The Best of the Blues – Fitzcarraldo Editions

One of my favourite UK based independent publisher is Fitzcarraldo Editions, which specializes in publishing contemporary literature, a combination of translated lit and those with English as the original language. What distinguishes them are the covers – plain and simple, and yet stylish and striking. These covers come in two colours – Blue (for fiction), and White (for non-fiction, typically essay collections). I have read only the ‘Blues’ so far, and these are some of them that I have loved and would recommend.  

Of course, this list will evolve and change, as I keep reading more of their books, and also begin delving into the ‘Whites.’

POND by Claire-Louise Bennett

Pond is an intriguing book, an absorbing and lyrical work, and can be interpreted as either a short story collection or a novel with chapters of varying length, all with the same protagonist. Some of these chapters are just one page, others run into twenty pages. Essentially, the book dwells on the thoughts of a woman living by herself in a rented cottage on the west coast of Ireland as she ponders over the pleasures and pitfalls of a life in solitude.  Bennett has flair for making poetic observations about mundane, everyday life, and at the same time also creating a slightly unsettling atmosphere. This was the first book that I read from the Fitzcarraldo catalogue, and since then I have always kept an eye on their new releases, which are always interesting and well worth exploring.

THE DOLL’S ALPHABET by Camilla Grudova

The Doll’s Alphabet is a collection of 13 stories, each fantastical, and weird but in a good way. Here’s how the first story ‘Unstitching’ opens:

One afternoon, after finishing a cup of coffee in her living room, Greta discovered how to unstitch herself. Her clothes, skin and hair fell from her like the peeled rind of a fruit, and her true body stepped out. Greta was very clean so she swept her old self away and deposited it in the rubbish bin before even taking notice of her new physiognomy, the difficulty of working her new limbs offering no obstruction to her determination to keep a clean home.

Another strong story ‘Agata’s Machine’, is a tale of two eleven year olds – the narrator and Agata, who is a genius excelling in maths and science. One day, Agata shows a sewing machine in her attic to the narrator, and for days on end both the girls are mesmerized by it.  This then is an unusual, dark story about obsession and indulging in destructive activity and what happens when it gets out of control.

Sewing machines, dolls, factories, mermaids, babies are some of the recurring motifs in this collection, and a general air of dirt and dereliction permeate all of these stories. Grudova has a way of drawing you into her surreal, unusual world with prose that is enthralling. There is also a whiff of feminism in some of the stories, and an abundance of anachronistic subjects, an ode to something ancient, an older era. Grudova has painted a different world; a macabre world of fables, dreams, nightmares and otherworldliness. Each of these stories is haunting, dark, striking and will stay in your mind for a long, long time.

TELL THEM OF BATTLES, ELEPHANTS & KINGS by Mathias Enard (Translated from French by Charlotte Mandell)

I love Mathias Enard and pretty much plan to read everything he’s written. I was mesmerized by Compass, and the only reason why I have not included that book here is because I read the Open Letter edition.

But his shorter and latest work, Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants is also excellent. At the end of this slim novella, Mathias Enard lists a series of factual events with proof of their existence. One of them in essence is that the Sultan had invited the celebrated sculptor and artist – Michelangelo – to build a bridge over the Golden Horn in Constantinople. There is no record that Michelangelo ever took up this offer and travelled to the East. That’s because he never did.

But Mathias Enard cleverly builds his story around this premise – What if Michelangelo had accepted the Sultan’s project?

Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants then is a wonderful slice of alternative history that also allows Enard to revisit his favourite theme – the meeting of the East and the West in the pursuit of art. It is a short book and a great entry point into Enard’s work, if one is daunted by his bigger books.  

HURRICANE SEASON by Fernanda Melchor (Translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes)

Right from the beginning, the pace of Hurricane Season never lets up. Set in the decrepit village of La Matosa in rural Mexico, the book begins when a group of boys playing in the fields come across a corpse floating in the irrigation canal, immediately identified as that of the Witch. The Witch is a highly reviled figure in the village, an object of malicious gossip and pretty much an outcast to most of La Matosa’s inhabitants.

The murder of the Witch then forms the foundation upon which the bulk of the novel rests. We are presented with four main narratives which circle around and closer to her murder, providing more details as the novel progresses. But other the gruesome killing itself, Melchor highlights a toxic environment where the characters are caught up in a vicious circle of poverty, casual violence, and sexual abuse ingrained into their psyche with no hope of a better future.

Despite such a dark subject matter, Hurricane Season is brilliant and incredibly fascinating. Melchor’s prose is brutal, electrifying and hurtles at the reader like a juggernaut. The sentences are long and there are no paragraphs but that in no way makes the book difficult to read. Rather, this style propels the narrative forward and ratchets up the tension, always keeping the reader on the edge. A cleverly told tale with a compelling structure at its heart, Melchor’s vision is unflinching and fearless.

THE OTHER NAME (SEPTOLOGY I-II) by Jon Fosse (Translated from Norwegian by Damion Searls)

I have been waxing eloquent about The Other Name by Norwegian author Jon Fosse, one of my favourite books this year, and one which I will highlight again here. The Other Name is about Asle, an ageing painter and widower reminiscing about his life. The book has an existential bent as Asle reflects on themes of love & loss (relationships), light & darkness (art). At the same time, he tries to help his doppelganger, also a painter called Asle, who is alone and an alcoholic. It’s the writing that is quite something though – highly unusual but poetic, the prose feels musical with its own rhythm, and has the power to transfix the reader.

As I write this, I have been reading another latest Fitzcarraldo Edition – The Appointment by Katharina Volckmer, a novella that is less than 100 pages, and as fascinating as I expected. Maybe, it will join the list the next time I compile one.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding – Julia Strachey

I have had a good run with Persephone Books this year having read Every Eye by Isobel English and Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham – both excellent. Now, after finishing the wonderful Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey (for #NovNov), it feels like I have scored a Persephone hat-trick.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is a funny and beautifully written novella focusing on a dysfunctional, miscellaneous group of people thrown together, and sizzles with acerbic observations and dramatic revelations. It was originally published by Hogarth Press, founded by Leonard and Virginia Woolf.

The book is set during the course of a single day at the centre of which is the wedding of our protagonist, 23-year old Dolly Thatcham. The wedding is set to take place in a church close to the Thatcham estate in the country.

When the book opens, the guests have begun to assemble at the Thatcham residence and all the last minute preparations are in full swing. We are told that following a short engagement of about a month, Dolly is to be betrothed to Owen Bigham, who is eight years elder to her. Post the wedding, the couple plans to relocate to South America.

Meanwhile, the reader is introduced to an eccentric cast of characters comprising Mrs Thatcham, her other daughter Kitty, the various maids and a few ill-assorted guests.  Mrs Thatcham immediately comes across as a woman indifferent to her surroundings, a tad muddled, seemingly out of touch with reality. She insists that the weather is fine for the wedding, when it is actually a cold, gray day in March with a strong wind blowing. Her maids are at the receiving end of her behaviour – for instance, Mrs Thatcham gives them a precise set of instructions, promptly forgets what she had discussed, and then berates her maids later even though they have followed her orders to the tee. “I simply fail to understand it,” is a refrain she frequently utters.

“Oh! But then Millman must have laid the snack-luncheon in here!” she exclaimed.

There was a silence. Mrs Thatcham stared frigidly at the cutlets and sandwiches.

“How disappointing of Millman!” she said. “She is an odd being, really. So funny of her to do that now! When I told her most particularly the nursery…as we shall want the library kept free…so very odd of her!”

“Not odd at all, Mum. Considering I heard you tell her most particularly yesterday, at tea-time, to be sure and put the cold lunch in the library so as not to have to light a fire in the nursery today.”

We are also introduced to Joseph, likely Dolly’s former beau, who still holds a torch for her. He is hoping to meet her before the wedding with vague intentions of stopping it but with no clear idea of the repercussions. Mrs Thatcham dislikes Joseph, eyeing him as a harbinger of doom.

As both Joseph and Dolly briefly hark back to the past at separate moments, we are given an inkling of the romance that could have possibly blossomed between the two, but which does not come to fruition at that time.

One of the striking features of this novella is that there is so much scope for the reader to read between the lines. Almost all of the characters don’t really reveal what’s exactly on their minds, preferring instead to drop subtle hints. Even in their conversations, the haziness of their feelings persist. All of which leaves a lot of room for us to figure it out ourselves.

There had been a discussion about a certain kind of crackly biscuit made with treacle, and looking like stiff brown lace, called a “jumbly.” “What, never tasted jumbly!” Joseph beside her (Dolly) had said, quite suddenly, peering in underneath her large summer hat. “But you must taste a jumbly! You would adore them!” but the point was, that through his face, and most especially his eyes, Joseph’s whole being had announced, plainly, and with a violent fervor, not “You would adore them,” but “I adore you.”

Dolly’s personality is inherently passive, as she seems okay to just go along with the flow rather than be assertive and take charge. Even though she harbours feelings for Joseph, she chooses not to be forthright about them. And yet she is assailed with doubts on her wedding day, made obvious by the half a bottle of rum she guzzles hours before the ceremony, rendering her slightly drunk.

On top of it all, Dolly’s relationship with her mother is quite strained because of the latter’s detached personality, and even on her wedding day Dolly feels no warmth towards her mother.

Will Dolly, eventually, go through with her decision to marry a man she barely knows? Or will Joseph spoil the wedding party with some tricks up his sleeve?

Julia Strachey’s writing in Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is marvelous, brimming with evocative descriptions – whether it’s the heavily furnished rooms in the house, or the tumult of the characters’ emotions.

Above the writing table where Dolly sat was an ancient mirror.

This mirror was rusted over with tiny specks by the hundred, and also the quicksilver at the back had become blackened in the course of ages, so that the drawing-room, as reflected in its corpse-like face, seemed forever swimming in an eerie, dead-looking, metallic twilight, such as is never experienced in the actual world outside. And a strange effect was produced:

It was as if the drawing-room reappeared in this mirror as a familiar room in a dream reappears, ghostly, significant, and wiped free of all signs of humdrum and trivial existence.

There are generous doses of sly humour in the book, with some hilarious set-pieces particularly in the first few pages when the wedding guests mingle with one another, and Joseph especially makes it a point to rile Kitty (Dolly’s younger sister).

“How are your lectures going?” asked Kitty of Joseph, a kind of desperate intenseness in her voice and face. This was her style of the moment with the male sex.

“Very well, thank you,” said Joseph, and added: “We heard about the practices of the Minoan Islanders upon reaching the age of puberty at the last one.” He started snapping up his cutlet.

“Oh, really? How terribly interesting!” said Kitty.

“Yes, very. Like to hear about them?” offered Joseph.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding feels sophisticated and assured as Strachey displays a flair for making nuanced observations on her varied set of characters. A distinct highlight is the novella’s razor sharp focus on the consequences of suppressed emotions and things left unsaid. It’s another gem from Persephone Books well worth reading and re-reading.

The Days of Abandonment – Elena Ferrante (tr. Ann Goldstein)

Last year, I read the four Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante and I was blown away. Not surprisingly, the books found a place on my Best of 2019 list, and I was keen to explore some of her standalone works.

The Days of Abandonment was the one that was calling out to me and I also felt it was a perfect fit for “Novellas in November” (#NovNov)

The Days of Abandonment is a vivid, visceral tale of a woman’s descent into despair after she is abandoned by her husband.

From the very first page, Olga (our narrator) is devastated when Mario, her husband, communicates his intention to leave her.

One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarreling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator. He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, about the children, and admitted that he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me.

At the time, Mario does not give any explicit reason, other than the fact that it’s all too much for him and he wants to leave. While Olga is shocked, she also feels certain that this is only a phase – Mario had expressed this very intention many years ago, only to come back to her again.

Olga, meanwhile, must grapple with the day to day life of taking care of her two children – Gianni and Illaria – and their dog Otto, while managing the house and paying the bills. They reside in Turin. At the same time, Olga refuses to accept Mario’s abandonment, and spends every waking moment trying to figure out what went wrong, and what needs to be done so that he comes back. But when she somehow learns that Mario has deserted her for another woman, Olga loses control.

Seething with anger and immense rage, Olga goes on the offensive – she speaks roughly with her friends and acquaintances, hurls abuses and resorts to foul language when interacting with others, and at one time even physically attacks Mario when she spots him with his new love Carla, in a shop.

Thereby begins Olga’s downward spiral into depression and gross neglect. Finding herself standing at the edge of a precipice and staring into an abyss, Olga struggles to adapt to the cruelly altered circumstances of her life.

At times when examining her situation, Olga is haunted by the image of the poverella (poor woman), a dominant presence in her childhood. The poverella in question was also abandoned by her husband and reduced to a state of utter despair, cutting a pathetic figure. Olga, at the time, vows never to slip into the same situation, but in her present sorry state, she can’t help but identify herself with that woman.

As the days go on, completing household chores, performing the duties of a mother, and tackling other practical problems of everyday life begin to take its toll on Olga as she overwhelmingly feels she is trudging through wet cement.

Don’t succumb, I goaded myself. Fight. I feared above all my growing incapacity to stick to a thought, to concentrate on a necessary action. The abrupt, uncontrollable twists frightened me. Mario, I wrote, to give myself courage, had not taken away the world, he had taken away only himself. And you are not a woman of thirty years ago. You are of today, take hold of today, don’t regress, don’t lose yourself, keep a tight grip.

She starts faltering, until one day things simply hit rock bottom. Has Olga reached a point of no return? Or, will she succeed in climbing out of this hole, and clawing her way back?

I was not the woman who breaks into pieces under the blows of abandonment and absence, who goes mad, who dies. Only a few fragments had splintered off, for the rest I was well. I was whole, whole I would remain. To those who hurt me, I react giving back in kind. I am the queen of spades, I am the wasp that stings, I am the dark serpent. I am the invulnerable animal who passes through fire and is not burned.

What stands out in The Days of Abandonment is Olga’s voice – she is brutally frank in conveying her thoughts and feelings, minces no words, and is almost always angry, sometimes uncomfortably so. She is immensely self-aware in a way that is fascinating and compelling. At its core, the novel touches upon the themes of how absurd conventional definitions of womanhood can be, while also highlighting the trials of motherhood. As readers, we are forced to wrestle with our feelings, because while Olga’s neglect of her children in her dark days can be hard to fathom, we also can’t help but empathize with her.

The Days of Abandonment, then, is in many ways an apt title for this powerful novella. On one level, it refers to the obvious fact of Mario leaving Olga. But, on another level, it also conveys a sense that Olga is losing her identity, that her sense of self has merged with that of the poverella, and that there is not much to separate the two women.

The Days of Abandonment is a great entry point for those who have never read Ferrante’s books before and do not want to commit to her Neapolitan Quartet yet, although I do think the latter is much superior.

A Month of Reading – October 2020

Here’s what I read in October – a mix of translated literature, contemporary lit and early 20th century lit. It was a slow reading month, but I am pleased that atleast the books were high quality. My favourites, however, were The Other Name by the Norwegian author Jon Fosse, and Dead Girls by the Argentinean writer Selva Almada.

Dead Girls – Selva Almada

Dead Girls is a searing, hard-hitting book which explores the blight of gender violence and femicide in Almada’s native Argentina. It is a powerful, hybrid piece of work – a blend of journalistic fiction and memoir – as Almada digs deeper into the murder of three small-town teenage girls in the 1980s, unspeakable crimes that never got solved, where “being a woman” was the primary motive for these heinous acts being committed.

At the beginning of the book, Almada writes:

Violence was normalized. The neighbour beaten by her husband, the teenager next door who put up with her jealous boyfriend’s tantrums, the father who wouldn’t let his daughters wear short skirts or make-up. All the responsibility for what happened to us was laid at our feet: if you stay out late you might be raped, if you talk to strangers you might be raped, if you come back from a dance by yourself you might be raped. If you were raped, it was always your fault.

Almada is, of course, referring to the environment in Argentina. But really, the violence she points to, unfortunately, has global resonance and is the story of pretty much any country.

The Other Name – Jon Fosse

The Other Name by Norwegian author Jon Fosse is about Asle, an ageing painter and widower reminiscing about his life. The book has an existential bent as Asle reflects on themes of love & loss (relationships), light & darkness (art). At the same time, he tries to help his doppelganger, also a painter called Asle, who is alone and an alcoholic. It’s the writing that is quite something though – highly unusual but poetic, the prose feels musical with its own rhythm, and has the power to transfix the reader.

The Fountain Overflows – Rebecca West

The Fountain Overflowsis a lovely depiction of childhood and family life as it centers on the talented Aubrey children comprising Cordelia, Mary, Rose and Richard Quin (Rose is the narrator). Their father’s financial instability reduces them to near poverty and their mother frets over their circumstances, but the children’s appetite for adventure remains intact. This is a book filled with music, poltergeists, wonderfully described Christmas gatherings, and a murder trial. West’s writing is warm and charming, and reading the book had been pure delight.

Ankomst – Gohril Gabrielsen

In Ankomst, our narrator is a woman, a scientist whose job is to study the impact of climate on the behavioral patterns of seabirds. For the purposes of her research, she decides to spend six months in isolation in a remote cabin in northern Norway, way up in the Arctic. And yet she has no plans of really being alone. Rather she awaits the arrival of her lover, who is reluctant to come because he has a daughter to look after. Our narrator is also married with a daughter of her own. Gradually, it emerges through a series of flashbacks that her marriage is troubled as she is a victim of domestic violence. Not to mention, she is also plagued by the guilt of abandoning her daughter. The sense of place in the novel is excellent, the feeling of isolation against a backdrop of snow, ice and freezing temperatures. Gabrielsen also racks up the tension as the reader wonders whether the abusive husband will be successful in tracing our narrator’s whereabouts. As the drama builds up, so does our narrator’s feelings of isolation and possibly disorientation. And then, in the final pages there is a knock on her cabin door – is it her lover who has finally arrived, or is it her violent husband?

Academy Street – Mary Costello

Academy Street is about Tess Lohan, a book that journeys through six decades of her life. Born in a rural farm in Ireland, Tess is confronted with a tragedy as a young girl – the death of her mother due to tuberculosis. Raised in a big family of brothers and sisters, prone to not expressing their feelings, she is overwhelmed by a sense of stasis and longs for escape.  Pouncing on an opportunity to train as a nurse, she migrates from Ireland to New York in the 1960s, seeing America as a land of many possibilities. And then she falls in love, and this has consequences. This is a beautifully rendered tale, full of heartache, and compassion and Tess is a wonderfully realized character. The prose is lovely, which is always to be expected from Irish authors, who are truly masters of the language.

That’s it for October.  I plan to read a few novellas in November and have started on Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment. It’s been very good so far, but my concentration had dwindled largely due to the anxiety over US elections. With Biden finally (and thankfully) emerging as a victor, I am hoping to resume reading soon.

The Other Name (Septology I-II) – Jon Fosse (tr. Damion Searls)

I had not read anything by Jon Fosse before but when The Other Name (Septology I-II) was longlisted for the International Booker Prize this year, I was greatly interested. The book ultimately failed to make it to the shortlist, and after having just finished it, I wish it had. I loved this novel.  

The Other Name is an intense and deeply introspective novel about an ageing painter reminiscing about his life, where elements of the everyday and the existential flow into one another, while touching upon big topics of life and death, love and grief, and the process of art.

Our protagonist, Asle is an ageing painter who lives alone in the small town of Dylgja in southwest Norway. When the novel opens, Asle is standing before his newest painting – a canvas depicting two lines intersecting in the middle – and is contemplating whether it’s a piece of work that satisfies him.

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, 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 the purple line cross the colours 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…

Asle is a widower, having lost his wife Ales many years earlier, and leads a solitary existence. He is religious and a teetotaler having given up drinking years ago at the insistence of his wife. His only friends seem to be his neighbour Asleik, a fisherman-farmer, and Beyer, who is the gallery owner in the city of Bjorgvin.

Asle’s shows are held annually in the Beyer Gallery, which is located in Bjorgvin, a few miles away from Dylgja. This entails trips to Bjorgvin on some days to procure art supplies and also to deliver his final paintings. Asle is not comfortable commuting in big cities, and Beyer assigns him a designated parking space, making things easier for Asle.

At the same time, the reader is introduced to the other Asle who stays near Bjorgvin, in Sailor’s Cove. This Asle is also an ageing painter and lives alone in his home. But there the similarities end. Bjorgvin Asle is an atheist and an alcoholic with two failed marriages behind him. He has children from both his marriages, but they don’t keep in touch. The only person who cares enough for him is Dylgja Asle.

Are both Asle and Asle doppelgangers? Or is the second Asle an alternate version of the first Asle – of what the latter’s life would have been had he not stopped drinking?

There is not much in the way of plot in the novel and the drama is mostly internal, as the characters think about the present and hark back to the past. The crux of the plot then is this – While Asle drives back home to Dylgja from his trip to Bjorgvin, he regrets not having stopped at Sailor’s Cove to check on the other Asle. He reaches home, puts all his purchases on the kitchen table, has a long conversation with his neighbour Asleik, and decides to drive back to Bjorgvin the same day to make sure the other Asle is all right (which he is not) even though it is getting dark and there’s a snowstorm on the anvil.

And yet it’s a unique novel with the power to transfix the reader. That’s largely because of the quality of writing that takes it to a whole new level. Fosse has employed what is called ‘slow prose’, a circular narrative technique, which reminded me of Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters. There are no breaks in the paragraphs except when the characters are conversing, and the sentences are punctuated with commas and no full stops. But while Bernhard’s tone is more of a rant, Fosse’s novel is meditative and personal. Reading this novel feels like being at sea – the endless repetitions and rhythmic quality of the prose is akin to the ebb and flow of waves crashing on a beach. Or, there is a sense that you are listening to the chorus in your favourite song again and again. It has a soothing and calming effect.

There are some beautiful passages in the book which dwell on Asle wanting to perfect and hone his craft. He loves the stream of light in his paintings as do his eventual buyers, but he emphasizes that it’s only when he highlights the shadows and the darkness in this pictures, does the light shine through.

…I’ve sometimes thought that’s why I became a painter, because I have all these pictures inside me, yes, so many pictures that they’re a kind of agony, yes, it hurts me when they keep popping up again and again, like visions almost, and in all kinds of contexts, and I can’t do anything about it, the only thing I can do is paint, yes, try to paint away these pictures that are lodged inside me, there’s nothing to do but paint them away, one by one…

The book is also a meditation on grief and death. It becomes obvious as the novel progresses that Asle deeply grieves for his wife Ales. This is presented to the reader in the form of vivid forays into his past where he relives moments with his wife particularly when they were young and courting.

…and I’ve never missed it, not the beer, not the wine, not the stronger stuff, but that’s because of her too, because of Ales, without her I never would have been able to stop needing to drink, I think, and now Ales is waiting for me, she and our child, and I need to get home to them, to my wife, to our child, but what am I thinking? I live alone there, I’m going home to my old house in Dylgja where I used to live with Ales but she’s gone now, she’s with God now, in a way I can feel so clearly inside me, because she’s there inside me too, she isn’t walking around on earth any more but I can still talk to her whenever I want to, yes, it’s strange, there’s no big difference or distance between life and death…

In this regard, there’s a wonderful set piece in the early part of the novel. Dylgja Asle is driving back home from his trip to Bjorgvin and passes a playground where he sees a young couple on the swings. Are those two people real or is it a figment of his imagination?

…come on, come on, just come over here, she says and then he takes off his brown shoulder-bag and puts it down next to the sandpit and takes off his long black coat and lays it over her and then he covers the both of them with the coat so that only his coat is visible and, no, I have no right to look, to watch this, I think, and is it really happening? or is it all just something I’m dreaming? or is it something that actually happened to me once?

It seems more likely that the couple is a younger version of Asle and Ales in their earlier days. Ales is on the swing, and Asle begins pushing her swing hard. Ales is terrified and implores him to stop, but Asle keeps pushing anyway. Suddenly, Ales begins to enjoy thoroughly and begs Asle to continue. It’s a lovely section in the novel and wonderfully brings to the fore, the charm of adults when they occasionally display the inner child in them.

Death and sickness pervades the life of the other Asle in Bjorgvin. Wrecked by drink and loneliness, Asle is at the end of his tether and contemplates suicide. He is rescued by Dylgja Asle in time and taken to a hospital where the latter spends a sleepless night worrying.

The Other Name is also a book of many contradictions. Asle wants his art to be displayed in the gallery and yet he wants to keep his best paintings himself and not sell them. His wife’s death instills a feeling of loneliness in Asle and yet he does not really crave company except that of his neighbour Asleik. The other Asle drinks heavily to stop his tremors which are the result of his relentless drinking in the first place.

Despite the reflective tone of the novel, it is not without its fair share of tension. There is a particular set piece in the middle of the novel where Dylgja Asle has reached Bjorgvin in the middle of a raging snowstorm. With the snow obliterating the landscape, Asle loses his bearings and spends an interminable amount of time trying to locate the place to where he is heading. With no one on the streets, the whole scene feels surreal, tense and other worldly.

The Other Name is the first book in Fosse’s Septology trilogy comprising sections I and II. Both the sections begin with Asle standing before his painting as he reflects on merging of the two lines and end with him reciting prayers with his rosary beads.

It’s a brilliant book, personal, intimate and hypnotic, and asks some big questions – To what extent can certain decisions alter the course of one’s life, one that is different from someone else’s? What determines our identity – our actions or our circumstances or both?

The second book I Is For Another (Septology III-IV) has also been released by Fitzcarraldo Editions and I plan to dig into it soon.