New Fiction in translation ッ
I IS ANOTHER: Septology III-V
By Jon Fosse (translated by Damion Searls)
Jon Fosse’s I is Another, the second book in his ‘Septology’ series, begins in much the same way as the first. Our protagonist, a painter, is contemplating one of his works:
And I see myself standing and looking at the picture with the two lines, a purple line and a brown line, that cross in the middle
Frankly, your guess is as good as mine – but this painting is certainly an important symbol for me. Not necessarily because of what it means in the novel, but rather what it shows us about the novel. This opening painting, recurring throughout, is a puzzle – one of many in a labyrinth that distorts, confounds, and ultimately teases the reader.
With one eye fixed on another International Booker nomination, Fosse’s second ‘Septology’ maintains his recipe for success – it focuses on Asle, a painter in Bjørgvin (Bergen) in Norway. As he goes about his daily life, Asle’s narrative dips into digressions on art, theology, and selfhood. Fragments of his past simultaneously disrupt this, adding meat to the bare bones of the novel’s present.
Notionally, this is dry stuff. But Fosse waves the wand of formal ingenuity to stave off any encroaching boredom. I Is Another is divided into three parts (numbers three to five in the – pick your jaw up – seven-part ‘Septology’ series), and is one single flowing sentence with paragraph breaks only for dialogue. The prose continues, uninterrupted, even as each part ends.
This could easily be, experimentally, a step too far – concept overstepping its boundaries – but in practice it is anything but. Fosse’s ‘slow prose’ (his term) is simplistic, easily readable, and propelled forward rather than hindered by the lack of sentence breaks. The result is hypnotic, dreamlike prose, which paired with a thematic blend of the commonplace and existential, is powerful stuff. And it’s impressive how well this tonal blend compliments the prose, with great leaps from the banal to the brilliant:
even though I always wear the same rosary I do change the scarf I wear, and I say that I’m absolutely sure I’ve worn all the scarves she’s given me […] for the body is conceived and born, it grows and declines, it dies and vanishes, but the spirit is a unity of body and soul, the way form and content are an invisible unity in a good picture, yes, there’s a spirit in the picture so to speak
Fosse knows how well the two coexist, of course. And he is letting us know that the act of creation (of creative thought) is inextricable from living and breathing. Asle’s craft is inseparable from his life, his sole task being to ‘paint away the pictures he has lodged in his head’.
But not content with deterring new readers by eschewing standard novelistic form, Fosse also deliberately obfuscates the narrative. The novel frequently shifts between first and third-person narration, which, coupled with the absence of sentence breaks, disorients:
after I get to Instefjord and get on the main road to Bjørgvin, it’ll be easier, because those roads will have been cleared, I think and I look at the white road and I see Asle standing in front of Mother and he’s thinking that he can’t stand going to that damn school anymore […] and I look at the white road in front of me and I drive slowly out along Synge Fjordand I see Father standing in front of Asle and he says you’re a good kid
We are gifted with not only a switch in narration, but also in time. Asle drives along a snowy road, and the past continually disrupts the present as memories intrude into Asle’s consciousness. As noted, this is incredibly disorientating, but the switch from first to third is a helpful signifier of time-change. Helpful, except that there are two Asles: Asle has a painter-doppelganger. Why make things easy?
Variations of Asle bleed in and out of the page, continually revising and rewriting his past and present. The formlessness of the prose only drags us deeper into a mire of confusion – and Fosse can help me out here:
I’ve never been a thinker, and the only language I’ve so to speak mastered is the language of pictures, I think, and all my thoughts are sort of jumbled together, it’s like they don’t exist in any order but sort of at the same time
Put simply, the book does not so much construct a coherent narrative as use a series of vignettes, each filling in space on the incomplete canvas. But these images do not stand alone, and Fosse leaves clues on how to interpret his novel:
and I paint the same picture over and over again, yes it’s true, but at the same time every single picture is different, and then all the pictures go together in a series, […] all the paintings I’ve ever painted go together and make up a single picture, I think, it’s like there’s a picture somewhere or other that’s my innermost picture
This is not an explicit metafictional disruption, such as you might find in postmodern fiction, but it certainly hints at the artistic process beyond the page. This here is how Fosse approaches his craft in ‘Septology’: picture upon picture layers. Each fragment teased unspools a larger tapestry of Asle’s life, assembling his ‘innermost picture’.
And there is something else, something mystical, almost transcendental, in the way the currents of Fosse’s prose culminate in this portrait of an artist – more than just the amalgamation of images, it’s something which eludes explanation. With ‘Septology’, Fosse is carving out a space where the prosaic intersects with something otherworldly.
On paper, I feel this should not work. That it does is due to the literary skill of Fosse – who can’t exactly be accused of amateurism. His daunting bibliography is indicative of a preternatural work ethic, or an obsessive, relentless intellect. Or, as with Asle, it’s representative of an artist who lives and breathes by his craft.
I is Another (and ‘Septology’ as a whole) is worth reading simply for the way it stands out among contemporary fiction. This is work thriving on ambiguity and misdirection – and the joy I found in reading the book was not only from filling in the gaps, but also wondering at the spaces in between. Until the next one, and quite probably beyond.
I is Another: Septology III-V
(UK: Fizcarraldo Editions, 2020)
French paperback, pp. 288