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Mystical Realism

On Jon Fosse.

Gregory Wolfe is the publisher and editor of Slant Books. Among his own books are Beauty Will Save the World, Intruding Upon the Timeless, and The Operation of Grace.

Sometimes the Swedish Academy actually gets the Nobel Prize in Literature right, as it did this year when it gave the award to Jon Fosse. The Norwegian playwright and novelist doesn’t represent any particular identity or ideology: he is an introverted writer from rural western Norway who likes hiking in the forest and messing around in small boats on the fjord. Nor is he anything at all like his former student, Karl Ove Knausgård, the poster child for “autofiction,” where a blend of memoir and fiction circle around the author’s quotidian life, often at great length and rarely to memorable effect. 

This is not to say that Fosse isn’t a writer of considerable intellectual passions and stylistic creativity. For many years he was a prolific playwright; it is said that his plays have been staged nearly a thousand times, the vast majority in Europe. But a little over a decade ago, feeling burned out with his theater work, he turned full-time to fiction writing. Around the same time he came to the conclusion that he had a serious alcohol problem and stopped drinking. The third major change was his reception into the Roman Catholic Church.

On this side of the Atlantic, the buzz about Fosse began with the publication of what may turn out to be his fictional magnum opus, Septology—a novel in seven parts (as its title indicates) but published in three volumes in a highly regarded translation by Damion Searls.

The opening words of Septology are:

And I see myself standing and looking at the picture with two lines that cross in the middle, one purple line, one brown line, it’s a painting wider than it is high and I see that I’ve painted the lines slowly, the paint is thick, two long wide lines, and they’ve dripped, where the brown line and purple line cross the colors blend beautifully and I’m thinking this isn’t a picture but suddenly the picture is the way it’s supposed to be, it’s done, there’s nothing more to do on it I think, it’s time to put it away, I don’t want to stand here at the easel any more, I don’t want to look at it any more

These words are spoken—or perhaps more accurately, thought—by Asle, a widower and a renowned painter who lives alone with his memories and who receives an occasional visit from his friend, Asleik, a gruff farmer and fisherman who motors over on his tractor for a shared meal. As the excerpt indicates—beginning mid-thought with a conjunction—we are immersed directly into Asle’s head in a sentence that will literally never end, as the final words of Septology also break off mid-stride. Fosse has called his style “slow prose”; his translator says “Fosse writes pure, repetitive, musical phrases in a stripped-down vocabulary.”

Some have compared Fosse to Samuel Beckett, but the Norwegian’s prose is far more accessible than the Irishman’s. No doubt it owes much to the strain of modernism that tends toward minimalism, but the spirit and intent of this stripping down is more warmly human and approachable than that of his twentieth-century influences. Fosse might be considered an acquired taste, but the bar of entry isn’t high: Septology is the kind of novel that teaches you how to read it. The mental adjustment is entirely manageable.

Asle’s painting—which his friend Asleik calls a “St. Andrew’s cross”—carries some of Septology’s symbolic and thematic weight. It’s a sort of “X marks the spot” that conjures the fatefulness of certain key crossroads in our lives, where very different directions can be taken. This becomes clear fairly early on when we are introduced to another “Asle,” this one a painter who has succumbed to alcoholism and endured a painful divorce. Fosse explains: “I began with one main character, but the two Asles separated as I wrote. They are the same, and they are not the same. That’s the basic concept of the novel. You could say it’s a classic doppelgänger novel.”

The cross painting also evokes the crucifixion as Asle spends much of the novel struggling with loss and loneliness and the mysteries of his newfound Catholic faith. Fosse has said that his primary theological influence is Meister Eckhart, the medieval mystical theologian who explored the furthest reaches of apophatic or “negative” theology. The novelist Jonathan Geltner makes the connection between Eckhart and Septology: “The question posed in Septology is how to evacuate the ego and arrive in the emptiness where God may be received.”

Read in this light, Fosse’s “repetitive, musical phrases” attains to an almost liturgical form (and they are supplemented by Asle’s attempts to pray the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Jesus Prayer). Geltner writes of Fosse’s narrative style: “It is not merely the representation of the consciousness of one man: it is the representation of everything as consciousness, or what it may finally be more accurate to call the spirit.” Or as Fosse put it: “Everything I’ve written can perhaps be called a sort of mystical realism⁠—not ‘magical,’ but mystical⁠.”