Book review: “Melancholy II,” a study in mood and meaning

melancholy ii

Christine Foster Meloni
Washington, D.C.

Jon Fosse is one of Norway’s leading writers. He is best known for his plays, which have had success in many countries around the world. He has also written books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in addition to drama.

Language is more important than plot to Fosse. He keeps his words to a minimum, and forward-moving action is painfully slow. Many readers, for this reason, may find him either boring or incomprehensible. But if one focuses on the words and tries to find the rhythm, meaning can be found.

Fosse was an admirer of Lars Hertervig, and his two Melancholia books, Melancholy and Melancholy II, are a tribute to this great Norwegian landscape artist. In Melancholy Fosse traces Hertervig’s descent into madness and his eventual inability to paint. (See a review of Melancholy in NAW, August 29, 2014.)

In Melancholy II Fosse focuses on Hertervig’s sister, Oline, who has been devastated by his death. She is old and ill and living a lonely, sad, and difficult existence. We listen to her thoughts as she trudges through one day of her wretched life.

Nothing much happens. Oline lives by the sea in a house at the top of a steep hill. She complains over and over again about the steepness of the hill, about her aching feet, about her poverty, about her bodily functions. She dwells on the past. She sees her brother, sometimes running, sometimes chopping wood or perhaps painting. She sees other family members, but she is fixated on her unfortunate brother.

She repeats herself over and over again. The reader is almost lulled to sleep by the constant repetition of a limited number of words. But one can feel what this woman feels—extreme fatigue, dazing discouragement, unbearable unhappiness, and overpowering nostalgia. Rather than feel sad for her, however, the reader may feel annoyed and repulsed by this woman. She irritates.

Fosse amazes us with his ability to convey the moods and thoughts of his characters. He creates recognizable environments in which he places real people. While Melancholy II is not a particularly entertaining book, it shows what a master writer can do and it is, therefore, an interesting and important work of literature.

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, DC. She values her Norwegian heritage.

This article originally appeared in the July 17, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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