Jon Fosse’s The Other Name: Septology I–II

Book review

Photo: Håkon Mosvold Larsen / NTB scanpix
Jon Fosse, born 1959, is one of Norway’s most prominent authors and dramatists.

Brooklyn, N.Y.

On the morning of March 10, I took a taxi to work. It was the start of a new, quasi-luxurious routine put in place by my workplace to better protect employees from the novel coronavirus. I entered the cab with a copy of Norwegian writer Jon Fosse’s newest novel, The Other Name: Septology I-II, buckled my seatbelt, opened the book, and became distracted by the car radio reporting coverage of the virus, so I put the book down, and looked out the window at the Manhattan skyline along the waterfront, and I thought that now just wasn’t the time to read. So I waited two weeks until I was at home, like so many others, ambulating around closed doors attempting to situate myself in a new, hopefully momentary normal to begin the book again.

Books are a source of fascination and exploration for many on a normal day, but now, given the daily constraints and challenges, they are ever more so. Fosse’s The Other Name is no exception. It supplies an immediate, matter-of-fact entry to another space and time. This is not merely fortuitous, given the unusual timing of its publication; it is the effect of a precise and well-practiced prose, arguably one of the most recognizable in Norwegian literature.

The Other Name is a free fall into the life of Asle, a reflective painter and widower, who lives by the sea in Dylgja, experiencing the world with a practicable and intense focus. He is accompanied by a small group of friends: Åsleik, a neighbor and fisherman-farmer; Beyer, a gallerist who exhibits his work; and a second Asle, also a painter but who lives south of Dylgja in the nearest city of Bjørgvin. It is with this second Asle where most of the book unfolds, as Asle, the narrator, is often in transit physically or mentally to visit him. This second Asle, it should be noted, is strangely a doppelgänger; in fact, the two practically live mirror-image lives. For an additional layer of abstraction, while the narrator is in transit to visit Asle, he is engaged spiritually and in memory often with his deceased wife, Ales. Between and among all of the interactions with his friends, Asle floats between reality and remembrance as though the two are an inseparable pairing. Asle paints, drives alongside the fjords, goes shopping, formulates plans for his nights and days, and reminisces all the while on the various stages of his life: childhood, adolescence, adulthood. The unforeseen meanderings of Asle take readers to joyous, surreal, awkward, and private moments, all of which pass as quickly as they are introduced.

Readers familiar with Fosse’s earlier novels, Aliss at the Fire and Trilogy especiallywill recognize the reuse of a few key character names like Asle, Åsleik, and Alida as well as places Bjørgvin and Dylgja. What feels like a revisiting of these particular people and places between novels may be assumed to be intentional, but the legitimacy of connecting it all—the detective work required for the task—may be beyond the point.

Fosse’s reuse of names and places, even within each novel itself, creates a hypnotic space to explore, one that feels strangely familiar, yet distant, like you are merely looking in for a moment on a story already set in motion. The oft-used, ambiguous term “Lynchian” comes to mind but “Fossian” may be just as fitting a description for such an off-beat cultural élan. 

“And I see myself standing and looking” are the opening words to Fosse’s 1,200-page Septology. They jump start the Other Name at a pace that never slackens. Undoubtedly, the unceasing pace is a familiar quality of Fosse’s work, but it is most formidably demonstrated in The Other Name, as the 336 pages of books I-II take the form of just one incomplete sentence! The predictability of Fosse’s prose may be his weakest side, but with his novel use of form, his enduring style is taken to new levels. 

The reader, inside the headspace of the narrator from the start, is guided throughout by a tricky shifting between first- and third-person perspectives. This back-and-forth writing, a subtle rocking like a boat on waves, evokes a constant spatial shifting from Asle’s inner life to his surroundings. This tug-of-war of perspective is not jagged; on the contrary, it has a fluid quality, swirling together perspectives that traditionally might be given their own space to unfold. Rather than sharply switching from one mode to another, this fluid shifting becomes almost hypnotic.

This weaving in and out allows for smooth transitions between Asle’s different states of contemplation. Thoughts on loss, love, art, and religion—such immense facets of life—become sewn together with typically banal acts like driving, walking, and eating to create balance, accentuating the restless stream of Asle’s thinking instead of emphasizing some sort of hierarchy of his thoughts. This surreal, continuously shaping structure allows for an examination of life as it is lived, one that might feel strongly familiar to the reader’s own experience.

In typical Fossian fashion, The Other Name maintains a steady pulse of simplicity and repetitiveness. Although some readers might find this seemingly simple writing stale, Fosse finds a way around the usual critique. The simplicity of the language (Nynorsk for Norwegian readers) creates space for the reader to exist alongside Asle. With Fosse’s spare depictions of place and sparse dialogue, room is left for the reader to reflect on what may be left unsaid. For perceptive readers, “Dylgja” may stick out and compel a deeper inquiry, as the nynorsk word used here as a location is a verb that can mean “hide, keep secret” in norrønt (Old Norse) dialect.

Within the essence of the double lives and meanings coating the book, Asle may be read as a blurry depiction, a meditation on Fosse himself: an aging artist with long gray hair having chosen to abstain from alcohol and recently converting to Catholicism. It aligns so well, but of course, in Fossian fashion, the ambiguity outweighs the surety of self-depiction or exploration, a vehicle of writing currently in vogue for many of Norway’s esteemed writers. No, Fosse, who has acknowledged his own reticence to write of his own experience, is seemingly within his own category of literature. His style remains predictable but solely his own.

Jon Fosse was born in 1959 in Haugesund, Norway, and has worked steadily as a playwright, novelist, poet, essayist, and professor. He has received numerous literary and artistic honors in Norway and abroad for his esteemed works including the Brage Prize, the Nordic Council Literature Prize, the International Ibsen Award, the European Prize for Literature, the Chevalier of the Ordre national du Mérite, among others. 

In addition, Fosse has been granted residency in Grotten, originally home to Norwegian Poet Henrik Wergeland, which is an honor bestowed by the King of Norway for those who contribute greatly to the Norwegian arts. The Other Name has been longlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize, hopefully earning Fosse and translator, Damion Searls, more U.S. and U.K. readers. The Other Name was published in English on April 7 by Transit Books. On May 13, 2020, The Other Name was awarded the Nynorsk litteraturpris (Nynorsk Literature Prize) for 2019, an annual prize given by Noregs Mållag, the primary national organization for the promotion and development of nynorsk, with support from Det Norske Teatret and Det Norske Samlaget.

The following two sections, Septology III-IV: I am Another, will be published in spring 2021. 

Leif Larson lives and writes in Red Hook, Brooklyn, N.Y. Born and raised in McFarland, Wis., Larson stays in touch with his Norwegian heritage via family relatives and translated literature. Larson received a degree in music from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, prior to moving to New York and has since focused on writing and filmmaking.

This article originally appeared in the June 12, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.