Book Reviews: Melancholy and Melancholy II by Jon Fosse

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, she agreeing, and then, in her old age, completely forgetting and instead losing herself in reminisce about her dead brother. From there, it only gets more penetrating.

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. Luckily, a lot of his plays are (although only Amazon seems to have them, no libraries or anything), and I’ll be reviewing some in the coming weeks.


Book Review: An Angel Walks Through the Stage and Other Essays by Jon Fosse

I wouldn’t recommend anyone start with Jon Fosse here. Although he is a famed playwright, novelist and poet in Norway, he’s never been renowned for nonfiction. He actually published two books of essays totaling something like 600 pages early in his career before giving it up, and the present volume is a selection from those with one or two speeches that he gave later on. The pieces aren’t bad, in fact I really enjoyed them and gave the book 5 stars on Goodreads. It’s more that unless you’re already acquainted with Fosse’s work, you won’t get much out of them.

A lot of the essays here are about theory, but none are so dense as to be bogged down in academic prose. Instead, Fosse comments on philosophy and figures like Derrida, discussing more their impact on his thinking than any scholarly interpretations. There are also flashes of his biography here and there, like his schooling or his music-loving teenage years, nowhere hear anything comprehensive but, given the lack of information on Fosse in English, fans should delight in what’s here.

Many of the essays here are short, small thoughts rather than comprehensive arguments, just a page or two, with topics ranging from plays to Beckett to Bernhard.

If you already like Fosse and enjoy Literature with a capital “L” (I can’t imagine there are many from the first category that don’t fall in the second), then this is another great addition to Fosse’s oeuvre available in English. If you’re looking for a good place to start with him and neither Morning and Evening or I Am the Wind appeal to you, don’t worry, more reviews of his novels and plays are forthcoming.

Book Review: I am the Wind by Jon Fosse

I have previously written about Jon Fosse and his skills as a prose writer, but this is the first play I have read by him. He is the world’s most performed living playwright, and translations of almost all his plays are available in English, but for whatever reason, he has never caught on in the English-speaking world.

With sparse dialogue reminiscent of Beckett and Pinter, this is not a play for everyone. It features two characters, The One and The Other, in a small boat in an unnamed body of water, and most of the play consists in just them talking. Their talk, ridden with pauses and unfinished thoughts, might frustrate those who want them to come right out and say what is on their mind, but that is one of the play’s big themes: the inadequacy of language.

Readers more action-minded will be pleased to know that the characters do not sit around waiting for the whole play. There is a chilling event that brings the short text to its conclusion, which, to avoid spoilers, I will not say much about other than it puts a new light on the preceding dialogue.

I must emphasize again that this is not for everybody, but for anyone who ever enjoyed Beckett or a similar writer, this is a real treat. Most of Jon Fosse’s plays are collected in volumes containing 5 or 6 plays; this is one of the few standalones. For those who want to try out Fosse but do not want to commit to a handful of works, this text is great. It is a shame Fosse is not more well known over here, although with him now being mentioned as a possible future Nobel laureate, perhaps that will soon change.

Book Review: Morning and Evening by Jon Fosse

Little known in the English world, Fosse is one of the most acclaimed living playwright’s in the world. But his first passion was writing novels, and this one proves he has some serious prose skills.

The first 15 pages of the novella describe in real time the birth of Johannes, the other 80 the last day of his life. Despite unfolding in a cliché way, this is a great, heartfelt read. Condensing Johannes’s life into two points could have easily been used as a gimmick but Fosse pulls it off, and by the end of this short, short book you feel like you’ve seen Johannes’s whole lifespan.

Don’t be deceived by the length—this is a surprisingly dense, stream of conscious novella. But don’t be put off by that either, because the language here is simpler (but still just as poetic) compared to similarly written books. Once you get used to the style it’s not too hard to follow, no leaps through times, and matches the disorientation Johannes feels when he wakes up on a day when everything is the same but at the same time different.

This is one of Fosse’s more critically acclaimed works back home. It was nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize and ranked fourth on a list of the top 25 Norwegian books published from 1981 to 2006. I’d recommend anyone who wants to read Fosse’s prose start here (although you can’t go wrong with Aliss, either).