I is Another, the second book in the Septology trilogy, is a stunning meditation on art, God, alcohol and friendship.
Just like the two sections in The Other Name, the book opens with Asle staring at his latest work, a painting that depicts two lines intersecting in the middle with the paint dripping down the canvas.
As depicted in The Other Name, Asle has had a tiring couple of days. He had driven to Bjorgvin for groceries, came back home to drop them off, drove again on the same day to check on his namesake Asle who he finds drunk and unconscious on the street. An alcoholic, Namesake Asle is hospitalized and main Asle spends an anxious night at the hotel there, before returning home to Dyglja with the former’s dog Braggi.
I is Another picks up from where The Other Name ends. It’s nearing Christmas and Asle has to deliver his paintings to the Beyer Gallery in Bjorgvin for the exhibition, an annual tradition adhered to just before Christmas. Thus, as a new day dawns, and despite how exhausted he is, Asle is all set to make yet another trip to Bjorgvin to deliver his paintings to the Beyer Gallery and while there also check up on his namesake who is in the hospital in a terrible state.
This mundane, everyday present is juxtaposed against vivid forays into his past; memories that begin to provide some shape to Asle’s persona, particularly his childhood and developmental years as an artist, the beginning of some crucial friendships and his first meeting with his wife-to-be Ales. This flurry of flashbacks filter through his mind’s eye, when Asle drives to Bjorgvin in icy, cold weather, the snowflakes falling in heaps and bounds on the windshield of his car, and later when he is lying on the bench at home or staring out to the sea.
We first encounter a young Asle unhappy in school because he has no aptitude for mathematics or science. He does have a flair and passion for art (he wants to paint away the pictures in his head), and it’s his desire to eventually attend art school that keeps him going.
A short stint as a guitarist in a band goes awry when Asle realizes he lacks the talent to be a musician, and quits. Around that time he runs into Sigve for the first time, a slightly older boy, who has just been released from prison (he was arrested for arson and drunkenness) and an awkward friendship ensues.
Young Asle (with his black velvet jacket, brown satchel and scarf) is also unhappy at home feeling trapped by an overbearing mother and a mostly silent father who toils day and night building boats with little income to show for it. An opening into The Academic High School in Aga fills him with anticipation, a chance to get away from his parents and live independently even though the idea of school instills a sense of dread. But he has to attend High School if he wants to attend Art School he is told, so he steels himself for this new phase in his life.
When settling into his new quarters in Aga, Asle bumps into Sigve again, a friendship that resumes with the prospect of beer and talk even though Asle is an introvert and would prefer being left to his own devices. But Sigve mentions seeing another man at Stranda, a man also called Asle, the namesake, who bears a lot of resemblance to main Asle. Intrigued by this, main Asle agrees to accompany Sigve to Stranda if only to satisfy his curiosity and meet his namesake for the first time – the other Asle is also a painter but acutely short of cash compelling him to settle for coffee when he would rather have beer.
When in the past, we are also given a window into Asle’s budding artistic career – an exhibition organized by him to display his paintings leads to an introduction to Beyer, who will subsequently go on to become his biggest patron.
As the book progresses, Asle’s reclusive nature comes to the fore – in the present, his only friends are Asleik, a fisherman-farmer who without fail buys a painting every year from Asle to gift to his sister Guro, and Beyer who owns the Beyer Gallery. But this withdrawn demeanour is palpable even in his youth – Asle prefers to be absent on the day of his first ever showing at the Beyer Gallery, even when Beyer insists that it’s the best opportunity for him to meet prospective customers who have never experienced his art before.
Meanwhile, in the present, as Asle drives to Bjorgvin or even lies down home in front of the fire out of sheer tiredness, he ponders on the bigger questions of faith, religion, art and death. Faith is something Asle particularly struggles with fuelled by the sudden death of his young sister Alida. Unable to fathom how she died so young, Asle is deeply scarred by the incident. The priest’s eulogy at her funeral leaves him cold affirming his need to renounce Catholicism. And yet, he is converted and finds it in himself to believe again after his marriage to Ales, exemplified by the slew of rosaries she gifts to Asle on his birthdays.
As Asle sits on a chair in his home staring at a particular point on the waves of the Signe Sea, he muses on the nature of art and God, how both are inextricably bound together.
…a person comes from God and goes back to God, I think, 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, yes, the same as in any work of art, in a good poem too, in a good piece of music, yes, there is a unity that’s the spirit in the work and it’s the spirit, the unity of body and soul, that rises up from the dead, yes, it’s the resurrection of the flesh, and it happens all the time…
…still I’ve found my place in The Church, I think, and seeing oneself as Catholic isn’t just a belief, it’s a way of being alive and being in the world, one that’s in a way like being an artist, since being a painter is also a way of living your life, a way of being in the world, and for me these two ways of being in the world go together well since they both create a kind of distance from the world, so to speak, and point towards something else, something that’s in the world, immanent, as they say, and that also points away from the world, something transcendent, as they say…
Asle is also beset by moments of doubt, fears and panic attacks. This tendency towards panic attacks is first pronounced during his high school years when the task of reading out aloud in class prompts the onset of terror, the onslaught of these sudden attacks continue well into adulthood. Moreover, self-doubts continue to linger over his calling as a painter – sometimes he wrestles with thoughts that his paintings are mediocre, at other times he realizes he has reached the pinnacle of his career, either way he feels he has a reached a point in his life where he wants to call it a day and paint no more.
It’s also a precursor to how Asle gradually slides into excessive drinking, only stopping to comply with Ales’ wishes and because it interfered greatly with his painting. While the other Asle can’t bring himself to do so paving the way for the eventual breakdown of his personal life (in this book his painting career is yet to take off commercially but his hands are already full with responsibilities having to support his partner and their child), and the destruction of his body.
Similar to The Other Name, the striking feature of I is Another is Fosse’s highly original, melodious slow prose where the writing dances to a rhythmic flow, the sentences swell with musical cadences and there’s a dreamy, hallucinatory feel to the narrative that is utterly unique.
I think that the sea is always there to be seen, yes, I can see all the way out to the mouth of the fjord and the open sea, yes, I see the Sygne Sea and the islets and reefs out there, the holms and skerries, and the islands protecting the mouth of the fjord, and then I see the spaces between the islands where it opens out and you can see the ocean itself, yes, even if its dark or snowing hard or a heavy rain or there’s a fog I can see the water, the waves, the ocean and it’s impossible to understand…
There’s a wonderful depth to Asle’s personality – his formative years and how they influence his character and vocation, his loneliness, fears and anxieties, his fervor for art but the uncertainty of whether he has talent, his descent into alcoholism and a sort of a resurrection when he stops, then to finally reach a point where contemplates hanging up his boots.
I is Another, then, is an exquisite continuation of the Septology series, a hypnotic blend of the everyday with the existential, and I am looking forward to the final installment in this trilogy.