The Darkest Week of the Year: Fosse’s Septology


1024px hans gude from the western coast of norway ngm03487 national museum of art architecture and design

Hans Gude, From the western Coast of Norway, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

1.

This past fall, Jon Fosse won the Nobel Prize in Literature. In December, I attended a traditional Norwegian brunch and live stream of Fosse’s Nobel lecture at the Norwegian consul general’s residence in New York City.

At the time, I’d only read Melancholy, Fosse’s 1995 novel about a grandiose and possibly ephebophilic painter who ends up in the asylum. I had no idea, at the time, how intensely Septology, his recent seven-volume epic, set over the seven days leading up to Christmas—the same seven days, in the liturgical calendar, as it so happened, that I’d end up reading it—would hit me. That it would serve as a guidebook, a religious text, a light over the darkest week of the year.

Septology follows Asle, an aging painter and widower living in Dylgja, on Norway’s western coast, as he prepares for his annual Christmas exhibit in the nearby town Bjørgvin. He lives alone, doesn’t drink or smoke, and is a practicing Catholic. His social circle is limited to Åsleik, his neighbor and friend; Beyer, the gallerist who shows his paintings; and Ales, his long-deceased wife, with whom he still speaks every day. Each volume starts with Asle contemplating a painting he’s just painted, a blank canvas with two strokes forming a cross; each volume ends with Asle praying the rosary.

Every Christmas, Åsleik invites him over to his sister’s house for Christmas dinner. And every year, Asle declines, choosing to spend it alone, in his house he got with Ales, since “even if Ales has been dead a long time she’s still there in the house.”

Only this year he thinks he might accept Åsleik’s invitation to Christmas dinner at Sister’s. He spends the seven days, over the seven volumes leading up to Christmas day, deciding.

2.

The night Septology starts, it’s Advent, and Dylgja gets hit with the season’s first snow. The morning of the brunch, I throw on the lone suit I own (a funeral suit) and take the M15 bus down Second Avenue to the Norwegian consul general’s residence. On the way, it starts snowing; it’s the season’s first snow. It’s also the first week of Advent.

My task for the brunch is simple: write about the food, the speech, the vibe. We’re in a high-rise showroom-clean apartment with wall-spanning windows overlooking Fifty-Second Street from twenty-three flights up. There are two screens set up for the live stream at one end. A long table with plates and silverware and steaming carafes on the other. The deputy consul general, Aslaug, a native of the same fjord Fosse’s from, explains that the food is traditional Norwegian Christmas fare drawn directly from the book itself: smoked, salted and cured, Christmastime lamb ribs.

In the lecture, which Fosse delivers in Nynorsk, with a full-screen translation in maybe eighty-point font going on a screen adjacent, emphasizes writing as a way to express the unsayable. I lurk in a corner, holding too many notebooks, along with the 667-page copy of Septology his American publisher, Transit Books, is giving out, chowing down on the surprisingly salty and chewy, almost fishy tasting, lamb racks, which are lain on focaccia slices in spiral strips, like wet jerky.

After the lecture, which Fosse ends by thanking God, I meet Jarrod Annis, who works on Fosse’s books at Transit. We’re back around the table for another round of focaccia-toast lamb ribs and coffee. Septology, it quickly becomes clear to me, is more than just business for him: The first volume, he tells me, was the last galley he nabbed off the shelf before leaving a bookselling job at the start of the pandemic. He read the books after fleeing the city, while bunkered in a farmhouse, as the last storm of the season coated everything white (a detail he writes me in an email a week or so later; Fosse seems to invite these mystical-seeming readings in his readers). On a personal note, he adds, Fosse’s work sustained me through the pandemic and the last year of my father’s life, so it will be embedded in my consciousness for a good long time.

It’s not till I get this email that I understand the somewhat cryptic way he described Fosse back at the brunch: “I don’t think Fosse is for everyone, in the way I don’t think acid is for everyone. If you’re someone who deals in those highest spiritual concerns, it’s for you. If you don’t, you might get hung up by the simplicity of the prose.”

Rather than take the bus back uptown, I walk. The snowfall feels novel. I notice, for the first time, Christmas tree and wreath and ornament vendors lining the sidewalk. I start reading Septology that night.

3.

I often say, about what makes a story good: Give me a narrator reckoning with their most dire, urgent, life-and-death concerns. Tell me the stories you would tell if you were about to die. Septology follows this ethic to a T.

Writing in a single, unbroken sentence, Fosse, over seven volumes, employs the billowing, Bernhardian mode of leading the reader through a scene in which little happens absurdly slowly while folding in repeating and slightly altered and obliquely connected thoughts and memories, tagged with “I think.” These folded-in thoughts oscillate between direct insights about God, about art, about Advent, and those most traumatic and formative memories a person might look back on from the moment of death: a boy who dies, falling into the fjord, shortly after Asle and his sister were mean to him … a time he was touched by a pedophile … how his sister died … how his grandmother died … the first time he blasted a cig …

Fosse moves in such a repetitive and measured manner, almost telegraphing the memories he delves into, the riffs he returns to, so as to illuminate the quintessential movement we look to fiction for: the toggling between the private/unsayable and the public, in-scene, real-time world—lending the private unsaid thing the intimacy of secret-sharing, and the world the narrator is moving through a heightened, shared significance (the Bernhardian “I think” consists in never saying; only you, reader, and I are thinking this). No other artistic form is capable of this level of private, silent intimacy—including drama, Fosse’s first form (in his Nobel lecture, he addresses this: Expressing the unsayable in a form consisting entirely of dialogue, which is to say, speech, might seem impossible. “In my drama the word pause is without a doubt the most important and the most used word”).

4.

On December 17, the third Sunday of Advent, I learn that my sister is coming back stateside for Christmas. And that my other sister will be joining her and my mom, in California. I consider trying to get a last-minute ticket out to join them. Then decide I won’t, that I’ll bunker in place, keep reading these pages.

This Christmas marks thirty-three months to the day since my girlfriend, Kyra, died. I’ve spent the Christmases since alone, bunkered in my poorly insulated apartment in deep South Brooklyn, refusing to leave for anything. I spent last year’s reading all of Emmanuel Carrère, lighting candles, and writing—a portrait of Kyra.

On the nineteenth, my friend Nico asks what I’m doing for Christmas, invites me to a Christmas dinner.

I tell him I’ve got no plans, that I should be down.

Maybe I won’t spend this Christmas alone after all, I think. I’ll see what Asle does.

5.

What’s most affecting about Septology is how little Fosse says about those most unsayable things. His narrator will see something that reminds him of his wife—“that pan always reminds me of Ales and it hurts so much every time I see that pan, yes, tears come to my eyes, to tell the truth”—and then he’ll immediately deviate, repeating the refrain “but I don’t want to think about that now,” sometimes adding, “it’s too terrible.”

It’s those moments—of witnessing someone go right up to the point of what they can say and then stopping when they realize they can’t. There’s a humility to living with this understanding, that there are things you can’t say, things you can’t even think or reason about clearly but that you simply know.

For Fosse’s protagonist, belief is completely private and beyond reason. Asle’s faith is one of someone trying to understand the inexplicable loss of a loved one. For Asle, God—or any object of belief—is metaphysically real if and only if you put words to your belief. Like how he speaks to Ales still, how he believes he does yet needn’t explain it: he knows he’s her angel and she is his, since “for an angel to exist you have to believe it does, and you have to have a word for it, the word angel, and if you don’t believe that God exists, well then God doesn’t exist.” When I read this, I think of what Jarrod said—that Fosse is either for you or he’s not, you either get it or you don’t, and no one can convince anyone else of anything they don’t want to believe anyway.

6.

Come midweek, or volume six, we find Asle sitting in his chair, completely silent and still, staring out at the Sygne Sea. Next to the chair Ales always sat in, “constantly thinking that Ales had to be back soon now, seeing the empty chair and thinking that Ales was still alive and about to come home.”

Asle wavers on whether he’ll go out on the boat with Åsleik, to Sister’s, whom he’s never met but whose house is filled with Asle’s paintings and who makes the best lamb ribs Åsleik’s ever tasted—“he has no idea how she always manages to give those lamb ribs of hers that exact special flavour.”

He follows through on an idea he’s been considering all week: to quit painting; he’s painted all he needs to paint; he can’t stand to be surrounded by all these pictures anymore. He drives his remaining paintings to town, to Beyer, for what will be his final show. His personal collection is reduced to one: his portrait of Ales.

On the day before Christmas Eve, he decides he’ll take the boat out to Sister’s after all, “since if I stay home alone all I’ll do is lie in bed, I won’t even get up, yes well maybe get up to get myself some water if I’m thirsty and food if I’m hungry, other than that I’ll just lie in bed in the bedroom without even turning the light on and I’ll keep it as dark as I can.”

He needs to give Åsleik’s sister a gift. He paints one final portrait, of her, and boards the boat while the paint’s still wet.

On Christmas Day, with the final fifty pages of Septology to go, I hop on the boat—the 6 train downtown—to meet my friend Nico for Christmas dinner.

7.

On the boat ride over, Asle thinks of Ales, imagines her close to him, that she’s still with him. By this point, we’ve gone through how they met, their early times living together, becoming artists together, and it’s only now, at the end of the seventh of seven volumes, that Asle allows himself to relive and tell the moment she died. The moment she stops breathing, that the doctor said she’s resting with God now.

And as I read this I pass Astor Place, where Kyra lived that first Advent we started, pass Bleecker Street, where she moved later and lived that final year, and it’s cathartic, and I think how I’ve spent these past thirty-three months alone with Kyra, in silence, wondering what her life and death meant, wondering if painting means anything anymore in the face of that darkness, trying and failing to find a light within it, and as I approach Canal Street and zip up my parka and prepare to disembark, Åsleik docks and they set foot on shore and they walk to Sister’s house—she’s got the Christmastime lamb ribs going, Asle gives her the painting, she showers him with praise about how much she loves his paintings, how she’ll never sell a single one no matter how financially strapped she gets, and Asle asks if he can take a nap before Christmas dinner, and he’s shown his room and sets his suitcase down and lies down, and then he hears a knock at the door, and he says come in, and it’s Sister, whose name is Guro, and she’s carrying a wine glass, and she comes in:

And she laughs and she sits down on the edge of the bed … and she drinks a little wine and she puts her free hand on my belly

And you’re a widower, she says

and I nod

And you’ve been one for a long time, she says

and I nod again and then it’s silent and she slowly moves her hand farther down towards my fly

Yes, I say

But my wife and I are still married, I say

You can’t be married to someone who’s dead, Guro says

and she rubs my fly up and down and she opens it and I take her hand away and I see her blush and then she says she really should go downstairs and check on the food … and I see the woman named Guro leave the room and she shuts the door behind her—

And from there it goes into a direct transcription of his prayer, of his thoughts and praying the rosary, alternating between English and Latin; like every volume ends, it goes from the Lord’s Prayer into Pray for us sinners now in the hour of death, and a few more beats pass, and this time it ends in Latin, Ora pro nobis peccatoribus nunc et in hora, and I sit with this ending for some days, unsettled, because I still can’t make sense of these Christmas nights the book has led me on, what it means for Asle to have finally painted her portrait, to have stayed inside every Christmas and then to finally accept the invitation out across the water, to live again, to let some things breathe rather than hold everything so close—so I return to reread the ending, and this time I Google Translate the Latin, and that last line, Ora pro nobis peccatoribus nunc et in hora, there’s no period at the end, it’s simply pray for us Sinners at this hour—not of death, just at this hour—and the book ends, because they’re not about to die, they’re still here, at this hour; they’re about to eat dinner, he’s about to try Sister’s Christmastime lamb ribs, and we sin and we ask for forgiveness, and whether that’s what the book means to you, or meant to Fosse, or is supposed to mean, it means that because that’s what it meant to me—because I’ve come to have faith that it does.

***

It’s a dimly lit Chinese spot on Delancey I’ve walked past before but have never been inside. There’s just enough room for all of us to fit in the circular booth in the back if we squeeze. We squeeze. It’s a good group. Seven of us. An acquaintance, seated on the opposite end of the booth, orders for everyone.

We eat a chili oil cucumber sesame salad, scallion pancakes, soup, and steamed and fried dumplings. The dishes just keep coming, more than anticipated. Right when we think we’ve eaten all we can, they bring out the finale: a whole fish. Eliciting groans almost. Like we couldn’t possibly. Only, Acquaintance insists: This isn’t just any fish. Eating this type of fish, around this time of year, brings good luck. But only if everyone eats some. Even just a bite. I serve myself a piece. I take a bite, and the flavor hits me. I say, Holy shit. You guys, you’ve gotta try this, it’s something about the sauce, or how they marinated it—it’s the best fish I’ve ever tasted.

And we all have a bite, for the ritual, agreeing about how good it is, unable to figure out how they managed to give it this exact special flavor.

 

 

Sean Thor Conroe is a Japanese American writer. His debut novel is Fuccboi.



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