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Jon Fosse: Melancholia II (Melancholy II)

As the title indicates, this is the follow-up to Fosse’s Melancholy. In that book, we followed a couple of episodes in the life of the very real Norwegian painter Lars Hertervig. Hertervig, as we saw, was a gifted painter but had mental problems. At the end of Melancholy, he was in a mental hospital.

This story is about a day in the life of his sister, Oline. Other reviews have suggested that Oline was fictitious. Given that, according to this article (link in Norwegian), she was at his funeral, we must assume that she was not fictitious. We learn that this funeral earlier in the year.

Oline was Lars’ older sister so she is now very elderly. She is a widow and has numerous children and grandchildren. She admits that she mixes up her grandchildren and sometimes does not even recognise them. Apart from forgetfulness, which seems to be a major problem for her, she also has other problems. She has very painful feet, which makes it difficult to walk, and she is also partially incontinent.

We first meet her as she is – slowly – walking up the hill from the sea to her cottage, carrying two fish. She does not have much of an appetite but realises that she must eat. A kindly fisherman gives her fish to eat. The journey takes a long time but does give her an opportunity to ruminate. She bumps into her sister-in-law, Signe, with whom she does not get on. To her surprise, as the two rarely speak, Signe comes to speak to her, telling her that Sivert, Signe’s husband, Oline’s brother, is probably dying and would like to speak to her. She agrees to come back after she has dropped the fish off.

While ruminating on her present situation, her grandchildren, her lack of an indoor toilet (which others have) and her health problems, she also thinks about her past and, in particular, about Lars. She remembers various incidents of their life. She recalls that Lars was difficult as a child. He would frequently disappear, to his father’s annoyance. (As the eldest boy, he was expected to help his father, particularly as the family was very poor.). One day, Oline followed him and found him by the sea. Indeed, he was crying and, when she tried to help, she was repulsed.

Later, when she talked to him, he threw a stone at her, which missed her but hit the house. To cover up for him, she pretended that it was a neighbour that threw the stone. We begin to see where Lars got his mental problems from when we discover the father’s reaction. The father, who had been thinking of moving to Stavanger as the family was struggling to make a living, immediately started pulling the tiles off the roof and throwing them to the ground, saying he could no longer live where the neighbours threw stones at his house. His intention was to take the house to pieces and reassemble it in Stavanger. We know that the family did move to Stavanger.

It was not all misery for Lars, however. On one occasion, he took Oline to a cave. He had found both coal and bits of driftwood and had drawn clouds on the wood with the coal and, in one case, a drawing he claimed was of her. She did not recognise herself and did not like it.

We continue through Oline’s day – her forgetfulness, her bad feet, her toilet issues, her meeting Alida, an old friend, whom she knows very well but cannot remember who she is, her fish for her dinner, Signe and Sivert and her reminiscences, mainly about Lars.

We do learn that Lars seemingly had mental health issues much of his life as well as having issues with his father. Oline feels much affection for him as an older sister, while being bemused by what he does and why he does it. As she comes to the end of her life and her siblings are dying, she is naturally given to much reflection but all she really wants is peace.

This is an interesting coda to Melancholy, even if only to confirm that Lars’ mental health problems were there in his childhood and may well have come from his father. However, Oline is an interesting character in her own right, an old woman reminiscing on her life, her famous brother and her impending death.

Publishing history

First published 1996 by De Norske samlaget
First published in English in 2014 by Dalkey Archive Press
Translated by Eric Dickens