One of the most satisfying aspects of shadowing literary prizes is discovering a great book you’d previously overlooked, and that was certainly the case with this year’s International Booker Prize. Jon Fosse’s The Other Name: Septology I-II may not have made the official shortlist, but despite this inexplicable oversight, I ranked it as runner up on my final list. There was never a doubt, then, that I’d want to see the next part, and the second instalment of the story has just been released by Fitzcarraldo Editions, once again in Damion Searls’ excellent translation. We’re off to Norway for more fun with the two Asles, but this time, surprisingly, we have a whole host of younger incarnations to get to know, too…
I is Another: Septology III-V, the second of three English-language parts of Fosse’s novel, takes us through a couple of days in the life of an artist. Our old friend Asle wakes up slowly after the tiring couple of days he passed in the first part of the story, eventually managing to feed Bragi (the other Asle’s dog) and chat with his neighbour, Åsleik. After that, he drives to Bjørgvin to drop some paintings off at the gallery and has a little lunch before heading home. Apart from a few naps, the only other event of note is dinner over at Åsleik’s house.
Hmm. It doesn’t really sound like the stuff great books are made of, does it?
Of course, the beauty of Septology lies not in the mundane present-day events but in its depiction of the artist’s past. The old man’s thoughts are repeatedly drawn to his younger days, and where The Other Name focused very much on the artist’s childhood, I is Another examines Asle’s teenage years. We see him move out of home to attend high school and are witness to his first encounters with the other Asle – not to mention receiving tantalising glimpses of Ales, the love of his life.
I touched on parallels with the work of a certain other Norwegian writer in my earlier post, and it’s tempting to see Fosse’s book as a reaction to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s lengthy bout of navel gazing, with the older writer shaking his head and saying, “No, this is how you write a literary autobiography.” In many ways, it’s a far more impressive effort than the My Struggle series. Yes, the book treads similar ground (lots of drinking, a young man in a band, the first encounter with his future wife and the genesis of the artist), but rather than going through certain passages of his hero’s life in excrutiating detail, Fosse instead takes a four-dimensional approach, with many of his life’s pivotal moments unfolding at the same time.
In fact, at times it’s less My Struggle than Avengers: Endgame that Septology appears to be playing on. Even more so than was the case in the first parts, the artist is prone to racing back in time at a moment’s notice, watching his younger self as he holds his first exhibition or prepares to move out of the family home. Interestingly, as much as past Asle seems to fascinate the older man, there are also subtle hints of the reverse being true:
…Asle thinks, standing there looking out the window and he thinks he just saw someone drive by on the road, and he’s seen that vehicle several times already, a large car like a small van, he thinks, so whoever owns it must live somewhere north of here, he thinks…
p.116 (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020)
The car in question sounds suspiciously similar to old Asle’s vehicle, and that’s not the only passage to make the reader think carefully about what’s going on . There’s also a scene in a café, where Asle eats breakfast and encounters Guro once more, the woman he met a couple of days earlier. But if she’s Guro, then who’s the woman sitting near the window waiting for the ferry? She looks oddly familiar…
It was teased at in the first book, but it’s in I is Another that we see our friend’s encounter with the other Asle when a mutual friend introduces the narrator to the youth he comes to call The Namesake:
…and there, at a table way at the back, with his back against the wall, by a window, there’s a guy with long brown hair, and of course he’s wearing a black velvet jacket, and a scarf around his neck, Asle sees and then Sigve says they need to go over and say hello to The Namesake and Asle walks towards The Namesake who looks up and Asle thinks that the guy sitting there looks like him… (p.219)
You sense Fosse playing with the reader a little as we struggle to work out exactly what’s going on. We have two young men of very similar character and appearance, each following slightly diverging paths. The more we hear about The Namesake, the less he appears to be a different person and more of a glimpse of what might have been had our Asle made a couple of different decisions back in his youth.
Perhaps one of the biggest differences in I is Another is a far greater preoccupation with death. There were glimpses of this in the first book, but the theme is addressed far more clearly here with Asle continually returning to those he’s lost. Early on we learn about the shock death of his sister Alida in childhood, followed by the gradual wasting away of his beloved grandmother, with young Ales describing his daily visits to the hospital, her blue-grey skin and the cold slowly eating away at her. Towards the end of the book, however, the focus shifts to Ales. Asle still misses her immensely, keeping her chair at the dining table and holding regular conversations with his dead wife. It’s hinted that as our friend gets older, the boundaries between present and past, this world and the next, are becoming ever more blurred.
In fact, we sense in several places that his own end may well be approaching. Midway through the book, Asle begins to feel his desire to paint vanish, and the work at the heart of the story, ‘St. Andrew’s Cross’ with its two intersecting lines, now seems to represent something more profound, the end of his artistic career. Given his belief in art as a part of his duty towards God, this decision to set down his brush takes on even greater significance, and as he starts thinking about what to do with all the paintings he’s accumulated over the years, it’s hard not to believe that he’s preparing to move on.
When you throw in the same excellent style from The Other Name, almost Bernhardian in its use of circular narration to advance the story (without the accompanying bile), and the way Fosse’s endless sentence pulls the reader in, treading that fine line between dull repetition and soothing ebb and flow, you can see that’s there’s a lot to like about I is Another. The writer controls the fragmentation superbly, allowing the reader to see Ales at multiple points in time and adding to the richness of the story. Alas, we now have a bit of a wait for the final instalment, but having followed Asle along his journey so far, you can rest assured that I’ll be very keen to see how the story ends 🙂