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.

Good Morning, Midnight – Jean Rhys

I was first introduced to Jean Rhys’ writing when I read Wide Sargasso Sea, in college probably. The fact that it was marketed as a prequel to Jane Eyre (a novel I rate highly), greatly piqued my interest. To be honest, I don’t remember much about the book now other than the central premise it’s based on. I remember liking it at the time.

I had absolutely no clue then that she had a much stronger body of work published earlier. Those four novels – all stylistically similar – didn’t do well all those years ago, after which she fell into long spell of obscurity before Wide Sargasso Sea was published in her later life.

I don’t really recollect what got me started reading her earlier work a few years ago. It could be that her name always cropped up whenever Patrick Hamilton’s work was discussed. They do have the same type of protagonists – lonely characters seeking companionship in bars and drinks, although the writing styles are as different as chalk and cheese.

I had loved Patrick Hamilton’s Slaves of Solitude and Hangover Square. And seeing that Jean Rhys’ earlier novels were more often than not clubbed with Patrick Hamilton’s work, that was probably the starting point of my foray into her earlier oeuvre.

Anyway, Jean Rhys has been a great find. And Good Morning, Midnight (title taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson) is a strong piece of work.

Good Morning Midnight 1

This is how the book opens…

‘Quite like old times,’ the room says. ‘Yes? No?’

There are two beds, a big one for madame and a smaller one on the opposite side for monsieur. It is a large room, the smell of cheap hotels faint, almost imperceptible. The street outside is narrow, cobble-stoned, going sharply uphill and ending in a flight of steps. What they call an impasse.

I have been here five days. I have decided on a place to eat in at midday, a place to eat in at night, a place to have my drink in after dinner. I have arranged my little life.

The narrator Sophia Jansen has come to Paris in what is her second stint in the city.

Sophia spends her days drinking in bars and cafes across the city. But she is afraid that if she drinks too much, will start crying, and that will not do.

She is paranoid about people judging her and talking behind her back. Maybe she is also imagining things?

These people all fling themselves at me. Because I am uneasy and sad they all fling themselves at me larger than life. But I can put my arm up to avoid the impact and they slide gently to the ground. Individualists, completely wrapped up in themselves, thank God. It’s the extrovert, prancing around, dying for a bit of fun – that’s the person you’ve got to be wary of.

At the very start of the novel is it apparent that Sophia is suffering from depression, but we don’t know why. One gets the feeling that she is at the end of her tether.

The hotel rooms she stays in are the same, nothing really to differentiate one from the other. And the days are also marked by a debilitating sameness, the tedium of which she tries to break by steadily drinking.

My life, which seems so simple and monotonous, is really a complicated affair of cafes where they like me and cafes where they don’t, streets that are friendly, streets that aren’t, rooms where I might be happy, rooms I never shall be, looking-glasses I look nice in, looking-glasses I don’t, dresses that will be lucky, dresses that won’t, and so on.

Gradually, we are offered a glimpse into her past – her first stay in Paris, her marriage to a Dutchman called Enno, her brief return to London, only to visit Paris again.

As the focus shifts to her past, her fear of people, of being judged wrongly is present right from her youth as she flits between various jobs, which include being displayed as a mannequin. There is one extended scene in a clothing store where she is an assistant that is particularly heartbreaking – a conversation that she has with her superior’s boss Mr Blank, and her inability to perform a task given to her.

Mr Blank tells her to hand over an envelope to ‘the kis.’ But she is unable to find this person. She approaches Mr Blank again.

He takes the note from my hand. He looks at me as if I were a dog which had presented him with a very, very old bone, (Say something, say something…)

‘I couldn’t find him.’

‘But how do you mean you couldn’t find him? He must be there.’

‘I’m very sorry. I didn’t know where to find him.’

‘You don’t know where to find the cashier – the counting house?’

‘La caisse,’ Salvatini says – helpfully, but too late.

But if I tell him that it was the way he pronounced it thsat confused him, it will seem rude. Better not say anything…

There are some brief moments of happiness that she does find when she marries Enno, despite their day to day hurdles of eking out a life together in some European cities and eventually Paris.

As soon as I see him I know from his face that he’s got some money.

We go next door to a place called La Napolitaine and eat ravioli. Warming me. Eat slowly, make it last a long time.

I’ve never been so happy in my life. I’m alive, eating ravioli and drinking wine. I’ve escaped. A door has opened and let me out into the sun. What more do I want? Anything might happen.

But we also feel the inevitability of this marriage ending. Indeed, it is the break-up of her marriage and another tragedy related to it that nearly push Sophia over the edge.

Meanwhile, in the present, in the hours spent away drinking and harking back to memories, Sophia also seeks out the company of men (a couple of Russians and a gigolo). The men are of a certain type – they look to sidle up to her thinking she is moneyed.

Sophia is not ignorant. She is aware of this reality, of why these men put up with her. And yet she does not put an end to seeking their company.

As is the case with most of the Rhys books I have read, there is no plot. The writing feels very impressionistic, stream of consciousness style, as most of the time we are inside Sophia’s head or in and out of flashbacks.

There is also nothing linear about the narrative, her train of thought or her journeys into the past. The timeline does not play a role here, rather it is Sophia’s emotional state that does.

When describing this novel, I can’t help but draw parallels to any Impressionist painting. The brushstrokes are vivid but the picture as a whole at first is hazy. Until you move back a little, and it all becomes clear. Good Morning, Midnight felt the same way. It started off as a series of impressions of Sophia’s drinking and her fragile state of mind. But as we moved back a little and got a peek into her past, the whole picture started becoming clearer.

Interestingly, while Sophia’s existence is bleak, as a narrator she is not always so. She refuses to be pitied, and there is some sense of detachment when she looks back to her past, as if she is watching her journey to ruin from a distance. There are also some tragically funny passages where she chides herself for not keeping up appearances.

The keeping up of appearances in public is ironic. Earlier in her life, Sophia had already done a stint as a mannequin in a department store. That was just a job, but now she believes she must play that role in real life too. Basically, wear a mask (metaphorically speaking), so people can’t gauge her real emotions.

I watch my face gradually breaking up – cheeks puffing out, eyes getting smaller. Never mind.

Besides, it isn’t my face, this tortured and tormented mask. I can take it off whenever I like and hang it up on a nail. Or shall I place on it a tall hat with a green feather, hang a veil over the lot, and walk about the dark streets so merrily? Singing defiantly ‘You don’t like me, but I don’t like you either.’

How will it all end? Will Sophia’s endurance finally break or will things carry on as before?

Good Morning, Midnight is another strong offering from Jean Rhys’ oeuvre. Here is an excerpt from A.L. Kennedy’s excellent introduction to this novel:

Vivid fragments of sensory information swoop and lunge at the reader, establishing the rhythms of a bad drinking bout: one moment all docile clarity, the next a crush of sickened self-awareness, a lurch into the past, or a dreamscape, or a helpless re-examination of realities too dull and terrible to seem anything other than the products of a sick imagination.

Having now read most of her novels, I still rate Voyage in the Dark as her best, followed by this one. After Leaving Mr Mackenzie would be third. I still have Quartet to read but I don’t see it toppling the first two. Plus, I have an edition of her Collected Stories to get to.

But all of that will be after some time has passed by. Rhys is intense and can only be taken in small doses!

Good Morning Midnight 2
Penguin Modern Classics Edition

 

 

 

Patrick Melrose – Edward St Aubyn

These five Patrick Melrose novels, penned by Edward St Aubyn, easily rank among my favourite books of all time. The central character Patrick Melrose is an upper class anti-hero, troubled and vulnerable.

Patrick Melrose books
Picador Editions

THE NOVELS

It begins with the wonderfully titled book Never Mind. Here, Patrick is a 5 year old child and is in rural France staying with his spaced out mother and his monstrous father. The book focuses on David Melrose’s cruelty especially on his wife Eleanor and the sexual abuse of his son Patrick, which is sufficiently implied but never explicitly detailed. At the centre of this is a dinner with friends where some more characters are introduced – the insufferable Nicholas Pratt and his young girlfriend Bridget, and the couple Victor and Anne. It all goes wrong, and David Melrose manages to antagonise his guests.

The second book is called Bad News. Here, Patrick Melrose is in his 20s and a drug addict. He learns his father is dead, and has to travel to New York to collect his ashes. It chronicles Patrick’s struggles through addiction, as he experiments with cocaine, heroin, and Quaaludes, with horrific and sometimes hilarious results.

The third book is Some Hope. Patrick Melrose is off drugs, although the spectre of his father and the abuse still haunts him. Pratt makes sure he is invited to the party thrown by Bridget (who has climbed the social ranks) for her husband Sonny in a country mansion. There are other notable characters at the party namely the Princess Margaret, who uncannily displays a moment of cruelty almost similar to that of David Melrose in the first book. The party is the focal point of this book, and is suffused with witty dialogues, and sarcasm aimed at the upper class.

The fourth book is Mother’s Milk. It is set many years later. Patrick is now married to Mary with two young sons Robert (a precocious, observant child), and Thomas. Patrick’s mother Eleanor is aged, ill, and in her final years. Patrick learns that she has left her inheritance and her house to the hack Seamus and his Foundation. The irony is not lost on Patrick – his mother believes in doing social good and donating to social causes but did nothing to protect young Patrick from his abusive father. Patrick also struggles with parenthood, and his relationship with his wife who he feels is prioritizing their young son Thomas over him.

The fifth and final book is At Last, and offers some sort of a redemption for Patrick. His mother Eleanor has just died, and it’s her funeral. Other episodes in the past are also referenced to – his efforts to come clean from alcoholism, and the possibility of making amends with his family.

Despite the dark, disturbing subject matter, Aubyn manages to make these novels quite special. What makes them stand out is the liberal dose of caustic wit, irony and black humour sprinkled throughout. Plus, the characters are wonderfully drawn, and the prose is pristine and elegant. Much of it is autobiographical, as Aubyn has stated in his interviews that he was repeatedly raped by his father, to which his mother responded that she was raped too.

Patrick Melrose
Film-Book Tie-In

THE TV ADAPTATION

Early this year, these novels were adapted into a five-part TV series called Patrick Melrose and starred Benedict Cumberbatch, who is a fan of these novels and wanted to bring them to the screen. The series were nominated for the Emmys this year.

Melrose novels adaptation
Film-Book Tie-Ins

I just finished seeing them over the weekend. The casting is spot on and the performances are top notch. Cumberbatch particularly stands out, which is hardly surprising.

Benedict At Last
A Still from the Patrick Melrose TV Series

In the TV series, the second book Bad News has been shown as Part One, while Never Mind (the first book) is Part Two in the series. Cumberbatch has convincingly portrayed the frenetic role of a drug addict; the cravings and withdrawal symptoms in the first episode, to a quieter, more nuanced performance in the last two series as he looks to exorcise his demons and find solace and redemption.

Benedict At Last Two
The Melrose Family in the TV Series