Jon Fosse: Eg er ein annan – Septologien III-V ( I is Another : Septology III-V)
Literati will recognise the title from Rimbaud’s Je est un autre, which he used in a letter in 1871. It is very relevant to this book.
This is the second in Fosse’s trilogy (in English)/septology (in Norwegian), the first being Det Andre Namnet – Septologien I-II (The Other Name – Septology I-II). In the first book we met Asle 1 and Asle 2. Asle 1 was the narrator. He was a widowed, childless, religious painter, living in a small coastal village. Asle 2 was also a painter but he lived in Bjørgvin, clearly based on Bergen. He was twice divorced with three children whom he never sees. He was not religious but was an alcoholic. The trilogy is divided into three days in the life of Asle 1 but with a lot of looking back. On the first day, Asle 1 goes into Bjørgvin while it is snowing and finds Asle 2 collapsed on the ground. He takes him to a clinic and he is so ill, he has to be transferred to a hospital.
We are now on day 2 and Asle 2 sets off for Bjørgvin for two purposes. The first is to deliver some of his paintings to the Beyer Gallery for a forthcoming exhibition and the second is to check up on Asle 2. While driving (in the snow) we follow the childhood of Asle 2 but through the eyes of Asle 1. What is interesting is that he tells us in great detail various episodes of Asle 2’s life, details which he could not possibly know were he a separate person. This, coupled with the title, suggests the likely interpretation is that the two Asles are one and the same person but that either, as I suggested in the review of the first book, they are doppelgangers of one another or they are one and the same person but that, at some point, they had two possible stories, depending on the actions or events and Fosse is giving us the two possible stories and telling the two stories concurrently.
As we move through the book, it gradually becomes apparent that Asle 1 and Asle 2 are one and the same person – sort of. Asle 1’s story soon becomes Asle 2’s and vice versa. The stories cross. Incidents from the life of one cross over into the life of the other. Their views on painting seem to be very similar. Both get tired of figurative painting, which means painting pictures of their neighbours’ houses, and move to abstract painting. They are both loners. Asle 1 will later say I’m an old man, I think and I’m all alone in the world. However, there are two Asles. They meet early on when Asle 1 is going to the High School prior to going to the Art School and Asle 2 is living with the pregnant Siv and struggling to earn a living. Both go the Art School They remain friends, culminating in Asle 1’s rescue of Asle 2.
Asle 2 has a childhood which is, I imagine, like that of many boys of his class in Norway, with one significant difference. The sudden and unexpected death of his younger sister, not surprisingly, has a profound effect on him and his parents. Death, as in much of Fosse’s work, occurs elsewhere in this book.
Apart from his sister’s death, Asle is more or less like other boys. He argues with his parents, particularly with his mother. He misbehaves – smoking and drinking. He has casual sexual encounters. He does not like religion. He starts a band. He doesn’t like school and does as little work as possible. He does like painting and drawing and is good at it. He paints pictures of most of the houses in the neighbourhood but not, to his parents’ annoyance, his own. He has to work a bit harder at school for, if he wants to go to art college, he has to go first to the high school which is in another town.
The first part of the book focusses on Asle 2 and his childhood, albeit as seen through the eyes of Asle 1. In the second part, while not abandoning Asle 2, we see more of Asle 1, including his meeting with Asle 2. We get more complications not just with Asle 1 and Asle 2 but Guro 1 and Guro 2. One of them is the sister of Asle 1’s neighbour, Åsleik. But are there two of them or just two versions of the same woman as with Asle 1 and Asle 2?
One of the things that makes this book is Asle 1’s view on his painting. We saw, in Det Andre Namnet – Septologien I-II (The Other Name – Septology I-II) how light, but light from darkness, influences him. We also saw that it is, to a great extent, his religion that influences his painting as well as his life. We also saw that the painting he was working on, one that Åsleik called the St. Andrew’s Cross had come to obsess him. It seems a fairly simple painting but he wants to keep it for himself. Every year he gives Åsleik,one of his paintings to give his sister as a Christmas present. This year, instead of the usual small painting, Åsleik asks for a big painting. When Asle concurs, Åsleik asks for the St. Andrew’s Cross painting. Asle refuses. However, later on he will have his doubts as to whether it is a good painting or not and whether he wants to keep it. This an issue both Asles struggle with – whether to keep their paintings or to sell them and which ones to keep and which ones to sell.
The light issue continues to affect him but now he makes it clear how he sees it. God is an uncreated light, she [Ales] said and I’ve experienced myself that the black darkness is God’s light, this darkness that can be both in me and around me.
Language is also important, as we have also seen in Fosse’s other works. One of the few authors mentioned in this novel is Samuel Beckett,a writer of silence. (Le Monde called Fosse the Beckett of the twenty-first century.) Ales will quote Meister Eckhart to him in the original German: Gott ist nichts, was man in Worte fassen kann [God is nothing that man put into words] (though, by implication he can put God into his painting). He talks about God’s silent language and says I’ve experienced myself that the black darkness is God’s light, this darkness that can be both in me and around me, yes, this darkness I now feel that I am, because in the darkness is a stillness where God’s voice sounds in silence. In short God is darkness and God is silence and God can only, for him, be found in painting and all of this is a good thing.
Like the first book in the trilogy, this is another masterpiece of what has come to be known as slow prose. There are no fireworks but, rather a deep exploration of the psyche and the soul of a man – two men? – and his art, his religion and his life.
First published in 2020 by De Samlaget
First published in English in 2021 by Fitzcarraldo
Translated by Damion Searls