This melancholic Norwegian masterpiece is a beautiful, albeit acquired taste, now finally available in an English translation.
Melancholy IIPublisher: Dalkey Archive
Author: Jon Fosse
Length: 112 pages
Translated: Eric Dickens
Publication date: 2014-11
Articles in the UK and North America about the award-winning Norwegian writer and playwright Jon Fosse invariably dwell on the question of why he isn’t better known in these parts. “He is one of Europe's most-performed dramatists, and his sparse, Pinteresque drama has led to him being tipped for the Nobel prize. So why has Britain never heard of Jon Fosse?” asked Andrew Dickson in a Guardian article earlier this year. “All the world loves his plays. Why don’t we?” asked the UK’s Independent newspaper in 2011.
Is it merely that a dearth of translation and poor marketing has prevented his work from being accessed by an Anglophone audience? Or is there something deeper that arouses appreciation for his work in continental Europe but a cold shoulder in the Anglosphere? A comparison of translations of his famous novel Melancholy -- a fictionalized biographical treatment of Norwegian artist Lars Hertervig -- perhaps offer a hint. The European translations invariably feature one of Hertervig’s own paintings on the cover, usually a gorgeous, colourful and romantic landscape piece. The English-language American edition, by contrast, features a stark white cover, foregrounded by an empty chair and a noose.
Whatever the source of this disparity, Fosse’s Anglophone advocates are determined to keep trying. One of the Norwegian’s most famous and widely translated works is the aforementioned 1995 biographical novel Melancholy. Its subject matter is appropriate for this writer who is often likened to Ibsen: he explores the life of Lars Hertervig. Hertervig, an 18th century Norwegian painter, is now regarded as among the country’s finest, but during his lifetime he suffered mental breakdowns, spent time in an asylum, and died in poverty. He couldn’t even afford proper oils or canvas, and often had to resort to creatively homemade, albeit artistically inferior, materials. It was only in the years after his death that exhibits of his art began to achieve recognition. In 1996, one of his paintings sold for a record-breaking 3.2 million kroner.
A depressing story, well suited for a novel with melancholy as its theme. In the original and its sequel, Fosse adopts a colloquial, first-person narrative perspective, perhaps intended to reflect the erratic personality of its narrator. Fosse’s use of time is also unorthodox. Almost half of the novel takes place over the course of a single day in Hertervig’s life, and the final portion of the book takes place almost a century later, in 1991. The latter portion deals with a contemporary writer with an interest in Hertervig -- perhaps a thinly veiled Fosse himself?
A year after publishing Melancholy, Fosse followed it up with Melancholy II, a short continuation on the theme of Hertervig’s life. And although the original Melancholy was translated into English in 2006, it is only now that the follow-up Melancholy II is being made available to English readers, thanks to the work of Dalkey Archive’s Norwegian Literature Series and the translation skills of Eric Dickens. Melancholy II takes place after the painter’s death, and is told through the equally quirky first-person narration of Hertervig’s sister Oline. This sequel is far shorter than its predecessor at barely a hundred pages, but here too Fosse experiments with narrative and time. The book takes place over a few hours in a single day.
The work does indeed capture and convey the essence of melancholy. Melancholy drifts in layers about Oline, the central character, like a veil of clouds obscuring not only the past but the present. Here, meaning and truth are less objects to be grasped at than they are shifting hues on a graying canvas. She engages with characters only dimly remembered, struggling with each sentence to avoid giving away the fact she doesn’t even know who it is she’s talking to. Her brothers -- one dead, one dying -- morph into each other interchangeably. Even the fisherman who provides her daily meal is an uncertain presence she’s forced to rely upon. Was it Svein? Or Bjorn?
The aches of age pierce her body but the deprivations of mind and memory strike with as little remorse. Yet through this painfully poignant first person stream-of-consciousness narrative, glimpses of beauty and memory emerge: brief depictions of her brother and of youth. Her brother, whom she admires and fears, whom she understands no better than anyone else but accepts with a stoic rural fatalism, even when he slips into those dark moods that cause such suffering to himself and those around him but which also seem the source of his violent creative genius.
And I look at the picture of the mountains back home and the boat and I can see that the picture looks a lot like Lars when he is that way, sure, it looks like the mountains back home and our boat, but otherwise it looks most like Lars when he is that way, as he is now and again. I think it is strange to see how the picture reminds one of Lars when he’s that way. It’s black in the same way as Lars is black. The darkness is the same. It’s a darkness that is not dead, but which shines, a shining darkness, kind of.
A World of Shadows and Melancholy
A world away, Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, that equally quirky and renowned Japanese writer, composed in his classic 1933 essay In Praise of Shadows a stirring tribute to the Japanese toilet. “…of all the elements of Japanese architecture,” he writes, “the toilet is the most aesthetic.”
Describing for some pages its beauty and aesthetic play of light and shadow, which aims at evoking a mood of peace, calm and introspection in the user (the famous Japanese novelist Natsume Soseki also, he points out, described his morning toilet trip as “a physiological delight”), Tanizaki observes that the western approach of whitewashing the unclean activities that go on in a toilet has the opposite effect. “The cleanliness of what can be seen only calls up the more clearly thoughts of what cannot be seen,” he writes. “Anyone with a taste for traditional architecture must agree that the Japanese toilet is perfection.”
Oline rejects even a toilet, clinging sternly to the outdoor privy of her youth. She even secretly delights in the hidden bedpan she keeps in her house – an object of nostalgic beauty as much as one of function. Much of the action in Melancholy II takes place in the privy, where she sits, staring at the fish she has brought in with her and hung from the hook on the privy door. Here she sits reflecting on the aging helplessness of her body and mind, and the unresolved and confused memories of youth that flit across it. Fosse’s toilet evokes as much poignant feeling as Tanizaki’s, although it’s thanks not so much to the play of light and shadow as it is to the dim shadows of Oline’s fading mind.
Melancholy II is a much shorter work than its predecessor, but it evokes a striking, sad beauty in the perfectly poignant sense of melancholy it conjures. A morose work of mood, its aesthetic and beauty reflect eternal truths of age as much as they do the fickle personality of Lars Hertervig. It’s a unique, painful and beautiful piece in which the unorthodox and talented genius of Fosse and his subject seem to merge in the short span of the narrator’s shrinking memory. A stylized work such as this is not for everyone, but those who do surrender themselves to its unusual yet compelling flow will find themselves amply rewarded.
…I stand up and look at the sky where the clouds are drifting in their white blue across the sky and I look at the sea with its darker blue and the sea is full of white movements and I think to myself that Lars is like the sea and the sky, forever on the move, from darkness to light, from white to the blackest of black, that’s what Lars is like, just like the sea, I think, while I myself am more like a rock or a marsh, not all that uneven, not so even either, but brown and yellow, and I too have my flowers.
Splash Image: From Borgøya, Lars Hertervig, taken from the German cover of Fosse's Melancholy