Persistence is rewarded
Review: Septology, Jon Fosse, Giramondo
Jon Fosse is a Norwegian playwright and novelist, often tipped as a potential Nobel Prize winner, and Septology is his magnum opus. There’s an autobiographical element to the book’s lead character: like Fosse, Asle is an ageing, ponytailed Norwegian who is a reformed alcoholic and convert to Catholicism. Asle is a painter and widower. He has a friend who is his doppelganger – also named Asle, also a painter. This second Asle is a darker version of the narrator – twice divorced, alcoholic, not as successful with his art, a vision of what the first Asle could have become but didn’t.
The action, if we can consider it as such, takes place over a few days before Christmas. Asle (the narrator) drives to a nearby city for an errand; on his return drive he thinks he should check in on his friend, the alcoholic, second Asle; in doing so, he finds this second Asle in the snow, drunk and passed out, and delivers him to the hospital, saving his life. He also rescues the second Asle’s dog. The next day he drives back again to deliver new paintings to the Beyer Gallery, which represents him and is holding a regular exhibition. He has dinner with his neighbour.
This (basic) plot description gives little idea of the extraordinary experience of reading this 700-page novel (or series of novellas – Giramondo has published it as one volume; elsewhere it is published in three volumes). Much has been made of the fact that it contains no full stops and so reads like one, giant, loose sentence. This is not entirely true, as the word ‘and’ performs the function of a full stop, and the grammar is more-or-less conventional, except in a few circumstances. But the sentences, if that’s what they are, have a remarkable, duplicative, hypnotic rhythm, punctuated by regular ‘I think’s and ‘yes’s that work like an affirmative ‘Amen’, imitating a stream of consciousness, where thoughts flow and are side-tracked and return and weave in and out of memory and the present. The narrative keeps circling, inching slowly, as interior monologues sometimes do, and the way a painting might gradually appear from a cumulation of small brushstrokes.
The effect is meditative, devotional, like the rhythm of the Christian liturgy, and this is deliberate, as Fosse is Catholic (and a contributor to a Norwegian Bible translation), and takes his inspiration from the rhythms of the rosary. In fact, each section of the book ends with half a page of Latin phrasing from the rosary. Its rhythms bleed out into the everyday, also conveying the sense that, for a believer, there is another story happening behind the current one.
In this sense, form follows function, as in-between what we might call the plot points, Asle has long ruminations on life, art and God, and we also learn about his family history, how he met his doppelganger, how he met his wife. The prose is mostly calm and matter-of-fact. What more intense moments there are come as a surprise; otherwise, matters resolve themselves, tensions dissipate, ripples subside in the flow of time. Add in the religious element, which is sympathetic but offered gently, and it all becomes very different to other modern works of fiction, save perhaps the likes of Marilynne Robinson. But here there is emphasis on the repetition of everyday life, even if we all live unique lives. (This contrast of sameness and difference is obvious in the two Asles.)
Granted, this is not for everyone. I can imagine some readers finding it both tedious and formidable. (And imagine translating the thing, which is no mean feat.) But there’s a sense of slipping into a rhythm, like swimming laps, where one can even periodically tune out and in and not lose the thread, but where its essence falls slowly on the reader like snow.
As an artist, Asle thinks that painting says something words can’t. This may be somewhat obvious, but Fosse seems to demonstrate this, first by the vast pile-up of words, and also through all Asle’s asides about God and God’s presence, which are tentatively offered, but which Asle concedes only feebly convey the feeling of faith. He says, in a similar vein, that faith is not a matter of reason, but a matter of feeling God’s presence, through the world around us, in part through other people. This manifests itself through his gratefulness for his (late) wife, but, also in an odd way, through his relationship with his neighbour, who does odd jobs for Asle, but who is sometimes annoying, and who Asle encourages himself to think of charitably. A relationship like this is rarely handled in literature. Their meals seem like imitations of the eucharist – a shared meal where differences become momentarily put aside.
Novels can have various atmospheres, but it is rarer to have an atmosphere of weariness. Asle repeatedly insists on his tiredness, which develops into a longing to be, as he puts it, covered in silence. The reader may sometimes feel weary with the amount of words here too. But there is generosity. And persistence, like in the rituals of worship and devotion, is rewarded.
Nick Mattiske blogs on books at coburgreviewofbooks.wordpress.com and is the illustrator of Thoughts That Feel So Big.
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