Book Review: Jon Fosse’s essays reveal man & writer
Christine Foster Meloni
Jon Fosse decided in 1999 that he had to choose between writing fiction (novels and plays) and non-fiction (theoretical essays). He felt that the languages of fiction and of theory were completely different and that he was better at writing fiction. From then on, therefore, he wrote only fiction (with the exception of one essay in 2000).
He certainly underestimated his own talents, however, as his two books of essays, From Telling to Showing to Writing (1989) and Gnostic Essays (1999), contain many brilliant pieces of writing.
An Angel Walks Through the Stage, a collection of 28 essays from these two books, presents Fosse’s reflections on literature and the theater and on his own writing.
Fosse traces the historical development of the novel in the first essay, “From Telling to Showing to Writing,” focusing on the three phases of telling, showing, and writing. In the pre-modern novel, the oral narrator was at the center of the text and told the story. In the modern novel there was no longer a narrator who was elevated above the story but rather one or more characters who showed the story from their point of view. In the post-modern novel the narrator is the writer, the one who writes the story.
What is particularly intriguing about this essay as well as some of the others in the book is how similar the language is to that in his post-modern fiction with its repetitions and lengthy sentences. When he decided to renounce non-fiction, he perhaps felt that he was not able to separate what he saw as the different languages of the two genres.
In “Literature,” Fosse explains why he dislikes books but loves literature. He seems to get himself into trouble, however, as he tries to explain the difference between a good book and good literature. He makes many interesting points but all the while he reminds us of his opening sentence, “I belong to those who suffer from ambivalence.” He is well aware of his own contradictions.
He focuses on specific writers in several of his essays. In “For the Sun to Rise,” he wonders why it was necessary for the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein to move to Norway, “to practically take up residence in the middle of this philosophy-barren landscape of ours with its mountains and fjords that we are so hopelessly bound to, so marked by, deep inside, body and soul.”
Why, Fosse asks, did Wittgenstein choose to isolate himself high in the mountains in Skjolden, Norway? Was it because suicide was always on the philosopher’s mind and his cottage was located “where one big leap was enough to land him in the deep cold fjord”? Why would someone who yearned for the sun to rise, as revealed in The Unknown Diary, want to take up residence in a land with such long, dark winters?
Fosse marvels in his essay “The Demoniacal Writer” at how misunderstood Henrik Ibsen is in his own country. He considers him “the blackest and most demonic author” he has ever encountered. Norwegians have, however, transformed him into “a controllable spokesman for various causes, such as feminism, despite the fact that it would be difficult to imagine a less instructive writer than Ibsen.” Fosse attributes to Ibsen “utter, pure destruction.”
The personal essays in the book shed light on Fosse’s own writing process. In “A Kind of Listening in the Dark,” he explores how he starts his writing by going in one direction without knowing where he is heading but he continues toward a wholeness until he reaches it. This would make one believe that writing comes easily to Fosse.
In “Old Houses,” he talks about how he can write in some houses and not in others. He particularly likes old houses because they have a soul. Even if he is in a house where he can write, he may not be able to write in all of the rooms of that house. His ideal writing room is “a room where almost all energy is turned outwards, to me that would be, a man of the sea as I am, a room with a view to the sea, to the fjord or the ocean.” He concludes by saying that he actually has such a room and has done almost all of his recent writing in it.
The work that gives this collection of essays its title refers to an expression used in Hungary. An angel is said to walk through the stage when, during a theatrical performance, the members of the audience suddenly have an illuminating insight that they feel emotionally with their whole being but cannot explain intellectually. One might argue that readers experience a similar feeling, perhaps while reading an essay by Jon Fosse.
This collection certainly offers abundant food for thought. While Fosse deals with a range of topics, he reveals something interesting about himself—the writer and the man—in each essay.
An Angel Walks Through the Stage and Other Essays by Jon Fosse (trans. May-Brit Akerholt). Dalkey Archive Press, 2015.
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 March 4, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.