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.