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Jon Fosse: Naustet (Boathouse)

Baard, our narrator, is, as you would expect in a Fosse novel, something of a loner. He is over thirty but still lives with his (relatively young) mother. He does not have a job. He helps his mother with shopping, chopping wood and so on. He does play guitar and, along with an accordionist, he makes some pin money playing at dances, weddings and so on. Apart from that, he spends his time listening to records, reading (library books) and fishing in the fjord. As far as we can tell, he has no friends and no girlfriend. He says that he has never really felt comfortable around women, though he gets on with his mother.

When he was at school, he had a friend, Knut. They hung out together, played in an old boathouse and even formed a band. However, Knut has moved away and he had not seen Knut for at least ten years. However, en route to the library, he bumps into Knut who is with his wife and two young daughters and visiting his, Knut’s, mother. There is an awkward exchange. Knut’s wife is introduced but Baard does not catch her name. We and he never learn her name. Baard suggests that they go out fishing one day and Knut sort of accepts but the feeling is that it will come to nothing. Baard does not expect to see Knut again.

The next day, while out fishing, he sees another boat and when the two boats approach one another, he realises that it is Knut’s wife, on her own. They visit the small island in the fjord. Baard catches and loses a fish while Knut’s wife catches one. All of this is observed from the shore by Knut whom Baard is aware is watching them. Knut and family had visited his mother several times as it was a cheap holiday for them but Knut had never contacted Baard and Baard had never seen Knut. However, Baard and Knut’s wife meet up again when Baard sees her out walking alone. She invites him back to the house to talk to Knut but when they get back, Knut is putting the children to bed. Baard finds the whole situation awkward but stays talking to them. He mentions that he will be playing at the dance in the community centre that Saturday and Knut’s wife is eager to attend.

We have briefly learned of the childhood of Knut and Baard. They had a band. They were close friends. They used to hang out in the boathouse which belonged to the ferocious Svein of Leite, as he never used it. They also steal apples and pears from his orchard. There is one issue involving a girl, in that Baard thinks a girl is interested in him but she goes off with Knut. Knut will dance with her (now married) at the dance at the community centre, essentially abandoning his wife, who is left on her own.

The whole story is told as Baard’s thoughts. It is not really stream of consciousness, though similar, as he initially just rambles on. He is highly repetitive, telling us over and over again how it is more than ten years since he last saw Knut and how he feels awkward (and assumes Knut does as well) when they meet as they have nothing to talk about. In particular, after meeting Knut again he feels restlessness. He uses this word for his feelings on numerous occasions. It is undoubtedly the most used word longer than five letters in this book. It is not entirely clear what he means by it. Is it because meeting Knut again makes him realises that he has done nothing since they last met while Knut has got a proper job and a wife and children? Is he embarrassed by Knut’s comparative success? Is it because he is uncomfortable in the presence of a woman? We know he has difficulty with women as he is mocked for it at the dance. Or is he attracted to Knut’s wife but feels uncomfortable with this?

We also know that he has now abandoned what little life he had – listening to records, reading, playing guitar with the accordion-player, doing odd jobs for his mother, helping in the Co-op – and is focussing entirely on writing the novel we are reading.

For much of the book we focus on his thoughts and reactions to events, his views on his life, past and present, and how he feels about Knut and his wife (generally speaking, awkward). However, towards the end. we still follow his thoughts but he has put himself in Knut’s shoes. He still uses the first person to describe his role but tells us what Knut is thinking and, clearly, what he is thinking is jealously. Knut has no qualms about dancing with his old schoolfriend and leaving his wife to herself but any suspicion that she is with Knut – the fishing expedition, when she is alone with him in her mother’s house when he is putting the children to bed and after the dance when he walks off home, unaware that Baard has let his wife watch the show from behind the stage and is therefore invisible to anyone else – arouses his jealousy. On several occasions Knut (in the mind of Baard) will say that he cannot stand it and that it cannot go on. Whether he means what he sees as his wife’s flirtation or the marriage is not clear but it is clear that he is very unhappy with the situation.

As this is Fosse we are not expecting a happy ending. We know that Baard considers the restlessness unbearable and we know that he will continue writing this novel – to the end.

As always with Fosse, we peer into the dark Norwegian soul in this novel. Apart from Baard’s mother, who is somewhat worried about her son, particularly towards the end when he gives up almost everything and never goes out, but on the whole seems quite contented with her life, most of the others, particularly the three main characters, seem discontented and unsure though they fumble along, surviving but not much more. Knut does not seem to enjoy his job as a music teacher and is not happy as a husband and not particularly happy as a father while his wife is clearly not happy in her marriage. But then few people are happy in Fosse novels.

First published 1989 by Det Norske samlaget
First published in English in 2017 by Dalkey Archive Press
Translated by May-Brit Akerholt