Book Review: Simple prose for profound thoughts
Christine Foster Meloni
Morning and Evening by Jon Fosse (trans. Damion Searls). Dalkey Archive Press, 2015.
Jon Fosse is a master at making the mundane compelling. He puts us into the heads of his characters and succeeds in making their dull, repetitive monologues interesting.
In the first chapter of his short novel Morning and Evening, we listen in on the thoughts of Olai as he nervously awaits the birth of his son. He is a poor fisherman but he ponders issues worthy of a serious philosopher.
He considers the miracle of birth, how his little son comes from nothing and will become a person. But then, at the end of his life, he will dissolve again into nothingness. Does life, therefore, have meaning?
He worries that his wife will die in childbirth, and the baby too. But would God be so evil? No, Olai decides, He would not, but God is not all powerful. Satan is powerful, too, and probably the real ruler on earth.
Olai is relieved when all goes well and he has a healthy baby boy, whom he names Johannes after his own father.
Fosse then takes us immediately, in the second and final chapter, to the last day in the life of Johannes. We learn that he married a woman named Erna and they had a happy although difficult life. They were blessed with seven children. He is now a widower.
He wakes up one morning and feels different. He gets up and does what he does every day. But:
He thinks that everything is somehow what it is and at the same time different, all things are normal things but they have become somehow dignified, and golden, and heavy, as though they weighed much more than themselves and at the same time had no weight.
Fosse has us accompany Johannes throughout his very ordinary day. We observe what he does and thinks in excruciating detail. Although these details are not inherently very exciting, one feels pulled inevitably along by the rhythm that Fosse succeeds in creating.
One of the highlights of his day is when Johannes runs into his old friend Peter. They go out fishing in Peter’s boat. Johannes, however, becomes confused at a certain point because he knows that Peter died a long time ago. But he can see Peter so clearly.
[Johannes] shakes his head and he thinks that he should have just asked Peter whether he was dead or alive, but he can’t do that, you can’t just ask someone something like that, that’s a bit much, Johannes thinks, no, really, to ask someone something like that, it’s indecent, Johannes thinks, and he doesn’t understand how he could think Peter was dead because isn’t he standing right here in front of him, alive? he is, he absolutely is…
Peter must be alive so Johannes stops wondering whether he is or not. They continue to fish for crabs and then return to shore with their catch. But then Peter suddenly disappears. One minute he was there, and then he was gone.
Johannes decides it is time for him to go home. It has been “a terrible day.” Everything has been the same but also different.
He dreads going home to his empty house. He begins thinking about how happy he had been when Erna was always waiting for him at the end of a long, hard day. But hark! Are those footsteps he hears coming toward him? Yes! It is Erna!
Johannes takes Erna’s hand and he feels that her hand is cold, her hand is not warm at all, and then Erna leads Johannes up the road …
However, Erna too soon disappears and Johannes sadly enters his empty house.
Later that evening his daughter comes to visit him. She finds him dead in his bed. She calls the doctor who informs her that Johannes probably died peacefully in his bed that morning.
Fosse is gradually becoming better known in the United States. He is definitely a writer well worth reading for his simple, natural—and, yes, often boring—prose that makes us think deeply about life’s complexities.
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 Jan. 29, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.