book as well.

1991; Vidme is a writer going through a difficult period. A distant relative of Lars Hertervig, he wants to write about this distant relative. He is discomfited by the appearance of a “glimmer” of the “divine” in his writing, words and responses he thinks of as “blasphemous,” and has a desire to reunite with the Norwegian Church. In an apparently frantic response to these emotions, he calls the local church seeking counsel from a pastor, a person he learns is a woman when he had anticipated a man. The meeting is awkward at best, and Vide lacks the social grace to make any connection, but realizes that he preferred to meet with “a cultured and well-read old man, one who is deeply immersed in pain and wisdom…” and is disappointed in Maria. The pain that Vidme is feeling is deep and existential, and believes that the young, beautiful woman, with the nice name and big round breasts and bare feet in slippers, the interim pastor, perhaps lacks the conviction or understanding to offer him the solace he seeks, and leaves after little is discussed. Once back home he sits and decides to write and ponders the encounter:

“…she said that if he needed to talk to anyone he could just call her and Vidme doesn’t like it when someone tells him that and that is why he had decided never to call Maria again and never visit her again and never to call any other pastor either, he will just sit here and write and now may God have mercy on him, now may God have mercy, so that he can write. Now he needs to be able to write. He sits there, Vidme the writer, and thinks. Now may God have mercy on him so that he can write.”

Fosse has written elsewhere of prayer, Quaker austerity, and turning away from the world. Melancholy is exploring these terms, the notion of art as a higher element, the eternal battle of God and the human psyche, if indeed they are separate entities, the precarious nature of man near the abyss of darkness and eternity. He is writing here a tribute of sorts to the Romantic painter Lars Hertervig, a cautionary tribute perhaps, about the overpowering seduction of the sublime, and the risks one may encounter when turning away from the world. But Fosse is also stripping away the romanticized version of the nature-genius artist, for his Lars, like the actual man, is ill, and his mind though turned away, in fact must still exist in this “real” world of society, and is just as often concerned with earthly human things such as jealousy, ego, success, relationships, sex. Art has power, maybe, or is it really only full of the interpretations and connections humans give it, and really there is no power in art, but power in humans to make art powerfully meaningful, and is the spiritual creativity just as vulnerable and precarious as the people that make and consume it? Is this why so many artists  go mad, or unknown, because there is a bond to creation that becomes intolerably stretched, and yet, as is the case with the real life Lars Hertervig, they become rediscovered as humans, and then, as a runway at night, sight lines appear in the gloom and guide us in to their creations anew, to the residual glow of their nuclear active mental landscape that turned away from the rest of us, and now with the gloves of time, we can hold those mentalities nearby, and vicariously experience the fear of turning away, without the burn suffered by the afflicted? The spiritual and the earthly are in league together, they coil around one another, it’s the points of contact that we equally loathe and revere.

The Proper Study

I have made a partial pivot from my current reading of Fosse, a resurfacing, so to speak, for air to fortify the next leg, only to be pulled under by a swell of a quite different system. Initially thought of as diversionary reading, these books remain on the reading tables, at hand. I have always enjoyed the simultaneous reading of non-fiction, usually unrelated histories, while reading fiction, hence the selection of essays by Isaiah Berlin. David Winters’ book Infinite Fictions I sought as a tool, a lesson in how to read and write reviews, which then led me to Warren Motte, the noted critic of French Literature. Valeria Luiselli’s Sidewalks then, when glimpsed on the shelf was irresistible in the context of current global-literary-cultural-essay immersion.

David Winters’ proves to be good company: engaging, smart, accessible, informative. His pieces in the second half of this book, responding to others’ books of criticism and literary theory are quite good. He excels in giving a good account of the work, explaining its significance or interest to him while offering reflective counter-thoughts. He handles the reviews in such a way that, indicative of the best reviewing practice, he constantly stokes the reader’s interest, and most likely, their enthusiasm to pursue the titles for themselves. His approach, namely conversational, not over-the-top clever, acts as an introductory welcome to texts that may otherwise be off the radar ( at least frequently mine), all the while he maintains a professional front; he does not fall into chatty reverence but operates in the way the best teachers do: he stokes one’s excitement by displaying his own for the material, but then encourages you to be thoughtful, reflexive.

Fables of the Novel, is a much different creation. Whereas Winters’ title is deliberately popular and constructed as accessible (reviews), Motte’s book is academic, critical, scientific. His proclivity for modern or experimental literature makes the list of titles he writes about quite interesting. As one of the leading authorities of contemporary French Literature (he wrote the first book on Georges Perec) one knows they are in capable hands. His subjects in this book include J.M.G. Le Clezio, Eric Chevillard, Marie Ndiaye, Jean Echenoz, Jean-Philippe Toussaint. The book opens thus:

Readers familiar with the contemporary novel in France are currently witnessing, I believe, the most astonishing reinvigoration of French narrative prose since the “new novel” of the 1950s.

He then relates his appreciation for a wide array of literary output, but finds plenty of worthy novels “too bland, like eating fried eggs without salt.” He is interested in the avant-garde because that is the point of exploration, newness, unmapped territory, but acknowledges that much cutting-edge work is alienating for many readers, “forbidding.” Then he goes on to describe the “avant-garde with a human face…inaugurated in the novels of Raymond Queneau, and confirmed in those of Georges Perec.” This is the novel that, while pushing the reader’s thought processes and demanding some attention, “can also be read luxuriously.”

The essays are then devoted to texts whose worlds are usually that of the quotidian, told in largely simple narrative, but he finds in them larger contemporary, exploratory themes and specifically: “Each of the novels I deal with here seems to me to present – among the many other different things they may offer – a fable of the novel, a tale about the fate of that form, its problematic status, its limits, its possibilities.” In other words, though these books under consideration may not be outwardly avant-garde in the Joycean or Pynchonesque way we have come to understand the term, their operation is that of the cuckoo, infiltrating the bastion of conventional literature, while delivering games, tricks, assaults on language and form, and in their work, posing questions about the novel itself.

Berlin was known as one of those intellectual’s that could write on history, as it relates to ideas, as it relates to culture, as it relates to politics, a kind of cultural polymath. Famous for his writings about the Counter-Enlightenment and Two Concepts of Liberty, these essays (I have read about a third so far) are fascinating in their range. Not prepared to write anything like a review for this large collection of complicated material, I will say, as an initial foray into Berlin’s work, these essays right now, act as larger framework material for interpreting what I read in international literature and the arts. His ideas about the French Revolution and rationalism versus the oppositional thinkers such as Johann Hamann and Giambattista Vico leaves a lot to be considered. This is the kind of book (a collection of his most popular/well-known writings) that gives me the sense of its long being near at hand and referenced.

Valeria Luiselli’s Sidewalks, in contrast to Berlin’s essays, is totally digestible. Physically thin at just over 100 pages and comprised of mostly short paragraphs, that is not say it is insignificant in any way. Reading this book is like being in the company of a smart, philosophical, worldly, and cool person. It is a hybrid of personal and travel essay, ruminations on melancholy, nostalgia, movement in space. Written by a young, globally-experienced person, it does not feel hip or ironic, she may even be accused of being overly pondering, the kind of “sad” that I think may annoy the large group of get-in-capitalist-mediocre-line that is represented by those of us born in the 80s, and yet, I believe she captures underlying qualities that the aforementioned generation call disconnected, depressed, romantic. It is in writers such as Luiselli and Teju Cole, those who grew up in a post-Cold War global era, that discover obstinately “antiquated” or memorializing writers such as W.G. Sebald, that may prove an interesting way forward in contemporary thought. His emphasis on exile, interconnections, fictional reality, exile, anti-tech influenced prose, and memory are the legacy that will continue to influence. Remembrance, acknowledgement, open intellectualism, depression or melancholy as a popular condition of life, hauntology, global flaneurship in contemporary capitalist-surrounded cities, acceptance of immigrant cultural contributions are subjects I see Luiselli grappling with in this book.

New Criticism

David Winters; Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory; Zero Books, 2015

As a self-taught student of literature and theory, the internet has been my university. Easy access to the wide array of considerate writing and thoughts concerning contemporary literature, art and culture has been invaluable. As any reader that avails themselves of this sphere will know, the webs and pathways created through this source can widely open one’s awareness and pursuit of so much material that otherwise would perhaps remain distant, foreign, overwhelming. The “ivory tower” remains distant, impenetrable, self-concerned. And thus, from the interconnected and referential world of online critical output, I am grateful when I learn of books such as Infinite Fictions by David Winters. Such a book is quite refreshing because, whereas I quite enjoy the click-and-consume aspect of digital culture, bringing home a book of insightful, relevant and forward moving pieces such as this one unites the two sides of my reading life.

These short essays, or reviews, on contemporary literature and theory are so far excellent, in that Winters has the ability to create perceptive, considerable readings of these works, while maintaining an accessibility I quite value. He is not attempting to write over his readers’ heads, to wow them with his obvious knowledge, but serves to construct a bridge to works otherwise less known, or perhaps, to offer alternate ways of considering these works when read. Of course, some of the authors are quite highly regarded: Lydia Davis, Sam Lipsyte, Gordon Lish, Gerald Murnane, but the majority are those working on the forefront of contemporary literature, mostly lesser-known (at least to the main current of American literature) and Winters introduces the books and offers interesting commentary, without falling into the academic practice of doing a paragraph-by-paragraph deep analysis of the texts, but also succeeds in doing more than giving us a simple gloss of each paragraph illustrated with generous chunks of quoted text (which can be useful, but oftentimes this style of review feels exhaustive and less insightful than I would like). Instead, there is a middle ground of considerable analysis and general review.

From his somewhat personal reflections in the introduction, which again, feels like a fresh and approachable stage for the following pieces, one gets the notion that Winters is a passionate reader and thinker of what he’s read, and it is that marvel, that connection to his own life and the reading life within, that he brings to this work. Essentially, it is enthusiasm for the enrichment critical thought brings, not enthusiasm for showing others his critical thought, that seems to give this collection value beyond the ideas contained within.

With more of the book to get through, I find myself excited to follow Winters’ considerations, and after a reading I feel myself invigorated to seek those pathways in my own reading.

Undercurrents of Influence

As I read into the world of Jon Fosse, there is a strong acknowledgement of having experienced this particular kind of sensibility once before. Years ago, I came across the short Icelandic film The Last Farm, by Rúnar Rúnarsson. At the time of viewing, I was completely moved, and later I found, somewhat haunted by the residual effect, an aftershock that always flowed beneath the current of my artistic development and cultural consumption.

It is a fairly obvious and simple film, with the kind of drama that can easily garner emotional responses, but there was something in the austerity of its fjord-rimmed boundaries and austere semi-arctic landscape that had a subtle shock (or now years later, perhaps I see this impact as a communication with inherent personal sensibilities) on my then rapidly expanding understanding of global art. It is a film that explores loneliness, independence, and finality, and though less acknowledged in the story of aging and dying, it speaks to deliberate attempts at non-conformity.

The film follows an elderly man, presumably the last farmer of the desolate and run-down last farm, and his vigorous final preparations. With the sea always in the background, this proud figure moves old wood and machinery, digs in the earth, and eats his meals alone, all the while he attempts to dissuade his daughter from visiting and avoids a prolonged visit from a neighbor. By now, we know that this man’s wife lies deceased in her bed upstairs and his work is that of a determined husband resigned to not live without her. Through the scenes of dialog (the two scenes of communication in this film seem like a lot for such a short time span, and yet their deployment creates an excellent tension), we learn that he and his late wife are destined to be relocated to the retirement community. As the conclusion becomes somewhat clearer, there is a sense of inner cheering for the obstinate farmer and there is a strong sympathy for the plight of the elderly. Growing old has its advantages, but the negative side of aging is widely understood and acknowledged, and what is captured so well in The Last Farm is the resignation a partner must feel when left behind. Suicide, both active and passive, is often a dark side of this stage of humanity, and within this turmoil, the hero of this story strives to maintain his pride and dignity, his independence, his communion with his wife. In the way that he was likely a pragmatic farmer, he also understands there is certain things that must now happen.

This man and his deeply sincere relationship with his wife, his farm, and the surrounding sea, this life of repetitive tasks and spirituality (a bible is placed on his wife’s body, and a wooden cross marks her grave, therefore, we are not exactly sure of the nature of his personal spiritual feelings, as we never see him interact in this way) feels like a visual embodiment of Fosse’s world. I came to Rúnarsson’s film first, and I believe that experience has enhanced my reading of Fosse, given me a contextualization for understanding the austere and geographic element of his work. In addition, the farmer of this film inhabits the quiet self-determination that many of Fosse’s characters maintain; a self-consciousness, a loneliness, and a communion with landscapes that seem to reflect these qualities.

*The Last Farm was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film in 2005

Morning and Evening

Jon Fosse; Morning and Evening; Trans. Damion Searls; Dalkey Archive Press, 2015

Three books into Fosse’s work, and it begins to feel like an immersion. The patterns of his language, the repetitions of his characters, the backdrop of fjords, silence and water. It is an enjoyable dive, one that fosters contemplation and self-removal; much in the way breath exercises bring about similar responses. Upon completion of this book, a surprising word came to mind: gentleness. I found myself surprised by this, it is perhaps not a word that gets associated too often with contemporary literature, particularly literature from other parts of the world, and certainly not with the books under the Dalkey Archive flag. And yet, Fosse handles life, death, love with not quite brazen sentimentality, but a kindness to his characters and to his own spiritual convictions.

Morning and Evening, relates the main character Johannes’ experience of the cycle of his own birth and death, and explores the betweenness of these poles in a compact and mesmerizing way.

Through what Fosse has written elsewhere, the context and execution of this meditation on the spiritual and corporeal is not surprising. Fosse is a spiritual person, who has related the mystical nature of the writing experience, and I get the sense that this work was a way for him to see how close he can get to the realm of spirits, memories, and afterlife. The simplicity and repetition of the prose, the recurring scenes and dialog, the deliberate use of subtle tension, (all techniques Fosse deploys as the very nature of his “style”) keep us from understanding this as simply a man’s ghost story.

In the first section, in stilted dialog and intense interior thought, full of closed space, primal sounds, and musings on God, the birth of Johannes is recounted. In the next section, the elderly Johannes wakes with a strange feeling, physically invigorated, lighter than he has come to expect. Johannes takes this as simply odd but good fortune. He wonders at the loneliness within his house and follows a regular morning routine of coffee, cigarettes and breakfast. From here the book moves into a quiet series of surreal experiences that fill in the moments of connectivity that give Johannes his sense of being in the living world. It is here, in these interactions, that Fosse opens the possibility of the spiritual realm and our human attachment to the earthen, comprised of, when it’s all said and done, of a few meaningful moments and human connections. This microcosm of our lived experience is really a part of our spiritual existence, and Fosse seems to be musing, that the line between the two spheres is not all that separate, however, to get to the space of this connecting thread, one must turn away from the world. As Johannes is going through his day-long journey, he is continually encountering the past, namely, Peter, his old friend whom he knows has passed, and Peter interacts with others that have passed, and then his deceased wife, Erna, and fishing with its associated memories. This looking away from the world has its ties to Fosse’s self-admitted influence from Norwegian Puritanism, and the notion of creating a private about-facing world in which one lives separate from the outer main world. Fosse seems to be writing this into being with Johannes’ final experiences, which cause him more confusion than anxiety.

And this is the gentle aspect of the work that struck me. The characters are creations of caring, kindness, gentleness, simplicity. In fact, the scene of most tension is experienced through the first living person depicted in the story, Johannes’ daughter, whose interaction with her father (his invisible spirit actually) unnerves her, the presence is even deemed evil by her. This deliberate portrayal of fear of the dark, unknowable division is key to Fosse’s use of the residual in his work. Memories, spirits, places all seem to haunt his turned-away worlds, and yet we know from Johannes’ perspective, there is not much fear. And the final concluding segment of this book, which simulates many television cliché portrayals of such scenes of “crossing over”, is so openly celebratory, not ironic or cynical, that one simply appreciates Fosse’s authorial openness to deliver what he presumably deemed his best artistic effort in writing about such matters as life, death, and the potential hereafter, and yes, Fosse’s sea is there till the end.

Boathouse Encounter

Jon Fosse; Boathouse; Trans. May-Brit Akerholt; Dalkey Archive Press, 2017

In his collection of essays An Angel Walks Through a Stage, Fosse writes much about the mystical nature of his art, how writing for him has spiritual resonance. Mentioned as often, is silence. For Fosse, silence is as much a space or void, as it is heaviness and dread, the unspoken as reality, and in this work, both forms are largely at play. His characters say very little outwardly, and when they do, the statements are short, terse, often simple affirmations. But the entirety of this text is interior. A mind in constant, albeit looping motion. As the textual participant, we read the same phrases over and over again, often nearly whole blocks of identical or similar statements at the beginning and ending of each section, repeated statements about restlessness, small shuffles of movement and sounds, the inability to go outside, and central to the story, the near frantic recounting of the narrator’s encounter with an old school friend.

Only a few paragraphs into this book, with its well-known opening lines about not going out anymore, about being overcome with restlessness, I felt instantly in uncomfortable territory. Generally speaking, being in the mind of literary characters is the one of the main draws to reading fiction, in its otherness, comfort or discomfort, stances we would never personally take, but for me, being in the mind of the narrator, who suffers from extreme “restlessness,” was quite intense, and in my experience, represents the sensations of one who lives with varying degrees of social anxiety. The very nature of anxiety is obsession, looping thoughts that become a crippling reality, and often cause the sufferer to cease interaction with others and in extreme moments have the inability to even go outside. Many repetitive scenario loops take place, a rise and fall situation of pumping oneself up and tearing it all down again, until hopefully the dreaded moment the sufferer is considering has passed, or alternately, and sometimes physiologically painful, the time comes to participate. The horror of such a moment may be simply going to the grocery store, only a few blocks walk, to acquire new coffee, which the sufferer is aware can increase the tendency of these very reactions, all the while, going first thing in the morning to purchase coffee sounds like a far more dreadful way to start a new day, but the knowledge that a headache at 11:30 am the following day from withdrawal is equally unpleasant, and counter-productive to all the work one wants to produce on that following day, because much of the current day’s energy has been sapped into deciding about going to purchase a new can of coffee. I use this personal digression to illustrate the nature of my relation to this text on a very fundamental level. At 118 pages, much of this book reads like this kind of strain.

The core of these reactions has to do with human interaction, and the endless cycles of interpretation that may take place from such an event before and after, and this is the very center of the text in Boathouse. Told to us over and over again is the dread the two friends feel at having to meet one another again, because so many years have passed, there is nothing to say, and there was a moment in that distant past, in that relationship, that was painful, centered around misunderstanding and betrayal, which perhaps also has its roots in the narrator’s innate anxiety disorder.

Much of any accusations of difficulty towards Fosse’s work is based in this repetitious looping. The sentences are not difficult, the structure is quite simple, the vocabulary is rather basic, but it is this testing of resilience and patience, that makes Fosse “difficult.” Yet, he has stated that he tries to be very simple and not difficult. His work gets called haunting, obsessive, dream-like; I think of it as incantatory.

One of the brilliant tricks in this book is when, without changing this looping, ritual-like tone, Fosse’s narrator shifts to the internal perspective of the friend, from which we experience again the micro episodes of tension already written. This to me was such a powerful approach, because really, it is still the narrator telling us the friend’s thoughts, feelings and actions. A kind of interpretation and alienation is happening simultaneously. As the tension continues to mount, between the characters (the two friends and the friend’s wife, where a triangle of jealously, regret, and resentment play out), between the minds of the individuals, and the individuals to their environment, I sensed that the prose grows more fragmentary, de-energized with resignation.

In this work, Fosse masters the micro moment. In the way sufferers of anxiety live in imbalanced moments, moments that outsiders can even hardly begin to scale to their own interpretations of the very same scenario; his characters experience the same obsessive imbalance. Though the rather sudden connection between the narrator and the wife character seems somewhat improbable, as an equation to illustrate this anxiety-ridden microcosm, its works quite well. So much of the looping thoughts and references have little to do with the current situation, but are rooted in a single, apparently minor occurrence from the past that rises from its dormancy to trigger a paralyzing chain of thoughts.

Silence, inaction, and simplicity is what makes this work successful. To view someone from the outside, be it in the bus, the library, or at the grocery checkout, in all their isolated calmness, in contrast to our unawareness of the possible roiling interiority of that other is the uncanniness Fosse captures so well in Boathouse.

Gaining an Understanding

Jon Fosse; An Angel Walks Through the Stage; Trans. May-Brit Akerholt; Dalkey Archive Press, 2015

“All good art comes into being in a relationship with death, through accepting the great mysterious secret of death, and life.”

If one views art as a necessary, compulsory aspect of the human condition, then what are the depths, or located differently, perhaps the adjacent cosmic fringes, to which we will go to explore its existence? Creative output has been the greatest driving force of our species’ development for many millennia, manifested in both the practical and the secular; we have invented religious structures, re-formed nature, widened our understanding of the cosmos, and have gained deep knowledge of the material minutiae of our world. But in all this contribution, what is art? It is surely colors confined within four corners and hung on walls, texts redefining our perceptions, earth moved and formed into cohesion with its surroundings, and music that consists of 4 min. 33 sec of environmental sound. Within this we have of course Beethoven, Mozart, Arvo Part, Malevich “black squares,” epics of Hell, and much more. We poor ink, and yet more ink, into this wholly subjective arena. But perhaps there is art, product for consumption, and art, production for the sake of the ethereal, the mystical. Fosse is very much formed and concerned with this second realm and its relation to the first.

There are essays herein regarding Fosse’s ideas about voice, narrator, and the true meaning of writing, of which is movement, bringing into existence, and its relation to voice and language as a mystical endeavor. He writes of his love for one of the two official Norwegian languages and his country’s general misunderstanding of their literary master, Henryk Ibsen. These are short pieces, collected from a twenty-year span, written in a clear and sometimes conversational mode. But in these short essays, in this minimal appearing book, what permeates all is Fosse’s conviction about the “other” that is art. Mysticism is the structure on which it seems his entire view hangs. There are many references to silence, space, mystery, the sacred:

“And to me, the novel, to be obstinate, is constantly in search of the lost God,” or;

“…silent speech, full of unknown meaning,” or;

“…like a voice that comes from somewhere far away.”

It is this mystical through-line that I find so compelling here. In the version of our world that is now riddled with the media-based clichés of stimulation, information overload, noise and image bombardment, Fosse embraces silences, emptiness, repetition, simplicity. The longest essay, “Negative Mysticism,” acts as a biographic keystone to this position, where early on Fosse writes, “So silence is perhaps the best way to preserve what we know deepest down.” He expresses ambivalence about relating these ideas, but continues:

“…it is in other words the writing which has opened the religious aspects for me and turned me into a religious person, and some of my deepest experiences can, as I have gradually understood, be called mystical experiences.”

He writes of Norwegian Puritanism and Quakerism in his personal family history, refers to himself as a post-puritan. He chooses to have his novels face away from the world, to be their own universe unto themselves, and the silence and speech of Quaker practice is similar to his approach to writing. One gets the impression these are not “born-again,” expository proclamations, sharing for the sake of proselytizing, but that his positions are fibrous to his understanding of himself as an artist, and that his appreciation of art is rooted in this conviction of the spiritual-mystical. He does not come off as a guru, but as a deeply inward facing individual whose attempts at making art, the speech, silences, and movements of his texts, are forms of personal prayer.

I’m glad to have experienced these pieces as I continue to read through his work in translation. Having read Aliss at the Fire many years ago, a book that seemed revelatory at the time, a beautiful work unlike so much else I have read, I am eager to return to its austere world, with a greater understanding of Fosse’s motivations.

A new space

The intention of Material Archive is twofold. After years of being informed by many well-crafted and informative cultural sites, I see this as a return, a giving back, my way to contribute to the wider digital community of cultural input/output. Literature (primarily in translation), art, film, music, collecting culture, theory, general bibliographic information are all interests of mine, and I have benefited greatly from the labors of passion so many content creators have shared.

Secondly, I intend to use this site as a record of my cultural consumption life. A notebook, a place to explore and expand in the essayistic sense. I am not professionally trained, have only published minor pieces sporadically (the great online journal Quarterly Conversation) and some art appeared in New American Paintings. This, hopefully, is to become a new portfolio in a sense, a place to develop and hold to personal account a deeper reading and seeing life.