Jon Fosse: Det Andre Namnet – Septologien I-II (The Other Name – Septology I-II)
As the title tells us this is, in theory, seven books but, in translation they have been published as a trilogy, this book containing the first two books of the septology. (Wikipedia thinks it should be called a heptalogy but I will stick to the Norwegian version. However, hepta- comes from the Greek as does -ology, while sept- comes from the Latin. Can you mix a Greek and Latin root? The answer is television).
Our hero is Asle or, rather, our heroes are called Asle, as we have two Norwegian painters called Asle who live not all that far from one another. Asle 1 as I shall call him, is the narrator. He lives alone in the remote village of Dylgja, overlooking the sea. He is a widower. He and his wife, Ales, had no children. She died young. Death is, of course, a key part of this book. He has recently converted to Catholicism and goes to church. I consider myself a Christian, yes, a little like the way I consider myself a Communist or at least a Socialist, and I pray with my rosary every single day. He used to be a serious drinker but, unlike Asle 2, has given it up.
He has painted since he was twelve. Indeed,he claims to have painted every single day. He even tells us why he paints – when I paint it’s always as if I’m trying to paint away the pictures stuck inside me…I have all these pictures inside me, yes, so many pictures that they’re a kind of agony, yes, it hurts me when they keep popping up again and again, like visions almost, and in all kinds of contexts, and I can’t do anything about it, the only thing I can do is paint.
However, there is more to it than that. Like many painters, light is key for Asle 1. This is not the light of the sun and nature that we find in the Impressionists or the chiaroscuro of the Italian Renaissance painters. It is the light of the dark. There has to be a light in everything I paint, an invisible light, he tells us. However, the easiest way to get pictures to shine is if they’re dark, yes, black, the darker and blacker the colours are the more they shine and the best way I can tell if a picture is shining, and how strong or weak the light is in it, and where, is to turn out all the other lights.
Where does this light come from? Possibly from God. It’s definitely true that it’s just when things are darkest, blackest, that you see the light, that’s when this light can be seen, when the darkness is shining, yes, and it has always been like that in my life at least, when it’s darkest is when the light appears, when the darkness starts to shine, and maybe it’s the same way in the pictures I paint.
Asle 2 lives in Bjørgvin, clearly based on Bergen. He also lives alone, except that he has a dog, Bragi. He is twice divorced. His wives were called Liv and Siv. He is not on good terms with them. Siv took his son and daughter and moved far away, contacting him only when she wants money. He is still on mildly good terms with Liv and their son, whom he calls only The Boy. He is an alcoholic and thinks often of death. His sister died when she was young and he remembers the death of a neighbour, a boy who fell off his father’s boat and drowned. His most recent painting seems to be entirely black paint and is called A Shining Darkness.
He is struggling with his painting or, perhaps, more accurately, struggling with his drinking and his mental health. When he started on a picture he could totally disappear into the picture, but that was before, now he can’t paint any more, he can’t do anything, it’s all too big and heavy for him, and he shakes all the time.
Interestingly we know something about his painting because we know what inspired him. He carries around with him in his wallet a copy of Bridal Procession on the Hardangerfjord by Hans Gude and Adolph Tidemand.
There is one other key character in this book, at least among the living,and that is Åsleik. Åsleik lives in Dylgja, though a bit away from Asle 1. They are very different characters. Åsleik can best be described as rough and ready. He has lived all his life in Dylgja and says he will die there. He works as a farmer and fisherman, making very little money but not needing much. He helps Asle 1, for example doing odd jobs, getting wood for him and so on and, in return, Asle gives him money and buys him groceries. They get on fairly well, though Asle tells us he does not like him. Åsleik has a sister who lives near Bjørgvin. Her name is Guro but he calls her Sister. She was married to a fiddle player but he ran off so now she is alone. Åsleik visits her at Christmas. Asle 1 is invited but always declines, preferring to spend Christmas day painting. We later learn that Guro knows both Asle 1 and Asle 2.
Asle 1 drifts in and out of the past, remembering, in particular, Ales. However, he also thinks a lot of his namesake. At the start of the book, he had been to Bjørgvin but had not viisted Asle2 and now feels increasingly guilty about this. Finally he decides he will visit him and spend the night in Bjørgvin in a cheap inn he knows. The first snow of the year starts falling as he sets out.
When he arrives and starts wandering around, he sees a man lying in the snow. It is Asle 2. Asle 2 claims is that all he needs is a drink but he is clearly in a bad way – confused and disorientated. Asle 1 finally persuades him that he has to go to the clinic and he takes him there. He will later be transferred to the hospital. Asle 1 goes to the inn to get a drink and something to eat and there he meets a woman who is called Guro or Silje. As mentioned above, Asle 2 has a history with this woman and it seems that Asle 1 may do so as well. We assume she is Åsleik’s sister but she may be another Guro. Later on, when when Asle 1 is trying to find Asle 2’s flat so he can rescue Bragi, Asle 2’s dog, it is Silje/Guro who helps when he is lost in the snow.
This is clearly a book of doppelgangers. Asle 1 and 2 are clearly doppelgangers of one another but Fosse is too skilled a writer to make them either exact opposites à la Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde or twins. Both are painters. Both paint dark pictures. However, Asle 1 sees the light from the dark, Asle 2 does not. Both had been drinkers but Asle 1 has given up. Asle 1 has found God, Asle 2 clearly has not. Asle 1 clearly gets much inspiration from his religion, both in his personal life and in his painting. Both have been married but it seems that Asle 1 had a happy marriage and no children while Asle 2 had two unhappy marriages with three children and generally had less than pleasant memories of his marriages. Asle 2 seems to have virtually no contact with either his ex-wives or children while Asle 1 frequently thinks of Ales and clearly misses her.
We see this duality elsewhere. Asle 1 is compared to his rough-and-ready but down-to-earth neighbour, Åsleik. They are different and yet seem to have a relationship which is both mutually dependent but though mildly antagonistic. We also see it wil Silje/Guro. Is she Åsleik’s sister, whom we do not meet but hear about? She is clearly different from the two men, somewhat easy-going and carefree. She is also clearly different from their respective wives.
Fosse uses first-person narration. There are generally two ways of doing first-person narration: the narrator telling his/her story in a fairly straightforward way and stream of consciousness. Fosse hovers between the two. We do get a more or less conventional narration but he also shows us Asle 1’s innermost thoughts in a quasi-stream of consciousness approach. This technique works very well. Continuous stream of consciousness can often be hard work for the reader but it is not here.
Fosse has famously said that you do not read his novels for the plot which is certainly true. However, there is a plot to this novel. we see the relationship between Asle 1 and Asle 2 as well as the relationship between Asle 1 and Åsleik.We see episodes from the past lives of both men. We see Asle 1 finding and assisting Asle 2 and what happens next.
However, what makes this book so worthwhile are the thoughts of Asle 1, including his relationship with Asle 2, his views on his painting, his religious views, his relationship with Åsleik and what happens when he finds Asle 2 in the snow. Fosse gets into the mind and soul of Asle 1 in a way that makes this book a first-class read.
First published in 2019 by De Samlaget
First published in English in 2020 by Fitzcarraldo
Translated by Damion Searls