I loved the first two volumes of Jon Fosse’s fabulous Septology – The Other Name and I is Another – and have yet to read the final book, but thought I’d first read his much shorter work Aliss at the Fire which has been recently published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.
The musical, rhythmic chant-like writing style that was such a striking feature of Jon Fosse’s Septology is very much palpable in Aliss at the Fire, a haunting meditation on marriage, loss, grief and the randomness of fate; a book that at 74 pages might not seem as weighty as the monumental Septology series, but is no less impressive.
It’s March 2002 and we see Signe lying on the bench in her old house taking in all the objects around her. Signe is now alone, riddled with grief for her husband Asle who disappears one day in November in 1979. In typical Fosse style, we are transported to the past in the space of a sentence and we see Signe in the very same room, standing by the window as she waits for Asle to return.
To Signe, that day was like any other day, whereupon Asle expressed his wish to head out into the fjord on his small, unsteady boat, an excursion that became part of his daily routine, only that time Asle failed to return home.
Signe persistently wonders why Asle is consumed by this pressing need to take his boat onto the fjord practically every other day. Initially, Signe does not think much about it and even accepts it as a matter of course, but on days leading to that fateful evening Asle’s isolation, his withdrawal into himself and that craving to head out onto the fjord even in inclement weather are occurrences that begin to disturb Signe. And the weather on the day he disappears is turbulent laced with heavy rains and gusty winds, conditions not at all conducive for rowing on the waters.
…because this darkness, this endless darkness all the time now, she can’t stand it, she thinks, and she has to say something to him, something, she thinks, and then it’s as if nothing is what it was, she thinks, and she looks around the room and yes everything is what it was, nothing is different, why does she think that, that something is different? she thinks, why should anything be different? why would she think something like that? that anything could really be different? she thinks, because there he is standing in front of the window, almost impossible to separate from the darkness outside, but what has been wrong with him lately? has something happened? has he changed? why has he gotten so quiet?
Asle agrees and decides to go for a walk instead, all alone, but everytime he urges himself to head back home, he resists. He senses Signe standing by the window staring into the dark; she can’t see him, but he can sense her presence and can’t bring himself to walk back into the house.
As Signe increasingly frets about Asle’s absence, she is paralysed by fear and uncertainty. How will she cope without him if something terrible has happened, but meanwhile in the immediate present what must she do – should she head out to the fjord to search for him? How can she do that all by herself?
As Signe waits for Asle on a day that on the surface seemed normal and yet underlined with a different quality, Signe reflects on their marriage, how they met and were destined to be together and even whether she needed Asle more than he needed her.
Asle, meanwhile, has become a recluse, shunning company as much as possible. There’s a darkness raging inside him that is the colour of the darkness enveloping the fjord, black and impenetrable. It is possible he is suffering from depression and it seems that Signe’s company now does not offer him the solace he desires, his trips onto the fjord is the only activity that entices him.
…but anyway it’s probably all right just to go out for a little walk, he thinks and he starts to walk down the big road and it’s terrible how dark it is now, late in the autumn, they’ve already got to late November, it’s a Tuesday in late November, in the year 1979, and even though it’s only afternoon it has got as dark as if it was evening, that’s how it is at this time of year, late in the autumn, he thinks, and after not much longer it will be just dark, dark all day, with no light left to speak of at all, he thinks, and it’s good to go for a walk, he likes that, he thinks, it sometimes does take some effort to get out of the house, true, but as soon as you’re out it’s better, and he likes it, he likes to walk, he only needs to get going, to re- ally get going, to find his own pace again, and then it’s good, he thinks, it’s as though the heaviness that other- wise fills his life gets a little lighter, it gets taken away from him, turned into movement, it leaves behind the heavy thick motionless blackness that life can be the rest of the time, he thinks, but when he’s walking, he thinks, he can feel like a nice piece of old woodwork…
As Asle walks in the dismal dark, he is faced with visions of a fire near the beach (“it’s a big fire, and pretty, the yellow and red flames in the darkness in this cold”) around which he sees his great, great grandmother Aliss and in a matter of minutes the scope of the novel widens to accommodate five generations of Asle’s family spanning across the immediate present to the distant past.
We are introduced to Aliss while she is busy throwing sticks mounted with sheep’s heads into the fire (“that’s Aliss, he thinks, and he sees it, he knows it. That’s Aliss at the fire”), and her son Kristoffer (Asle’s great grandfather) by her side, a young boy then and completely entranced by the sight before him. In time periods that effortlessly blend and fuse, we also see Kristoffer as an adult married to Brita and their two sons Olaf (Asle’s grandfather) and Asle (Asle’s granduncle). We learn of the tragedy that befalls Kristoffer and Brita when their 7-year old son Asle drowns in the fjord; a fate that shares a striking parallel with Signe’s husband Asle who has also likely drowned. This intermingling of two Asles, how their fates are inextricably bound together and yet different is a recurring theme that is also resonant in the Septology.
Aliss at the Fire, then, is a haunting, lyrical meditation on marriage and the fluctuating emotions within, the pain of loss and seemingly insurmountable grief and the wicked play of fate. As far as their marriage goes, a union of more than twenty years, Signe ponders on what makes two people committed to each other for so long (“what ties two people together?”).
…and he just opened the door and walked out, she thinks, but then again there are no problems between them, everything is good, they really are the closest couple you can imagine, the two of them, they never say anything to hurt each other, and he probably doesn’t even know, she thinks, what good he can do for her, he can be so unsure of himself, not knowing what he should say or do, but there’s not any resentment of her in him, she’s certainly never noticed any, she thinks, but then why would he want to be out on the fjord all the time?
The theme of grief and loss is explored not only through Signe’s yearning for Asle and her efforts to process her grief all those years later, but also the grief of a mother and father losing their child (seen through Kristoffer and Brita’s eyes) and the strength required to carry on (“and in the woman’s eyes, her big eyes, there is something like a yellow sunbeam of despair”).
…he too stood there like that in front of the window, like she now sees herself standing, before he disappeared and stayed gone, gone forever, he often stood like that and looked and looked, and the darkness outside the window was black and he was almost impossible to tell apart from the darkness out there, or else the darkness out there was almost impossible to tell apart from him, that’s how she remembers him, that’s how it was, that’s how he stood, and then he said something about how he wanted to go out on the water for a little while, she thinks, but she never, or almost never, went with him, the fjord was not for her, she thinks, and maybe she should have gone with him more often? and if she had been with him on that evening, then maybe it never would have happened? then maybe he would be here now?
That fate is arbitrary and unpredictable is all too obvious through the repeated occurrence of an event across the five generations with varying outcomes. Kristoffer as a child accidently falls into the fjord waters and Aliss manages to save him in the nick of time, yet Kristoffer’s own child Asle, alas, is not that lucky and drowns at a time when Kristoffer is not around.
The Norwegian fjords are a character in their own right – fierce, sinister, inscrutable and especially ominous during seasons of autumn and winter when the days get increasingly dark and gloomy. This is a deeply atmospheric novella with a vivid sense of place; a mysterious, menacing air that surrounds the fjords and the fates of the characters within the novella’s pages.
…in the summers, rowing out on the fjord when the fjord is sparkling blue, when it glitters all blue, then maybe it’s tempting, when the sun is shining on the fjord and the water is calm and everything is blue upon blue, but now, in darkest autumn, when the fjord is grey and black and colourless and it’s cold and the waves are high and rough, not to mention in winter when there’s snow and ice on the seats of the boat and you have to kick at the rigging to get it loose, get it free of the ice, if you want to free the boat from its moorings, and when snow-covered ice floes are floating on the fjord, why then? what’s the appeal of the fjord then?
The fluid shifts in various points of view and across time spans are seamlessly accomplished within the space of a few paragraphs and sentences; it’s as if the distant past, the immediate past and the present are compressed within the confines of a single space.
Written in his trademark hallucinatory and melodic prose, the visuals and phrases often repeat to hypnotic effect lending the novella an other-worldly quality. In a nutshell, Aliss at the Fire is an excellent novella and a perfect entry into Fosse’s unique world if you haven’t sampled his work before.