Jon Fosse’s Search for Peace

The Hardangerfjord, the second-largest fjord in Norway, carves its way from the North Sea into the distant mountains of Vestland. About halfway up the fjord, where the light on the shore is dark, and the dark of the water is silvered by light, lies the village of Strandebarm. It is home to the Fosse Foundation, an organization dedicated to Jon Fosse—novelist, essayist, and one of the most produced contemporary playwrights in Europe—who was born there, in 1959. The members of the foundation meet in a small gray prayerhouse overlooking the curve of the harbor; a waterfall runs down the black rock face behind it. Down the road from the foundation are two white houses: the house that Fosse grew up in, where his mother still lives, and the house that belonged to his grandparents.

This August, the Fosse Foundation hosted a lunch for the translators, publishers, and journalists who had gathered to attend the Jon Fosse International Symposium. On the top floor, a fiddler played a waltz on the Hardanger fiddle, which is strung with four top strings and, underneath them, four sympathetic strings, which vibrate according to the notes played on top. On the bottom floor, visitors could walk through an exhibit by the textile artist Åse Ljones, who had stitched sentences from Fosse’s writings into sheets, handkerchiefs, and nightgowns. A member of the Fosse Foundation held up one of Ljones’s sheets and asked any one of Fosse’s six translators to translate it. Words were hazarded, corrections grumbled under the breath. There was a sense of competition, of covetousness in the air.

The word that comes to mind to describe all this—the light, the music, the sacred waters, the sacred garments—is “pilgrimage.” One rarely sees living writers treated with such reverence. “I am just a strange guy from the western part of Norway, from the rural part of Norway,” Fosse told me. He grew up a mixture of a communist and an anarchist, a “hippie” who loved playing the fiddle and reading in the countryside. He enrolled at the University of Bergen, where he studied comparative literature and started writing in Nynorsk, the written standard specific to the rural regions of the west. His first novel, “Red, Black,” was published in 1983, followed throughout the next three decades by “Melancholy I” and “Melancholy II,” “Morning and Evening,” “Aliss at the Fire,” and “Trilogy.” After a wildly successful and hectic period during which he worked almost exclusively as a playwright, Fosse converted to Catholicism in 2012, quit drinking, and remarried. He then started writing “Septology,” a seven-volume novel written in a single sentence and exemplifying what he has described as his turn to “slow prose.” (The book was translated, by Damion Searls, for Fitzcarraldo Editions, in the U.K.; a U.S. edition is out this month, from Transit Books.) The narrator of “Septology” is a painter named Asle, a convert to Catholicism, grieving the death of his wife, Ales. The night before Christmas Eve, Asle finds his friend, also a painter named Asle, unconscious in an alley in Bergen, dying of alcohol poisoning. Their memories double, repeat, and gradually blur into a single voice, a diffuse consciousness capable of existing in many times and places at once.

To read Fosse’s plays and novels is to enter into communion with a writer whose presence one feels all the more intensely owing to his air of reserve, his withdrawal. His plays, whose characters usually have generic names—the Man, the Woman, Mother, Child—seize upon the intensity of our primordial relations and are by turns bleak and comic. “Septology” is the only novel I have read that has made me believe in the reality of the divine, as the fourteenth-century theologian Meister Eckhart, whom Fosse has read intently, describes it: “It is in darkness that one finds the light, so when we are in sorrow, then this light is nearest of all to us.” None of the comparisons to other writers seem right. Bernhard? Too aggressive. Beckett? Too controlling. Ibsen? “He is the most destructive writer I know,” Fosse claims. “I feel that there’s a kind of—I don’t know if it’s a good English word—but a kind of reconciliation in my writing. Or, to use the Catholic or Christian word, peace.”

Fosse had not come on the outing to the Hardangerfjord, but he had attended the dinner hosted by the Norwegian Ministry of Culture the night before, in Bergen, where the Norwegian Foreign Minister had quoted Ludwig Wittgenstein: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” We chatted over dinner, then met again at the House of Literature, in the Fosse Room, where a black-and-white mural of Fosse’s face benevolently looked down at us. More than the mural, Fosse resembled his description of Asle: long gray ponytail, black overcoat, black shoes, snuffbox in his pocket. He seemed at times pained by the need to speak, yet entirely self-assured in what he said. Often, during our conversation, I felt the same competing impulses to which his writing gives rise: both curiosity and protectiveness toward the man behind the words; both skepticism and faith in his mystical descriptions of how he writes fiction. He struck me, above all, as a profoundly kind person, as expressed by his willingness to speak about everything: grace, love, jealousy, and peace, his near-death experiences, and his love of translating. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

You do not grant many face-to-face interviews.

I prefer to do interviews by e-mail. I feel that it’s often easier to write, even in English, than to speak.

I have interviewed several writers who claim that the reason they write is because they cannot speak.

Yes, it’s a bit like that for me. The man from the foreign department quoted Wittgenstein: What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence. You know this famous twist by Jacques Derrida: “What you cannot say, you have to write.” That’s closer to the way I think about it.

Derrida is extremely present in your early essays in “An Angel Walks Through the Stage.” One can sense his patterns of thought in many of your plays and novels, particularly around the play of speech and silence.

I started studying Derrida back in 1979. At least here in Norway, the university, or the spirit of the university, was very influenced by Marxism. We had an extreme Maoist party that was very strong among academics and writers and folks like that. It was the spirit of the time, even for me. I started studying sociology. And I felt like it was completely stupid. This way of thinking, this positivistic way of calculating things—it was nothing at all. So I jumped over to philosophy. And there was a big change in those years from Marx to the French post-structuralists. I remember reading Derrida for the first time, in the Norwegian countryside somewhere. It was a Danish translation of “Of Grammatology.”

“Of Grammatology” somehow had an influence on me. You have read Martin Heidegger’s “Sein und Zeit.” I studied and read Heidegger very much. It was difficult, but also very inspiring. I felt that what Derrida was doing was turning Heidegger on his head. The main question for Heidegger was: what is common to everything that exists? The main question for Derrida was the opposite: what makes all that exists different? And I thought that the act of writing is something very peculiar. It’s not like talking. It’s something different, very different. And that also gave me a kind of connection, of course, to Derrida and his concept of writing.

And then I started studying comparative literature. By then, I had already written my first novel and various literary things. The theory of the novel was my main subject. These theories always had the narrator as the basic concept: narrator, person, character, the relation between their points of view. And they are important enough, but still I felt that the basic concept for a theory of fiction ought not to be the narrator, which derives from the oral tradition. It ought to be the writer. The way I thought of the writer was as the bodily part of what was written, the materiality that went into your writing. And I wanted to write my own small theory of narration or of written fiction with the writer as the main concept.

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