Norwegian painter Lars Hertervig, an actual real-life figure who struggled with schizophrenia and only found widespread success after his death, is the focus of Jon Fosse’s “Melancholy.” Here’s one of his works. “Melancholy” is split up into three sections. The first and by far largest follows one day of him as a young man, struggling to make it as an artist and studying at a German academy for art. He’s too afraid to go to the school that day, reasoning that while he is one of the few there who can actually paint, the teacher will probably hate his work-in-progress. To complicate matters, he’s in love with his landlord’s daughter and his strange behavior towards her is getting him kicked out, and both of these events seem to trigger a schizophrenic episode (presumably one of his first).
The story is narrated in a stream of conscious style on steroids. I’ve seen a lot of reviews quote large sections of text in order to illustrate but I won’t. In pieces, it seems annoying. Taken altogether, instead it’s a fascinating and intense examination of a brilliant, troubled mind. At times it really does feel like you’re reading someone’s thoughts. It isn’t for everyone, but if you can handle it, you’re in for a wild ride.
The second part again takes place on a single day. A few years have passed. Lars is locked away in an asylum, still fantasizing about the landlord’s daughter and dreaming of escape. Once again, Fosse provides a gripping psychological portrait that proves irresistible.
The third section is a change of pace. It’s set in the late 1980s/early 1990s and follows a writer considering writing a novel on Hertervig. Depression, though, has stopped his pen, and he is going to a young priest to see if religion might lift his spirits. This easily could have become a postmodern curiosity, not at all in line with the rest of the book, but although it seems to be taken from Fosse’s own life, he maintains the same style and same intensity to make it the perfect ending. This part does not “properly” end the threads of Hertervig’s life but it does explore art and wraps up everything on a thematic level.
An odd way to end the book, one not every writer could pull off, but Fosse expertly watches his step. Highly recommended, one of the best books I’ve read all year.
A year after “Melancholy” was published, Fosse wrote “Melancholy II,” a coda to the previous novel. Though a lot shorter than its predecessor, it covers just as much if not more ground. It follows one of Lars’s sisters over the course of, again, a single day years after his original breakdown. Lars is dead; she is a senile old lady just barely managing on her own. It opens with her sister-in-law asking her to come see her dying brother (not Lars), she agreeing, and then, in her old age, completely forgetting and instead losing herself in reminisce about Lars.
The prose here is changed, more in line with Fosse’s usual style of long but simply-worded sentences rather than the intensity of “Melancholy.” For those put off by the original, “Melancholy II” can be understood on its own, although there is a lot to be gained here by reading the books in order.
Fosse manages to weave human existence into this short bit of space. It’s haunting in the best of ways, at times gross (elderly people do not have the best control over bodily functions) but never unnecessarily so, never only for shock value.
If only more of Fosse’s books were available in English.