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.

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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.

Nobel Prize Speculations

So, the announcement date for the Nobel prize in Literature has been pushed back by a week. The committee said that this is due solely to the dates and when they meet, but as others have said, it’s quite probable that this delay is actually because of a disagreement about who to award. Most times in past years, the eventual winner was in the top 10 at Ladbrokes (yes, people bet on everything; not only that, but betting sites are actually used quite frequently in Nobel speculation), and, to my knowledge, the few times it wasn’t, the laureate had been added to the list and was rising suspiciously through the odds at this point in time. So, going off this, who could be this year’s winner/if there is an argument, which writers could they be battling over?

Haruki Murakami has consistently been the odds favorite for many years now, could this be his year? Could some academy members wanting to give him the prize be the reason for the delay? Honestly, probably not. As a fan of Murakami, I don’t know if I’d say he’s deserving. His prose is simple (and not in the Hemingway-sense where it feels like there’s an artistic reason behind it) and at times awkward (which could be the translation, but I’ve heard the English versions are quite close to the original). His stories are all similar, and, most importantly, if they’ve passed over him before, I don’t see any reason to give it to him now. His latest book wasn’t exactly a masterpiece, and if he didn’t win before, I don’t see him nabbing the Nobel now.

There is Adunis, though, a Syrian poet who writes in Arabic. I’ve read a short collection by him, and although poetry is not really my thing, I wouldn’t mind to see him win. That said, he has been considered the frontrunner before and has certainly been nominated—in 2005, the last time the announcement was delayed by a week, he was thought to be a finalist—meaning, why would he win now? The political situation in Syria? The civil war and refugee crisis isn’t new this year, and in 2005, sources said Orhan Pamuk, who was undergoing a trial in Turkey over freedom of speech, was another finalist but that the academy might pass him over in order to prevent the prize from getting too political (Pamuk would end up winning the following year). Perhaps the row is over giving it to Adunis, but I don’t see why he would end up walking away with it.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o has long been thought of as Africa’s frontrunner, but he has the same problem: nothing he’s published recently has really made waves. I also greatly dislike his work, so while it wouldn’t be the end of the prize if he won, I would prefer to see another African win. (On the other hemisphere, I put Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth in this category. I don’t understand why they keep coming up year after year).

Jon Fosse rose in the odds in 2013, when Alice Munro turned out to be the winner, but since then he’s been thought of as a likely candidate. Boosting his chances are his plays—Pinter was the last playwright winner—and a recent prestigious award for his recent “trilogy.” So we have an underrepresented type of literature with a recent big important work that might put him over the edge. I am hesitant, though: the same academy that awards the Nobel also gives out a smaller Scandinavian-only prize that Fosse won in 2007. If it was his year, I don’t know if an argument like this would be happening—the academy clearly already likes his work.

Javier Marias, meanwhile, is one of the few writers to see real changes in odds this year. He started out around 50/1 and moved all the way up to 17/1. The thing about him, though, is that he really didn’t deserve to be at such low odds originally. If I was a betting man, I’d have put some money on him just because of how low he was. He’s been bandied about in discussions online as a potential winner for several years now, and betting on him at 50/1 could give you a pretty penny.

Mircea Cartarescu has been called the Romanian frontrunner for several years now, after his humongous work Blinding, and just this year he published another large, critically acclaimed work. Like Marias, he also saw a jump in his odds, but also like Marias, he really should have been higher to begin with anyway.

So, who will end up winning? Other than Cartarescu and Marias, a few others have seen their odds go down (Fosse, Adunis and Roth included) but those changes were so small and there has been no other movement from them that no conclusions can really be drawn. And anyway, those with the lowest odds usually see them drop even lower in the weeks prior, so it’s not unexpected. Hopefully this next week, as the academy figures out who will win, we see more movement/even a leak.

As for my picks, I’d like to see Fosse or Marias win it this year. There are a number of others I wouldn’t mind seeing win (William T. Vollmann, Can Xue, Su Tong, Louise Erdrich), but I don’t think it’ll be any of them; had they made it to the shortlist, we probably would have seen their names rise (or just appear) on a betting list.