Jon Fosse: Eit nytt namn – Septologien VI-VII (A New Name : Septology VI-VII)
This is the final book of Jon Fosse’s trilogy which, in Norwegian is called a Septology. It follow three days in the life of two painters( who may be the doppelgängers of one other), both called Asle. Asle 1 (as I call him, though Fosse does not) is a widow. His wife, Ales, had died many years ago. The couple had no children. He has had a successful career as a painter and now lives in Bjørgvin (based on Bergen). Asle 2 also lives in Bjørgvin. He is twice divorced and has three children, whom he rarely sees. He is also a drunk. Asle 1 finds him collapsed in the snow and gets him to hospital. In this book and the previous one, Asle 1 tries to visit Asle 2 in the hospital but the hospital says he is too ill to receive visitors. Asle 1 is looking after Asle 2’s dog.
The book starts with Asle 1 reminiscing about how he met Ales while at the same time, clearly in comparison, showing how Asle 2 fell out with Liv and met and married Siv (who later will leave him). Asle 1 and Ales seem to have fallen in love at first sight. It gets somewhat complicated as Asle is about to move into lodgings in Bjørgvin but, when he takes Ales to his new lodgings, his landlady, an elderly lady, very much takes against Ales, telling Asle that she is not suitable for him and effectively denying Ales access to the premises. The couple soon make alternative arrangements, though he remains on good terms with the landlady, even painting her portrait (she is a keen art collector).
The comparison with Asle 2 could not be greater as we see the complications in both of his relationships and even a suicide attempt by Liv, his first wife. Meanwhile Asle 1 and Ales have can best be described as a spiritual relationship (though doubtless sexual as well). Very early in their relationship they go to the local Catholic church (Catholicism is not big in that part of Norway but Ales is a Catholic) and make marriage vows to each other which, they both say, means that they are effectively married. Well after Ales’ death, Asle insists on remaining faithful to Ales and when, later on this book, he is propositioned (sexually assaulted might be a more accurate term) he firmly rejects the woman. My life is the life I lived with Ales, the time before that and the time after that don’t count somehow, they’re somehow not my life.
It is Ales that converts him to Catholicism and he remains faithful to it for the rest of his life. His favourite writer is Meister Eckhart though he admits he does not understand him. Religion continues to play a huge part in his life.
One of the other key plot elements is how he became a painter and how he obtained his success, thanks in part to Ales (she was also a painter but specialising in icons) but, more particularly thanks to Beyer, the local gallery owner who spotted his talent as a boy. His paintings also seem to be spiritual or at least spiritually influenced.
As mentioned in the reviews of the previous two books and at the beginning of this review, it would seem that the two Asles are variations of the same person. We have lots of evidence for this. Firstly, Fosse comments it is unbearable how much the two of them look alike Both often seem to be more or less in the same place at the same time. Both are painters and, from what we know of their paintings, they are not dissimilar in style. Asle 1 frequently seems to know what Asle 2 is doing and/or thinking.
In many cases, we are following what seems to be the story of one when suddenly we realise that it is the story of the other, often changing mid-sentence, and often jumping back or forward in time, not of course helped by their having the same name. Indeed, the name business goes further. In the previous book and now in this book we have two different women called Guro, whom Asle 1 cannot tell apart and Asle2’s ex-wives are called Liv and Siv respectively. There are two women called respectively Hjordis and Herdis and they comment on the similarity of their names. Even Asle 1’s neighbour name is not too dissimilar: Asleik.
Basically, I think the idea is that, at least for Asle, the story shows two possible outcomes, two ways his life could have gone. He could have become a drunk, had two failed marriages, be estranged from his children and have had only limited success as a painter. This is not to say the alternative Asle, Asle 1 had the far superior life. Yes, he was more successful as a painter and yes, he had a very happy marriage. However, he did not have any children and his wife died when she was still relatively young and he has missed her ever since. By the end of the book he really has virtually no friends. He is on good terms with Beyer, his dealer, but Asleik is really the only person he sees as a friend. They have a meal together on Little Christmas Eve (i.e. 23 December), a long-held tradition and, for the first time, he has agreed to spend Christmas Eve with Asleik and his sister, Guro (neither married) but there is no-one else.
If there is one overarching theme to this book it can best be described as the somewhat clichéd the fading of the light. Asle 2 is in a coma for the entire book and, even if he recovers, he is not likely to be in good shape. Asle 1 seems to be closing shop. I don’t want to paint anymore, ever, all the pleasure I used to take in painting is gone. He takes a bunch of his paintings to Beyer to sell. Clearly he has come to the end of his artistic. life. All that matters – and perhaps all that has ever really mattered – is Ales.
On the boat journey (of course, symbolic of the journey to the underworld) out to Guro, Alseik’s sister, he sees Ales. I sit on the chair at the wheel and I notice that Ales is standing next to me and I say to her that we had it good then, in that time, in those years, when we lived together in the house there in Dylgja, it’s just it was so few years, too few. All that is left then is to enter a state of grace and rejoin Ales.
Fosse has been called the Samuel Beckett of the twentieth century. Fosse has also said he was influenced by Beckett. However, I think they are very different writers. Beckett’s characters are, on the whole, not real people. Vladimir and Estragon, for example, may be wonderful creations but I cannot imagine meeting them. This applies even more to the people in his novels who, eventually, disappear and become disembodied voices. Fosse’s characters are very much real people, even if or, perhaps because, they do not always behave wisely.
Death does, of course, permeate both writers. In this book we learn of several premature deaths – Ales, of course, but also her father, who drank himself to death, Asle 1’s sister who died when young and Asleik’s father, who drowned and his body never found. During the course of the book two of the characters die. Both men feel death is very much part of life but while Beckett clearly has a spiritual side, it is Fosse who sees death – Asle 1’s impending death in particular – as something different, namely a state of grace and reunion with Ales – in other words as something deeply spiritual.
When the publisher sent me my copy of this book, the publisher’s representative warned me that the book was sad. While she was, of course, right, I felt that the book had a sadness tinged with a positive outlook. I am not in any way religious and do not believe in life after death. However, Fosse clearly does. Asle has achieved his life work. Maybe it did not always go exactly the way he wanted but he did have a successful career and marriage, unlike his alter ego, and now appears to be heading for a state of grace and, doubtless for many that is more important.
It has been said that Fosse is one of the major writers of the twenty-first century and, on the basis of this trilogy/septology, I can only concur. Indeed, I find it hard to think of many works of this ceneutry that can compare with it.
First published in 2020 by De Samlaget
First published in English in 2021 by Fitzcarraldo
Translated by Damion Searls