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August 2021 Issue [Reviews]

Seven Steps to Heaven

Jon Fosse makes the novel new
Illustration by Matthew Richardson

Illustration by Matthew Richardson


Seven Steps to Heaven

Jon Fosse makes the novel new

Discussed in this essay:

The Other Name: Septology I–II, by Jon Fosse. Translated by Damion Searls. Transit Books. 336 pages. $17.95.

I Is Another: Septology III–V, by Jon Fosse. Translated by Damion Searls.
Transit Books. 256 pages. $17.95.

Five million years ago, on the southernmost coastline of Africa, some two hundred miles from Cape Town, a cave was formed, most likely by waves hammering at the stone. Today, the mouth of the cave, called Blombos, yawns wide, one hundred feet above sea level and a few hundred feet from what is now the shore. Archaeologists have determined, on the basis of remains excavated over the past thirty years, that it was occupied sporadically between seventy thousand and one hundred thousand years ago.

The cave was a workshop, its occupants making things more beautiful and complex than we’d thought possible in that era. There are the expected artifacts—stone blades, beads, bone tools—of surpassing fineness. Among the unique objects at Blombos are a number of pieces of ocher. Six are an inch long, dating back more than seventy thousand years, featuring deliberate sets of engraved marks, the loveliest of which bears diamond shapes inscribed into the stone. They are the earliest example of abstract representation we have, predating objects of similar sophistication found in other parts of the world by as many as sixty thousand years.

Then there is another, paler piece of stone, 1.5 inches long and shaped like a beech leaf. On its surface is the earliest drawing by a human hand. Seventy-three thousand years old, it would have been made with a proto-crayon—Blombos Red in the Crayola box of prehistory—and enhances our understanding of what our kind has, since it appeared, been doing with its time. We don’t know what occasioned the marks left in Blombos Red on the little piece of stone. We know only what we see there: nine red lines that cross.

“And I see myself standing and looking at the picture with the two lines that cross in the middle, one purple line, one brown line,” begins the Norwegian writer Jon Fosse’s novel Septology:

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 drip 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

And look at it the narrator will, for another eighty-one thousand words in part one alone, without a period placed. Septology, a very strange novel, beautifully and movingly strange, consists of seven parts that are being published in three volumes, nearly one thousand pages in total, all encompassed within a single long phrase. The first volume, The Other Name, which contains parts one and two, appeared in Norway in 2019 and in a striking English translation by Damion Searls the same year; the second, I Is Another, parts three through five, is out this spring; and the third, A New Name, parts six and seven, will appear in Norway this fall and in English early next year.

As Fosse’s career enters its fifth decade, Septology joins an already staggering body of work. Since 1983, he has published forty-eight novels and collections of essays, poetry, and short stories, as well as, and perhaps fundamentally, drama, more than thirty plays, almost all of which are available in English. He is said to be the most-produced living playwright in Europe, with more than a thousand stagings of his work to date. Do the math and the average is mind-boggling: one of his plays has opened somewhere every thirteen days for thirty-five years. While Karl Ove Knausgaard has in recent years become the craggy face of Norwegian writing in the English-speaking world, Fosse has been one of Norway’s leading writers for decades, one who holds the distinction (irony ahead) of having been Knausgaard’s creative writing teacher some three decades ago. Perhaps even more ennoblingly, he was the recipient, in 2011, of a permanent residence on the grounds of the Royal Palace in Oslo.

Fosse is often described as the Beckett of the twenty-first century, an accusation that seems unfair to both writers. Yes, Fosse’s first play, Someone Is Going to Come, was a kind of reply to Waiting for Godot, and yes, both Fosse’s and Beckett’s dramas proceed with a kind of scrubbed plainness populated more by voices than by characters in the conventional sense, and Fosse’s novels, like Beckett’s, are driven by a narrowness of focus and a formal rigidity. But Beckett’s metaphysics, Irishly, balances gravity with levity, whereas Fosse’s work—at least according to my hopscotching through the corpus (five novels, five plays, some memoir, stories, and poetry)—seems not overwhelmingly interested in humor. A study of Fosse’s theater mentions the word “comedies” once, “laughed” once, “funny” and “fun” not at all.

This will make Fosse’s work—which is indeed morose, which is absolutely death-haunted, which without question is set in a chilly Scandinavia of the soul—sound vaguely parodic of a gloomy Norse world in which Bergman would be king. What’s more, Septology showcases a static protagonist who stares endlessly at a painting, seeking its meaning while ruminating on his past. The book sounds, in summary, terrible: pretentious, self-serious, unendurable. This makes it all the more remarkable how wonderful it is. The book evades all those pitfalls to become something quite different from what it might seem, something that, like all great novels, somehow exceeds our prior idea of what a novel is. Naturally, the pleasures of plot and character, subject and setting, draw us to novels broadly, but a great novel draws us to a shadow tale at its heart: the story of its style. With Septology, Fosse has found a new approach to writing fiction, different from what he has written before and—it is strange to say, as the novel enters its fifth century—different from what has been written before. Septology feels new.

The first-person voice of Septology—a brain voice, not a written record—belongs to a painter named Asle. Through the course of the novel, Asle will return repeatedly to look at the painting of the two lines that cross. It is a painting that Asle feels is done, done and perfect, too perfect to sell; or, actually, done but not perfect; or, perhaps, just a failed painting he should paint over with something new. Asle paints, we are told, in part out of self-preservation, to “try to paint away these pictures that are lodged inside me, there’s nothing to do but paint them away, one by one,” even if he doesn’t know when “the picture will disappear and go away and the uneasiness inside me will stop.”

Much of the novel’s drama comes from the slow unfolding of the sources of Asle’s uneasiness. We have very little to go on at first. Asle lives alone in a cold, drafty old house on the southwestern coast of Norway, in a tiny fishing village called Dylgja. Not rich, Asle has nonetheless found a way to live off his art. Thirteen large paintings are ready for an upcoming show. And then there is the canvas on the easel, a fourteenth, the one in which “the brown line and purple line cross,” a painting that Asle and his neighbor Åsleik, a fisherman and Asle’s only real friend, look at together now and again throughout the novel:

I see Åsleik go over to the picture I have standing on the easel, which is set up in the middle of the room, and unusually for me it’s a rather big canvas and rectangular, and first I painted one line diagonally across almost the whole surface of the picture, a brown line, in very thick drippy oil paint, and then I painted a matching line in purple from the other corner and it crossed the first line in the middle, forming a kind of cross, a St. Andrew’s Cross, I think they call it, and I see Åsleik stand there and look at the picture and I go over to it too and look at it and I see Asle sitting there on his sofa, and he’s shaking and shaking, he’s thinking he can’t even lift his hands, he feels too heavy even to say a word, Asle thinks

Yes, something odd is happening here. At first it seems we’re firmly in the first person, the narrator standing with Åsleik, looking at the painting of the two lines that cross. And then, without warning, the narrator is looking at “Asle sitting there on his sofa,” which suggests that there is a second Asle in the room. Then it seems we move into the new Asle’s head, putting us in the third person, inside this other Asle, who doesn’t seem to be in the narrator’s room at all. This shuttling back and forth—a tale of two Asles? the second Asle a figment of the first? a first-person telling? a third?—continues in the hundreds of pages that follow. We drift, mostly in the mind of the Asle who stares at his painting of the two lines that cross, sometimes sliding into the mind of an apparently other Asle whom that Asle may, or may not, be imagining. Initially this narrative mode feels disorienting. And yet, after a few dozen pages, the reader settles in much as one would before an abstract painting that the eye patiently absorbs, one of two lines, two Asles, that cross. As the narrative builds, Fosse avoids providing any resolution, allowing us to live in that middle ground as the novel unscrolls. But more than merely suspending us there, Fosse is also nudging the reader to seek clues that might solve the mystery of these doubles and triples. In this way, the novel also, despite its high-art method and preoccupations, is a kind of roman noir.

Each of the first five parts of Septology available in English so far has begun and concluded in the same manner. There’s little doubt that the final two will as well. At their beginnings, Asle looks at the painting of the two lines that cross and wonders what he sees there, whether it’s a good painting or a bad one, whether it’s finished or not. At their endings, Asle prays: prays in Latin, prays to Jesus, to Mary, to God the Father, the rhythms and repetitions of prayer accumulating and repeating.

Between those fixed points, painting and praying, Asle makes trips to and from distant Bjørgvin. It is late December, the end of Advent. He is meant to be taking the thirteen paintings to his gallery of three decades for what his gallerist, Beyer—who discovered Asle as a talented boy and has represented him throughout his life—calls Asle’s Christmas show. But Asle doesn’t bring the paintings with him on his first trip a few days before Christmas Eve, thinking instead to visit the other Asle but, in the end, not doing so. Once returned, for reasons that elude him, he turns around and drives back to Bjørgvin to see Asle, finding him drunk and passed out in the snow, so drunk that when Asle rouses him and tries to take him to a café, he collapses two more times. Asle and some other men help him up a third time, Asle takes Asle to a hospital, where he is checked in, then heads home so that he can get his canvases and drive to Bjørgvin again and drop them off at his gallery, which indeed he does. Asle then tries to visit Asle at the hospital, only to learn that Asle is in too delicate a condition to be seen. Fragments of these events are scattered through the first five parts of the novel: Asle thinking about what has occurred, returning to those moments, amplifying them, and resolving once again into a state of prayer.

There he is, sitting at home looking at the painting; sitting at home at his table staring out a window at the sea; staring out the windshield as he drives in the snow to and from Bjørgvin; sitting in front of his gallery waiting for Beyer. Asle drifts in and out of the past, in and out of the story of his life, his childhood, his rejection of his parents and their religion, his road to becoming an artist, to becoming a drunk, a husband, a Catholic convert, a reformed drinker, and then a solitary. Novels have long trained readers to await the unpacking of their protagonists’ lives, chronologically—from Moll Flanders to David Copperfield to Buddenbrooks—so that we might understand their suffering, to learn what happened that led them to themselves. Fosse plays with this expectation. Though he gives us these events, they aren’t essential, and they matter only insofar as they suggest a need that was established in Asle, at a very young age, to find a practice to keep memories at bay. Painting is one such practice, and the picture at which Asle stares is the first painting he has made that, as the fisherman Åsleik sees it, “looks like something real, I’ve painted a picture that looks like something for once, it looks like some kind of cross,” a painting that he feels is finished, a painting Asle has named St. Andrew’s Cross, a painting that has led him, finally, to give up painting altogether.

The reader picks up the magnifying glass, scrutinizes the canvas for clues. A St. Andrew’s cross is an X, named after Jesus’ first apostle, a fisherman who Jesus said would be a fisher of men and who, preaching to the Greeks, found martyrdom. The story is that Andrew humbly insisted he not be crucified as Jesus had, turning the cross from T to X. Why is Asle’s painting of such a cross? That Fosse blurs Asle and Asle; gives as a friend to Asle a fisherman whose name is all but his, Åsleik; has Asle marry a woman named Ales, letters of his letters, name of his name. All these A’s, these alephs: aleph the first letter of the Hebrew and Aramaic alphabets; aleph, which in Aramaic looks like an x and, in Hebrew, if you squint, resembles one as well. Talmudic exegeses tell us that aleph represents the hidden aspects of God and his revelation in the world. So we read the signs: how Asle, whom the narrator Asle finds lying in the snow, is picked up three times, as Jesus was on his path to crucifixion; how Asle’s painting of two lines that cross is his fourteenth canvas, recalling the fourteen stations of the cross, the last of which is where Jesus was laid to rest; how Septology is, in a painterly sense, a triptych, three books of alternating numbers of parts—II, III, II—two narrow panels flanking a central one, a religious painting, three crosses at its center as if on a hill; and how, in the novel’s seven parts, at the end of which Asle prays, we might hear the seven canonical hours of prayer, or see the seven signs in the Gospel of John, or see the seven seals of the Book of Revelation written on a scroll, no full stop in sight.

Thankfully, these features do not add up neatly. Asle isn’t Jesus or Lazarus, Åsleik isn’t Andrew, no illuminati appear. Still, Asle is on a kind of journey, his futile little trips to and from a city during which he sees, in his mind, the life he has lived, its crossroads. In the wake of all that seeing, he returns home to pray, each part beginning with Asle sitting before the cross and each part ending as he grips his rosary—each part of the novel, unambiguously, a path to prayer.

Many novels have attempted to reconcile, through experiences in various faith traditions, the questions that arise out of human suffering in God’s world. The Brothers Karamazov, Lucky Per, The Seven Storey Mountain, Siddhartha, The Guide, The Chosen—I could exhaust what space I have remaining by listing them all. Each, in its way, engages with questions of theodicy. As I came to the term via James Wood, I’ll provide his definition—“the justification of God’s good government of the world in the face of evil and pain.” This is softly at odds with the OED, which prefers “vindication” to “justification.” Septology lives somewhere between justification and vindication, as Asle attempts, through reflection and prayer, a reconciliation with the way things are, with what his life has cost him and lost him.

Much of Septology’s developmental material is familiar. Asle’s biography churns with the components of a bildungsroman—mothers who don’t believe in a child’s ambitions, predators that would defile the little creature as he moves toward launch—and certainly Septology is a portrait of the artist, a genre that has long made a home in the novel form. Septology is a novel about a painter, but it’s an odd one, as we don’t actually see Asle painting, and the practice of painting in the book is in service of something quite different from aesthetic mastery for its own sake.

“I think that painting isn’t something I’ve done for myself,” Asle thinks, at one point.

It wasn’t because I wanted to paint, but to serve something bigger, yes, maybe, I do sometimes dare to think things like that, that I want my paintings to do nothing less than serve the kingdom of God, I think, yes, and I thought that way before I was confirmed too, and that might have to do with the fact that I’ve always felt God’s closeness, yes, whatever that is, I think, and call it whatever you want

There is nothing formally new about narratives that deploy the long sentence. Thomas Bernhard, who inherited its sound from Joyce and Woolf, pursued the long line with rage at its heart. W. G. Sebald was named in Bernhard’s will, spending his inheritance on more melancholy ends, sifting through ruins for signs of lives destroyed by fascism and human foolishness. Javier Marías lends his patrimony to ghost stories, stories of murder or suicide or disappearance. László Krasznahorkai is the most manic of the beneficiaries, his sentences comedies screamed so loud that the effect is horror at which one can only laugh. What Krasznahorkai has said of his own method applies to Fosse: “When we speak, we speak fluent, unbroken sentences, and this kind of speech doesn’t need any periods. Only God needs the period—and at the end He will use one, I am sure.”

Fosse seems both the most obviously influenced by Bernhard and the most radically his own. But what feels most striking about Fosse’s method is something this review can only gesture at. I can make claims about the effect of a sentence that proceeds for two hundred and fifty thousand words without a period, but can’t quote it sufficiently to offer proof. I can say that the novel is an epic of the small, but since Ulysses we’ve certainly understood the possibility of such a thing. I can say that Fosse’s novel, its vocal progress, is incantatory, or that the prose reads like an extended prayer, which sounds blurbily fine, and not wrong, just empty and familiar. Reading Septology, watching Asle progress through life and, I suspect, in parts six and seven, to the end of it, one feels—I felt—in the welter and waste of a single solitary life, the urge, inexplicably, to pray.

“It is as you say. We are here to pray,” Frederick Seidel writes in the final couplet of his poem “From Nijinsky’s Diary,” one that rang in my head as each of Fosse’s parts drew the reader back to the rosary. We are brought not to a thought of prayer but to the act itself. That it is a rosary Asle holds I don’t think matters very much. I doubt that most people reading Augustine’s Confessions convert to Catholicism when they’re done. In that book, one comes to know Augustine’s love of God, but one would not necessarily feel that love if one hadn’t previously been disposed to him. It would be too much to suggest that in Septology one comes to feel the love of God, but the way Fosse wields the novel’s form does something spooky to one’s heart.

Form is hard to describe, a thing very different from plot. It is the nervous system of a novel, a thing electrically alive. Fosse’s use of the long sentence feels not at all like a technique applied. Every force evolves a form, in Guy Davenport’s phrasing, a formula for how a need in an artist—intellectual, emotional, metaphysical—yields an object whose contours describe, hiddenly, the need itself. Fosse’s sevenfold form is doing this: setting an expectation that Asle will pray, creating an undertow that seizes the reader. We are here to pray, the form says. And so we move not toward prayer but into it, each of us counting out the words of Fosse’s lengthening rosary bead by bead, word by word. Fosse’s Asles and Åsleik and Ales blend orthographically, drawing the reader onward with questions about their resemblance, ultimately leading to a blurring of boundaries, a diffusion, an egolessness.

One of the traditional yields of the novel has been a momentary obliteration of the self. “The cranium is a space traveler’s helmet,” the narrator of Nabokov’s Pnin tells us. “Stay inside or you perish.” If we change or to and, the novel as a form keeps us from suffocating in the self. Septology is, in that way, just another novel. And yet, it is also something else, something different, something more. While reading Septology, it’s as if it ceases to be a novel at all. I do not mean this in the sense of it being a reaction to received ideas of the novel. There is no whiff of an author making self-important statements about “the death of character” or “the hunger for reality.” It’s just that it becomes hard, wonderfully hard, when reading Septology, to think that a novel could be written any other way.

The practice of prayer, the practice of painting, the products of prose: all buoy us as we live and as those we love die—as those whom Asle has loved will. Like all members of our species have before him, Asle leaves his own inscrutable lines on the world, “the innermost picture inside me,” he says, “that all the pictures I’ve tried to paint are attempting to look like, this innermost picture, that’s a kind of soul and a kind of body in one, yes, that’s my spirit, what I call spirit.” And with Asle, in this remarkable novel, we pray:

and I hold the brown wooden cross between my thumb and my finger and then I say, again and again, inside myself, as I breathe in deeply Lord and as I breathe out slowly Jesus and as I breathe in deeply Christ and as I breathe out slowly Have mercy and as I breathe in deeply On me.

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