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Jon Fosse: Melancholia I (Melancholy)

Writing a book about an insane person always poses a problem for the author. Do you describe the insanity in a clinical manner or do you, as the author, reflect the insanity in your style of writing? Fosse has managed to take, if not a middle path, at least an interesting path. We follow the thoughts of the insane hero of this book, which can be irrational, paranoid or confused but are, generally, more or less comprehensible.

Our hero is Lars Hertervig. You would not know it from reading this book but he was a real person, a Norwegian painter who lived from 1830 to 1902 and had mental problems. Norwegian readers may well have heard of him. I would imagine most people from English-speaking countries would not. I certainly had not. However, the blurb on my copy of the book (published by Dalkey Archive Press) – there is no foreword/introduction – does not mention that he was a real person.

Lars Hertervig was born on an island near Stavanger. His family were poor Quaker farmers. A local businessman saw his painting and financed his studies, first in Christiana (now Oslo) and then in Düsseldorf under Hans Gude. While in Düsseldorf, he had a mental breakdown and this is where this novel starts.

The novel is divided into three parts, with the first part, the longest, taking place over the course of a single day in Düsseldorf.

Hertervig is staying as a boarder with a widow, Mrs Winckelmann who has a daughter, Helene, aged fifteen. She and Hertervig have fallen in love and we see his incipient insanity as he obsesses over her. Her uncle becomes aware of this infatuation and orders Hertervig to leave. During this episode, Hertervig is not only obsessing over Helene but imagining that there is some sexual relationship going on between Helene and her uncle, with Helene a willing participant.

Hertervig is reluctant to leave so he sets out, leaving his luggage behind, planning to return to spend the night there after the uncle has left. While this has been going on, he has been worrying about Gude who was apparently expected to look at one of his paintings and is worried that Gude may not approve of it. Hertervig is convinced that he is virtually the only painter of any talent in the school.

He then heads off to Malkasten, the local hang-out for the artists (where he never normally goes). He meets some of the other students. They mock him because of Helene, because of his rustic behaviour and because he seems continually distracted. We follow his distraction, as he interacts with the students but then drifts off, imaging his home and Helene. He also continually has these images of black and white sheets enveloping him.

It does not get better. He returns to the Winckelmann’s house to try and see Helene, still determined to leave with her, though she is only fifteen. He is, of course, rebuffed. All the while, he seems to be unsure of where he is, mixing in images of Helene, his father back home and the black and white sheets. He hears Helene’s voice when she is clearly not there and even hears her piano playing.

The second part sees him back in Norway, in the Gaustad asylum, in 1856. As far as the doctor is concerned his main problem is excessive masturbation though,as far he himself is concerned, the problem is that he is not allowed to paint. He continues to imagine Helene, though comments that all women are whores.

The final part takes place in 1991 and features an unsuccessful writer called Vidme, who is in Åsane, Norway. Vidme claims that he is distantly related to Hertervig and plans to write a novel about him. Whether Vidme is Fosse himself is not clear. Vidme has been particularly struck by seeing Hertervig’s painting Fra Borgøya (From Borgøya). As you can see from the link, the Norwegian, German and Italian versions of the novel all have this painting on the cover.

Vidme is concerned about the role of the divine in the novel. He himself may (or may not) have left the church but now seeks to speak to a pastor about this. He manages to contact a local one, a woman called Maria, and goes to see her. Their conversation is, frankly, inconclusive. While he is not insane, Vidme seems to have some similarity with Hertervig. He is something of a loner. He is clearly unsure of himself and not clear where he is going or what he is doing. He is also, like Hertervig, obsessed with the female breast, in this case Maria’s.

As a portrait of an insane man, this book works very well as Fosse is able to show Hertervig’s insanity, through his ramblings, his repetitions and his obsessions, without alienating the reader too much with incomprehensible logorrhoea.

One interesting question that remains is whether it makes a difference whether we know that Hertervig is a historical person. As mentioned, you could easily read the English translation without having any idea that Hertervig was anything but fictitious. Norwegian readers would almost certainly have been aware that he really existed and may well have had some preconceived notions about the real Hertervig. Most of the characters mentioned certainly existed. Clearly his existence did constrain Fosse somewhat, as regards the plot but, I suspect, much of the story is fiction. Authors have been using real characters for many years and clearly have not always been historically accurate in their portrayals. In short, I do not think it makes much difference, particularly for non-Norwegian readers.

Publishing history

First published 1995 by De Norske samlaget
First published in English in 2006 by Dalkey Archive Press
Translated by Grethe Kvernes and Damion Searls