Book review: Fosse’s Melancholy circles madness

Book covers for Melancholy by Jon Fosse

The differences between covers in and out of the U.S. is itself quite telling. The Italian cover (left), like the Norwegian one, uses Hertervig’s“From Borgøya,” which creates a connection to the artist.

Christine Foster Meloni
Washington, D.C.

Jon Fosse’s Melancholy becomes a much more interesting novel when the reader knows that the main character, Lars Hertervig, actually existed. In fact, Hertervig is considered one of Norway’s leading painters. This book is Fosse’s homage to him.

In 1996 one of Hertervig’s paintings, “Fjord Landscape,” was sold at auction for 3.2 million kroner (equivalent to approximately half a million dollars) and set a record for a Norwegian painting.

Hertervig was born in Hattarvågen on the western coast of Norway, north of Stavanger, in 1830. He came from a family of Quaker farmers. Life for the Quakers at that time was difficult because their beliefs were frequently in conflict with Lutheranism, the state religion.

In addition to experiencing religious intolerance, the family also suffered from extreme poverty. Hertervig did get a break, however, at an early age. When his family moved to town, he became an apprentice in a paint shop. He fell in love with paint and painted on any small surface he could find. Some local businessmen noticed his talent and sent him first to an art school in Christiania (Oslo) and then to Dusseldorf, Germany, where other Norwegian landscape artists had established themselves. But in Dusseldorf he suffered a mental breakdown. Fosse begins his novel at this point. Without some background about the artist, it could be boring beyond belief.

Melancholy is divided into three parts. The first part represents one day in Hertervig’s life. He is obsessing about his talent as an artist and his love for his landlady’s daughter Helene.

He is about to meet his teacher that day to receive his evaluation. He stays in bed at home as he is racked by fear and doubt. What would his teacher say? Is he a good painter? Yes, he is. No, he isn’t. He goes on, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. The excessive repetition of his thoughts makes the reader’s head spin.

What about Helene? He loves her. Does she love him? Maybe she does. Maybe she doesn’t. Will she run away with him? Does she love her uncle instead? Again the interminable repetition.

Hertervig eventually gets up and leaves the house. He decides to go to Malkasten, the Norwegian artists’ hangout in Dusseldorf. Here he is cruelly teased by his fellow painters. They jokingly tell him that Helene is waiting for him. He begins to hallucinate. He sees her. She is calling to him. He also sees black and white clothes dancing before his eyes. These clothes come closer and closer. They begin to suffocate him.

He goes back to the house. He has the same thoughts as before. He goes back to Malkasten. He has the same thoughts and the same hallucinations.

In Part II we find Hertervig back in Norway three years later. He is in an asylum and it is Christmas Eve. He is not doing well. He is still fixated on Helene. He wants to paint, but he is not allowed to do so.

In Part III the reader jumps ahead to 1991 and meets the Norwegian writer Vidme who has had “the experience of his life” when he happens upon one of Hertervig’s paintings, “From Borgøya,” in the National Gallery in Oslo. Vidme rambles on about this experience, and he does not seem to be mentally stable, either. Is Vidme a person who actually existed, or is he Fosse’s creation, perhaps to represent himself?

This book can serve as a unique introduction for non-Norwegians to the great Norwegian Romantic landscape artist, “The Painter of Light.” The constant repetition in the book can be a major put-off but its cumulative effect can also be quite powerful, especially if one imagines what might have been happening in the mind of the artist.

After leaving the asylum, Hertervig continued to paint, but he died in poverty in 1902. He was not completely forgotten, however. To mark the 100th anniversary of his birth, a special exhibition of his works was held in Stavanger and a statue of the artist was erected there. The first biography of his life was published in 1939.

His works became the centerpiece of the art museum established in Stavanger in 1991. Fosse wrote Melancholy in 1995. In 2006 Georg Friedrich Haas wrote the music for the opera “Melancholia” with the libretto by Fosse.

Lars Hertervig lives on, and Jon Fosse has made a major contribution to keeping his memory alive.

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emeritus 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 is interested in all things Norwegian.

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 29, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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Christine Foster Meloni

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, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.