Septology by Jon Fosse. Translated by Damion Searls. Fitzcarraldo: London, 2022. Paperback. 832pp. £16.99.
An old joke says that every Norwegian speaks four languages, three of which are Norwegian. The best part of the joke is that it’s true, or was until recently. Beside their native regional dialects, Norwegians have generally had to learn a foreign language just to get along in the world, plus their historic written language which (due to four centuries of political domination by Denmark) was (and remains) essentially a dialect of Danish. But on top of those there was Nynorsk, “New Norwegian,” a language compounded from several west Norwegian dialects by the poet Ivar Aasen (1813-1896) in an ecstasy of National Romantic fervor. The idea was to reverse-engineer Norwegian as it might have been if the Danes had never meddled with it.
Nynorsk is still an official alternate language in Norway, though enthusiasm for the project is waning, I’m told. Dreams of recapturing Viking Age glories poll poorly with today’s population. In spite of that, even its critics acknowledge Nynorsk’s beauty and expressiveness. So when any author chooses to write in Nynorsk, he’s making an implicit statement about both traditional culture and aesthetics. He’s also embracing a sort of alternate history, which fits very well with Jon Fosse’s 2023 Nobel Prize-winning, multi-volume novel in Nynorsk, Septology.
The narrator of Septology is Asle, a regionally famous Norwegian painter. Asle has been socially isolated since the death of his much-mourned wife Ales (they both felt it significant that their names were anagrams). He lives in a village outside Bjørgvin (Bergen); the gallery owner who sells his paintings and his irascible old neighbor Åsleik are almost his only human contacts. But he worries constantly about another friend, also named Asle, also a painter, whom the reader gradually begins to suspect is none other than Asle himself—he looks the same, wears the same clothes, and seems to have the same origins. Is our narrator delusional, and thus unreliable? In fact, it becomes apparent that Namesake Asle does have a slightly different story—unlike Narrator Asle he never gave up drinking, and he’s been through two divorces. But in that case, why does Narrator Asle know all of Namesake Asle’s memories?
Asle’s style of painting is never precisely described. He abandoned realism and a bright palette, he tells us, to concentrate on grays and blacks and other dark colors—but he insists this was for the sake of light. He paints, he says, in a perpetual quest to evoke some transcendent brightness that he perceives in his darkest, thickest black brushstrokes. His art doesn’t appear to be purely abstract either, however,he can paint a recognizable portrait that pleases its subject. I couldn’t help thinking, as I read, of Cubism, and its attempts to display reality from multiple points of view. Septology depicts Asle himself from various temporal angles—not only through braiding present events through his memories, but also through presenting Asle himself in two alternate lifelines, two different realities. A woman Asle keeps encountering, with “blonde, medium-length hair” shows up at various times and places in his life under different guises, but usually (not always) with the same name. At last she appears as the sister of Åsleik, Asle’s neighbor. The two men take a boat to visit her for Christmas, crossing the Sygne (Sogne-) Fjord. Åsleik’s name means “game of the gods,” and he seems here to assume the function of a psychopomp.
Early in the book, Narrator Asle stumbles on Namesake Asle, drunk and unconscious in the snow, and gets him to the hospital. He then adopts Namesake Asle’s little dog, Bragi, a lively creature named after the Old Norse god of poetry. But the reader can’t help noticing that Asle frequently neglects the animal, and feeds him poorly.
It’s impossible to review Septology without discussing its idiosyncratic prose. Septology is not the kind of book you praise for its limpid, evocative language. Fosse’s prose must be wrestled with, and will certainly scare many readers off. First of all, there’s not a single period in the entire work. It’s all one long sentence (and the book itself is long), making it something like an extended country drive where you look for a rest stop or a gas station, but finally just pull onto the shoulder for a break. The form is stream-of-consciousness, but don’t come expecting James Joyce. This is the stream-of-consciousness of an inarticulate man, one who struggles with words, who thinks in images. The limited vocabulary (like Asle’s limited palette) and the cyclical repetitions evoke a compulsive, ruminative mind—a mind constantly groping to resolve some undefined puzzle.
…actually to put it in other words it’s like in a weird way both life and death are things you can understand but not with thoughts, this light understands it in a way, and life, and paintings, I think, get their meaning from their connection to this light…
…and when we talk together we do have to use words, but words can say so little, almost nothing, and the less they say the more they say, in a way…
The intention may be to remind us of brush strokes, countless small brushstrokes one atop the other, blending and coalescing into a cumulative, aggregate image, perhaps an abstract one. The light is in the darkness; the answers are in the questions:
…because that’s how it is, that’s how it almost always is, what’s beautiful in life turns out bad in a painting because it’s like there’s too much beauty, a good picture needs something bad in it in order to shine the way it should, it needs darkness in it…
The prose in Septology, though challenging, can prove immersive for the reader willing to engage with it. We may not always be sure what’s going on, but we come to know Asle pretty well. Readers accustomed to the contemporary, Hemingwayesque fashion for economy of expression will feel disoriented; here is the polar opposite. Asle reminded me of a couple men I’ve worked for—they had trouble stating their wishes plainly; you had to watch them closely for contextual clues.
What first piqued my interest in Jon Fosse was reading that, like Sigrid Undset, he is a Norwegian convert to Roman Catholicism. Although I remain obstinately Lutheran myself, I’ve found much to appreciate in the writings of Catholic authors over the years, and I’m especially in love with Undset.
But here too Fosse confounds assumptions. The theology he expresses through Asle is as unlike Undset’s orthodoxy as Fosse’s tenebrous prose is unlike her verbal lucidity. Asle’s theology is broad—there are many ways to God, he declares. Catholicism is his chosen option because it was Ales’, and he wants to share everything of hers. His favorite theologian is Meister Eckhart, whom he quotes frequently. God, he declares, does not actually exist, because existence is a contingent condition, and God is beyond such things.
On the other hand (and this may be crucial), Asle is capable of waxing (awkwardly) lyrical about the doctrine of the incarnation, in which he glimpses an answer to his artistic questions: “…what makes it good is not the material, not matter, and it’s not the content, the idea, the thought, no, what makes it good is just this unity of matter and form and soul that becomes spirit, I think…”
Asle views (very insightfully, I think) the creative process as essentially a religious struggle, an attempt to express the inexpressible. Art incarnates things we can’t grasp in words or images, but must encounter almost accidentally, in epiphanic passing moments, what he calls “the wordless prayer of painting…” The individual painting that’s central to Septology is one he finishes at the very start of the book, without even knowing it’s finished. He vacillates between judging it a failure to be discarded or one for the special collection he reserves for himself; perhaps the two categories aren’t so different. The painting is a simple letter X, streaked in dark colors on a white canvas. He intends to do more with it, but can’t think of anything to add. Finally, he declares it finished and discovers that he’s lost all motivation to paint again. His itch, so to speak, has been scratched. The agnostic Åsgeir informs him that this final image is a St. Andrew’s Cross. It’s the last painting he’ll ever paint, and he completes it just before Christmas, the feast of the Nativity.
In spite of Asle’s difficulties with verbal expression and his rejection of labels, he is scrupulous to title each of his paintings. He writes each title in thick, black paint on the back of its frame, like Adam naming the beasts in Paradise, and that is the name thereof. The epigraph of Septology (whose three constituent volumes are called The Other Name, I Is Another, and A New Name), is Revelation 2:17: “And I will give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name written, which no one knows except him who receives it.”
Translation, when present, is always an issue for the reader. The task of Fosse’s translator, Damion Searls, was easy in one sense, but dauntingly difficult in another, I would imagine. As a Norwegian translator myself, I was interested to examine the original text. In terms of sheer faithfulness, I have to say this is probably as accurate a translation as you’ll ever encounter. The book’s vocabulary, as already mentioned, is limited, and the same phrases repeat again and again. Literary effects are produced, not through subtle phrasing and word selection, but through multiple iterations.
One great challenge for the translator must have been the sheer size of the work. This is a long, long book offering few narrative landmarks. Yet delicate touches are apparent, for instance, the translation of the name of the Sygnesjø, the mouth of the Sognefjord, as Sygne Sea—it’s literally correct, but the word “sea” also evokes the biblical Sheol, the great abyss. Asle crosses it on his final journey. He says, “there’s more of God in the sea than in the earth on land…”
My sole quibble with the translation is the repeated use of the word “yes” as an interjection. The Norwegian word “ja” is indeed frequently tossed into casual Norwegian conversation, and Fosse uses it repeatedly that way in his text. But in my own translation work, I’ve always chosen to render it as a variety of terms—sometimes, “well,” sometimes, “all right,” etc. This isn’t merely a stylistic choice. Norwegian, like so many languages, has far fewer words in its cupboard than English does, which means each word carries wider ranges of meaning and needs to be translated differently depending on context. Using “yes” over and over, in my opinion, sounds awkward and fails to convey the speaker’s sense. But that’s a subjective choice, one I imagine Searls wrestled with. He knows what he’s doing; he surely had his reasons.
Septology is, as mentioned, a three-volume work, yet each volume is subdivided to make up the total of seven implied by the general title. Is the author’s purpose to remind us of the perfection of the Holy Trinity, the frame (as it were) for the Incarnation? It would be presumptuous to make such an assertion. But it is suggestive. And “suggestive” is a good word to describe Septology as a whole.
Fosse said in his Nobel Lecture: “It is not the parts themselves that are important, it is the totality, which also must be in every single detail—or perhaps I may dare to talk about the spirit of the totality, a spirit that in a way speaks from both close and far away.” We are accustomed, in literature, to look for complex subtext underlying apparently straightforward narrative. It may be that Septology is a different kind of exercise—a seemingly chaotic narrative concealing a highly coherent subtext.
Lars Walker is a native of Kenyon, Minnesota. He is a retired academic librarian and has translated a number of film and TV scripts, as well as a book of history, from Norwegian to English. He is the author of several historical fantasy novels, the latest of which is King of Rogaland. He lives in Robbinsdale, Minnesota.