Hyp­notic and slow-flow­ing

Nor­we­gian nov­el­ist Jon Fosse de­liv­ers prose that is closely packed and repet­i­tive, yet the plot of The Other Name is as light as can be

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOK REVIEWS - John Self

The Other Name: Sep­tol­ogy I-II By Jon Fosse Trans­lated by Damion Searls

WFitz­car­raldo Edi­tions, 352pp, £12.99

ho stole all the full stops from last year’s nov­els? The de­served Booker Prize win­ner Girl, Woman, Other by Bernar­dine Evaristo had only one full stop per chap­ter. Lucy Ell­mann’s much-praised Ducks, New­bury­port had just one in the nar­ra­tor’s en­tire thou­sand-page mono­logue. Now Jon Fosse has gone one bet­ter – or worse – by hav­ing none at all in his new novel.

Fosse isn’t much known in the English­s­peak­ing world, but he’s a big name in his na­tive Nor­way, where his na­tional trea­sure sta­tus is such that he’s been awarded a res­i­dence within the grounds of the Royal Palace in Oslo. He once taught a lit­er­ary work­shop where one of the stu­dents was Karl Ove Knaus­gaard. Knaus­gaard sub­mit­ted a poem and, as he de­scribes it in his book Some Rain Must Fall, Fosse told him: “The first line is a cliche, you can cross that out. The sec­ond line is also a cliche. And the third and the fourth. The sole value of this poem, he said after re­ject­ing ev­ery sin­gle line, is the word ‘widescreen-sky’ . . . You can keep that. The rest you can scrub.”

So he has high stan­dards for others, but what of his own work? The Other Name is, as the sub­ti­tle sug­gests, the first two parts of a larger work, Sep­tol­ogy, that will be pub­lished in three vol­umes.

Fosse’s book, trans­lated by Damion Searls, is of a par­tic­u­lar and recog­nis­able type of Euro­pean lit­er­a­ture. The prose is closely packed and repet­i­tive, with no para­graph breaks ex­cept when char­ac­ters speak. The ac­tion is in­ter­nal: ev­ery­thing that hap­pens in the book hap­pens in the nar­ra­tor’s head. Which is fine, be­cause what is a book but an ef­fort, with no mov­ing parts, to make things hap­pen in­side a reader’s head?

The nar­ra­tor is a mid­dle-aged man, an artist named Asle, who paints in order to “try to paint away th­ese pic­tures that are lodged in­side me, there’s noth­ing to do but paint them away, one by one,” though he is never sure when a paint­ing is fin­ished, and when “the pic­ture will dis­ap­pear and go away and the un­easi­ness in­side me will stop and it’ll bring me peace”.

Asle lives alone fol­low­ing the death of his wife, Ales, and has few contacts other than a gallery owner and a neigh­bour called Åsleik. If th­ese names are start­ing to sound quite sim­i­lar, then brace your­self, be­cause cen­tral to the book is an­other Asle – the “other name” of the ti­tle – who lives in a nearby town, and is also a painter.

The other Asle, who is an al­co­holic, is a Dop­pel­gänger of Asle the nar­ra­tor, who can imag­ine the other Asle’s thoughts and fully en­ter his life nar­ra­tively. “Is all of this just me see­ing things?” In­deed, other char­ac­ters that ap­pear in the book also can be seen as a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of some as­pect of the nar­ra­tor, a tech­nique pre­vi­ously seen in Kazuo Ishig­uro’s novel The Un­con­soled.

The plot is as light as can be, start­ing with Asle go­ing and res­cu­ing the other Asle as he de­scends toward al­co­holic in­ca­pac­ity and tak­ing him to a clinic to dry out, then look­ing after his dog. But as Fosse has said, “You don’t read my books for the plots. But it’s not be­cause I want to be a dif­fi­cult writer. I’ve never tried to write in a com­pli­cated way. I al­ways try to write as sim­ply and, I hope, as deeply as I pos­si­bly can.”

This is borne out by what Fosse terms his “slow prose” – where el­e­gant vari­a­tion is es­chewed in favour of hyp­notic rep­e­ti­tion. The Other Name is not dif­fi­cult to read be­cause the rep­e­ti­tion and the end­less com­mas give it the hyp­notic feel­ing of a mantra. A sense of pro­vi­sion­al­ity is pro­vided by the fact that many places and peo­ple in the book are named gener­i­cally: The Clinic, The Art School, The Bald Man, The Nurse.

It all has a dis­tinctly Beck­et­tian flavour, which is no co­in­ci­dence as Fosse, who was a pro­duc­tive play­wright be­fore be­com­ing a nov­el­ist, wrote his first play, Some­one Is Go­ing to Come, as a re­sponse to Wait­ing for Godot. There is, ap­pro­pri­ately, a sub­dued com­edy from time to time, usu­ally when char­ac­ters talk with­out com­mu­ni­cat­ing.

Al­though part of a larger work, The Other Name does have a proper (even sur­pris­ing) end­ing, and the lack of full stops seems less af­fec­tion than ne­ces­sity. It forces you to read the book in long phases, max­imis­ing the sat­is­fac­tion and en­gage­ment with Fosse’s slow-flow­ing story.

The Other Names is pub­lished by Fitz­car­raldo Edi­tions, a small UK pub­lisher that has distin­guished it­self by giv­ing us English trans­la­tions of two re­cent No­bel Prize win­ners: Svet­lana Alex­ievich and Olga Tokar­czuk. Fosse has long been tipped as a fu­ture No­bel win­ner and he cer­tainly has that Euro­pean mod­ernist sen­si­bil­ity that the Swedish Academy has re­dis­cov­ered its ap­petite for re­cently. So, get in on the ground floor with this one, and watch this space.


It all has a dis­tinctly Beck­et­tian flavour, which is no co­in­ci­dence as Fosse, who was a pro­duc­tive play­wright be­fore be­com­ing a nov­el­ist, wrote his first play, Some­one Is Go­ing to Come, as a re­sponse to Wait­ing for Godot


Euro­pean mod­ernist sen­si­bil­ity: Jon Fosse.

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