I’ve been re-reading Jon Fosse’s essays these last few days. All were written between 1983 and 2000, which is to say in the first half of this shifting, yet strangely constant body of work, which despite unfolding in so many different forms—novels, poetry, short prose and drama—has always borne the same unmistakable hallmark. What rises forth from Fosse’s 1983 debut novel, Raudt, svart (Red, Black), isn’t that different from what rises forth from his first theatre piece, Og aldri skal vi skiljast (And Never Shall We Part), written ten years later, or his most recent novella, Kveldsvævd (Weariness), which appeared in 2014, another twenty years on.
In what does it consist, this unmistakableness which rises forth from everything Jon Fosse has written? It isn’t so much his style, the repetitions, the convolutions, the cerebral layerings, nor his motifs, all those fjords, all those row boats, all that rain, all those siblings, all that music, but more what manifests itself in all of these things.
What is it?
The protagonist in Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission reflects on the nature of literature, which he says is not hard to define. Like literature, music can overwhelm us with sudden emotion, and painting can make us see the world through fresh eyes, but only literature can put us in touch with another human spirit with all its weaknesses and grandeurs, and this presence of another person is, he suggests, the very essence of literature, adding to this his astonishment that philosophers have devoted so little attention to such a simple observation.
Few modern writers could be as far removed from Jon Fosse and the place in which he stands than Michel Houellebecq. Houellebecq’s novels are idea-based, provocative, engaged with the contemporary, disillusioned, smart, misanthropic, and seem somehow to present a face towards the reader. Fosse’s writing contains scarcely an idea, and not a scrap of provocation, the contemporary is toned down or else avoided completely, and although his work often approaches death and explores a kind of existential ground zero, it is never disillusioned and certainly not misanthropic, but full of hope. Fosse’s darkness is always luminous. Moereover, his writing presents no face towards the reader, but is quite open. Houellebecq’s writing reflects everything, throws everything back, in it the reader sees himself and his own time, whereas Fosse’s writing absorbs the reader, is something into which the reader vanishes, like wind in the darkness. These are essential characteristics of Fosse’s work, as the opposite are essential characteristics of Houellebecq’s, and in this the two writers stand at each end of a divide.
What brings them together is what makes their work literature, and what Houellebecq in Submission brings to our attention in such provocatively simple terms: the presence in the writing of a human spirit. This isn’t a matter of style or form, theme or content, but of a particular individual’s writing resonating within us, regardless of whether we’re reading a late-19th-century Russian novel written in the third person or first-person Swedish poetry of the 1990s. The more proper the writing to the writer, the more idiosyncractic and expressive of the writer’s particular self, the more important the literature becomes, precisely because the presence of another human spirit is then its essential feature. The language of advertising, the language of school books, the language of newspapers and the media, is a fits-all language, the tongue of the accepted truth and the fixed idiom. Books penned in this language of the social world are infused with the spirit of their time, and when time moves on little but this remains, the faded lingo of a past society.
Most books of the 1960s, for instance, express only this, the age in which they were written, much as a photo will tell us about the fashions of the day. For this reason, the literature which does endure is never typical, never couched in the fits-all language of the social space, but that which defies it. We don’t read Thomas Bernhard’s Extinction in order to learn about postwar Austrian society and postwar Austrian culture, nor to discover what it means to lose one’s parents, but rather to immerse ourselves in Thomas Bernhard’s prose, which yanks us out of our selves and propels us headlong into something else entirely, something unique and exceptional. And it is this uniqueness and exceptionalness which is common to us all, this uniqueness and exceptionalness which is the truth of the world and our reality, and therein, in this paradox, lies literature’s legitimacy.
Against this it might be contended that to claim that the nature and essence of literature consists in the presence of another person in the writing is unjustifiably reductionist, that it is to take away the societal aspect, the political aspect, the social aspect from literature and to return to the genius cult of the Romantic age when what mattered was the singular individual, at the same time as such a stance, claiming literature to be the presence of another person in the writing, says nothing, leads to nothing, imparts to us no particular insight, nor any understanding of the literary work, other perhaps than that Thomas Bernhard’s books were written by Thomas Bernhard. This would render superflous the whole academic discipline of literary studies, or at least make the exams a lot easier to pass, for the only relevant question then would be something like: “Who wrote Thomas Bernhard’s Extinction?” Or for that matter: “Who wrote Jon Fosse’s Boathouse?”
Jon Fosse wrote Boathouse. The novel, which begins with the sentence “I don’t go out anymore, a restlessness has come over me, and I don’t go out,” is unlike any other novel of its time, which is to say the late 1980s, but it’s a lot like much of what Jon Fosse had written before that, and what he has written since. The presence the reader feels, from the very first sentence, is the presence of Jon Fosse. But this presence is not the presence of his biographical person, and evoking the person he was at that time (which in my case would be relatively easy, Jon Fosse having been one of my teachers at the writing academy where I was a student the same year as Boathouse came out) would add little of significance to our reading of the novel, as little as any considerations we might have as to the time and the social environment in which it was written. Rather, the presence we feel has to do with a certain receptiveness, a certain alertness, a certain temperament, and what this opens up for us in the text. The strange thing about writing is that the self seems to let go, that what in our self-conception normally keeps the I together, becomes dissolved, the inner being reconfigurating in new and unfamiliar ways.Jon Fosse’s essays are almost all about literature and art… they are about the irreducible, the untranslatable, the enigmatic.
The same thing happens when we read, the self lets go as we follow the words down the page, and for a time we submit ourselves to a different I, new and open, yet clear and perceptible to us, in a certain rhythm, a certain form, a certain will. In this encounter, between the selfless writer and the selfless reader, literature is shaped. And if that literature is good, it calls forth moods and tones which are there always, but which normally go unheard in the everyday noise of the world or in the iron grip of the I and our self-knowledge. These moods and tones evoke in us another, no less truthful experience of reality, for all connect with feelings, which in the novel, the poem or the theatre piece are the medium through which the world is communicated. In literature, our configurations of the world and ourselves dissolve, as we ourselves dissolve when we read, and in this way we approach the other, or the world.
Jon Fosse’s essays are almost all about literature and art. They are unconcerned with biographical, sociological or historical aspects of literature and art, but circle invariably around what is essential to them, what it is that makes literature literature and art art. And since this consists always in the idiosyncratic, always in what is proper to them, in the sense that what makes literature literature and art art is found only in literature and art themselves, in that singular way, Jon Fosse’s essays are about the irreducible, the untranslatable, the enigmatic.
In his first collection, Frå telling via showing til writing (From Telling via Showing to Writing), these enigmatic and untranslatable qualities are tied to the writing itself. Whereas telling connects with the social world, the narrative situation itself, and moreover comprises some element of entertainment, writing, Fosse seems to believe, connects with something else, with that part of our language which perhaps communicates only itself, like a stone or a crack in a wall. The enigmatic is autonomous, and in this one feels Fosse’s language and thinking to be shaped by 1980s literary theory. In his next collection, Gnostiske essays (Gnostic Essays), published ten years later, this enigmatic aspect is still central, though connects now with something quite different: the Divine. The leap from writing and the writer as conceptualized in the theories of literature to the religious concept of the Divine may seem giant, but this is by no means necessarily the case, and in a way Fosse writes here in both instances of exactly the same quality of literature, albeit now approached from a different angle. He alludes to the connection in the title essay itself:
The narrator is the rhetorician, the writer is the anti-rhetorician. The character, the literary figure, is caught either in one or the other form of rhetoric. Only the character who lacks language is free. And no language must mean no difference. That means God. In a certain significance, the active writing must constantly restore the longing for that which lacks difference, for the divine, and in good novels you may perhaps notice something like that.
Similarly, the difference between Fosse’s essays and his fiction is huge. Whereas the essays stand outside art and peer in on it, probing and investigating, wondering as to its nature, the ways in which it is relevant to me, to you, to us, and connect thereby with the social world, shifting in such a way that his essays of the 1980s are 1980s-like, those of the 1990s 1990s-like, the opposite is true of Fosse’s fiction, which instead of peering in from the outside, peers out from the inside, at the world and at the reader. Jon Fosse’s voice is unmistakable in whatever he writes, and is never anything if not present, but whereas the voice of the essays is a presence in their contemporary age, the voice of Fosse’s fiction is a presence unconnected with Fosse’s own time, but connected rather with something else, which the essays endeavour to isolate in various ways according to their time of writing. The enigma, however, remains the same. No one has written more perceptively about Jon Fosse’s literature than Lev Tolstoy in War and Peace, in the passage where the main character, Prince Andrei, is moved to tears when listening to a piece of music and endeavours to understand why. He finds reason in the terrible contrast between the illimitable infinity within him and the constraint of his worldly materiality. This contrast, between the infinity within us and the constraints of the external, propels everything Jon Fosse has written.
–translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken
The quotes from Jon Fosse’s Boathouse and From Telling via Showing to Writing are from the published translations by May-Brit Akerholm.