The last leg of our International Booker Prize longlist journey, spent in a remote Mexican town, proved to be a rather emotional and exhausting outing, but fortunately today’s stop should be slightly less stressful. This time around we find ourselves in Norway, and with the far slower pace of life here, we’ll have time to appreciate some paintings and step out down to the beach. Don’t be fooled by the tranquillity, though – there’s a lot going on beneath the surface, and it all has to do with a man called Asle.
Well, two, actually…
The Other Name: Septology I-II by Jon Fosse
– Fitzcarraldo Editions, translated by Damion Searls
(electronic review copy courtesy of the publisher)
What’s it all about?
Asle, an ageing painter living alone in a small Norwegian village, paints two lines intersecting each other on a canvas then decides that there’s nothing more he can do to improve the picture. He takes a drive to the nearest large(ish) town to do some shopping and comes back. After a chat with his neighbour, he decides to drive back into town to visit a friend, a decision that will cost him a rather sleepless night. The shopping gets put away the next day.
Which all sounds rather mundane. And yet told in another way, The Other Name is a very different story, one focusing on our friend’s struggles to separate experience and memory. Whether standing in front of his canvas, driving back from Bjørgvin or tossing and turning in a hotel bed, Asle is never too far away from getting lost in his past, and at times it’s hard for the reader to know what’s real and what’s simply an old memory. Things aren’t helped any when the painter returns to Bjørgvin to check up on his friend, only to find him in a critical condition. The friend’s name? Well, Asle, obviously…
With Fosse’s book containing the first two parts of a seven-part story, it was always unlikely that we’d see all of the tale’s secrets revealed here. Nevertheless, The Other Name is still a fair bit murkier in terms of plot than your average book. It often reads as a story of a man looking back into his past, but there are also rather large hints that it’s a case of sliding doors. We have two Asles, with one seen from the outside, who may well represent the path not taken by his counterpart.
The first part of the novel is very much dominated by these two Asles. After driving home in deteriorating weather, our narrator regrets not dropping in on his old friend when he was in town:
…and I think I shouldn’t have just driven past Asle’s building, someone like him the way he is now can’t just be left alone, weighed down as he is now, so weighed down by his own stone, a trembling stone, a weight so heavy that it’s pushing him down into the ground, I think, so I should turn around and drive back towards Bjørgvin, I think, and I should go see Asle, I think, I have to help pull him out of himself, I think and I see Asle sitting there on the sofa and he’s shaking and shaking, I should have driven back, he needs me, but I’m tired and I want to get home…
(Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019)
He returns to town, only to find his friend lying on the doorstep of a woman who the first Asle later runs into – and whose name (Guro) he finds oddly familiar.
It’s not just the other Asle that gives the reader pause for thought, though. On his way from and to town, the narrator twice sees a young couple deeply in love (and showing it for all the world to see). Suddenly, the narration jumps to the couple, as if the painter has somehow become able to read their minds, hearing their conversations from the comfort of his car. There’s more than a suspicion that this is internal rather than external action, and from earlier mentions of Asle’s dead wife, Ales, we begin to wonder if these are images of happier times.
Moving away from the ambiguity of identity, The Other Name often comes across as an attempt to portray the inner life of an artist. Asle’s musings on painting comprise some of the most effective passages in the book as he attempts to vocalise the burning desire to paint the images he sees, and needs to expel from within:
…and it’s always been this way, these glimpses of this or that thing that lodge inside me and never leave my head again, never, they lodge there as pictures and stay there and I can never get rid of them, so they have to be painted away, yes, that’s how it is, that’s how I am…
Fosse repeatedly returns to his creation’s obsession with light, especially that which only shines in darkness. From the early still lifes we hear about from his childhood, Asle’s art has slowly developed into a search for an elusive light that reveals when a picture is complete. As in the case of the cross, it doesn’t always take long to reach that stage…
The contrast between the desire shown in his art and the apathy that pervades the rest of his life is striking. Living alone and making only occasional trips to town for grocery shopping, Asle has little ambition beyond an annual show for which he supplies the paintings, and does little else. When he ventures into Bjørgvin, he shows a total lack of a sense of direction, relying on using the same parking spot and getting lost when walking a few streets beyond his comfort zone. In essence, perhaps as a result of losing Ales, he’s become almost self-contained, and seems happy that way.
However, it’s the writing rather than the plot that really catches the reader’s attention. As was the case in the other Fitzcarraldo longlister, Hurricane Season, The Other Name is characterised by its lengthy sentences (in fact, I’m not sure there are any full stops), yet the effect is completely different. Rather than violently dragging the reader onwards, Fosse’s style has a calming effect, thanks to its mazy, unclear monologue, occasionally interrupted by incredibly mundane conversations. There’s something very Knausgaardian about some sections (or, should I say, something very Fossian about Knausi’s work…), but their descriptive nature is often undercut by sudden, abrupt switches, which can be memories (or parallel memories) or sudden changes of perspective.
At times, the repetitive nature of some parts, particularly the lengthy conversations between Asle and his neighbour, Åsleik, can become tiresome, akin to being trapped in the kitchen with a distant relative at a Christmas dinner, going round the nine circles of small-talk hell. The two old men know their roles in their conversations, and at times even their lines, making the reader feel somewhat surplus to requirements. And yet these conversation do usually work well, with their rhythmic, soothing, well-crafted nature.
Despite the odd slow passage, The Other Name is a surprisingly enthralling read, in which little events cause big ripples. Fosse’s writing is masterfully evocative, and most readers will allow themselves to be swept away by scenes of Asle driving through the snow, lost in the dark streets of Bjørgvin or suddenly recalling childhood memories. With the mysteries of Asle and Asle, Guro and Guro (the woman in town and Åsleik’s sister) and what happened to Ales, this first chunk of the novel sets up the rest of the book nicely. I’m certainly keen to see where the story goes from here – or, more likely, where it came from…
Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
Well, yes, and I’m astonished it didn’t. I’d heard good things about this before it was even longlisted, and most people whose opinions I trust had this down as one of their favourites. I enjoyed it immensely, and it’ll certainly be up there vying for best-in-show honours in my personal rankings.
Why didn’t it make the shortlist?
Your guess is as good as mine, quite frankly. It may be that the judges felt (rightly) that the book is incomplete, with more to come this year (and probably next). They may have found all the conversations a little too repetitive and circular. They might have considered it a little tame compared to some of the violence and gore of the other longlisted books. All possible, naturally.
They were wrong to omit it, of course.
As enjoyable as our stay by the fjords was, there’s only so much snow you can take, so it’s time to head off for warmer climes, and (in a move that has us increasing both our collection of air miles and our virtual carbon footprints) the next leg of our journey sees us visiting South America. We’ll be heading back in time once more, but there’s something a little different about this visit. Poetic? Of course, but with a slight gender twist. Time to saddle up…