One of my favourite discoveries in recent years was Jon Fosse’s The Other Name, which is, of course, the start of a trilogy in seven parts (yes, I know…). A while back I revisited the Norwegian coast with the second book, I is Another, and we’re now back for the concluding part of the trilogy. This one’s another wonderful read, but I just need to send out a gentle warning before we begin today’s post. You see, given the nature of the work, and its status as the final part of the trilogy, it’s inevitable that I might give some plot elements away. There be spoilers ahead, so proceed at your peril 😉
A New Name: Septology VI-VII (translated by Damion Searls, review copy courtesy of Fitzcarraldo Editions) sees us finding our old friend Asle back at home with his borrowed dog and his memories. In fact, once he gets through a silent meal with his neighbour, Åsleik, the majority of the book is spent with the painter sitting by the window, gazing out to sea, with only his old coat (and the dog) for warmth. After a while, it looks unlikely that he’ll ever bother standing up again…
But that doesn’t really matter to the reader, for, as anyone who’s read the first two parts knows, much of Septology takes place in Asle’s head, and again the bulk of this book is spent diving back into the old man’s memories. We pick up here where I is Another left off, seeing more of the chance encounter with Ales, his future wife, and his visit to a flat in Bjørgvin that he hopes to rent a room in. Having impressed with his paintings, he’s leaving high school behind and is about to start a new stage of his journey at the simply named Art School.
In one sense, then, A New Name is all about fresh starts. Our young hero has a new girlfriend, a new home and a new school, and it’s not long before he’s introduced to new people in the
big city small town, including the art-gallery owner who is to become Asle’s great mentor and backer. Parts of the book show a young man in the prime of life, about to burst into bloom as a successful painter.
Yet there’s a distinct shadow hanging over the book, suggesting that we’re far closer to the end than the beginning – which is the case in more than one sense. Early on, there’s a sudden realisation that Asle’s desire to paint has gone:
…and then I take hold of the stretcher and let go of it again and I realize that I, who have spent my whole life painting, oil paint on canvas, yes, ever since I was a boy, I don’t want to paint anymore, ever, all the pleasure I used to take in painting is gone…
p.12 (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2021)
Accepting what he’s sensed for a while, he prepares to let go of his lifelong passion, and that’s not the only ending, with the lives of those around him also nearing their close. There’s a kind of inevitability about the old man’s actions as he prepares to move on from the life he’s lived so far.
A New Name continues Asle’s story seamlessly, with these last two sections bringing Fosse’s mini epic to a close. Again, the writer stresses the importance of imagery, both in terms of the paintings and the mental images Asle retains. These are
pivotal moments, captured deep inside, and the painter isn’t the only one who knows the importance of certain moments in life:
…and she says that today is one of the great days, one of the days when something happens, yes, an event, because it’s so strange, day after day goes by and it’s like time is just passing, but then something happens, and when it happens the time passes slowly, and the time that passes slowly doesn’t disappear, it becomes, yes, a kind of event, so actually there are two kinds of time, the time that just passes and that matters only so daily life can move along its course and then the other time, the actual time, which is made up of events, and that time can last, can become lasting, Ales says… (pp.120/121)
These pivotal instances in life provide one of the key ideas of the work, and Fosse provides plenty of examples of both throughout the novel, often showing Asle revisiting these ‘lasting’ moments during ordinary times.
The writing consists of the usual style, in which the repetition of phrases gently pushes the reader ever onward on a sea of unfinished sentences. Another notable hallmark of the work is how we continually switch between now and then, from the old man staring out to sea to the younger self making his way through life. Yet there is a new element here, consisting of some even more confused (and confusing) prose. It first appears when we reencounter the other Asle, the man lying in a hospital bed in Bjørgvin:
…and Siv comes into the living room and she can’t stand looking at him standing there painting anymore become a teacher have children paint and then drink and she is so exhausted she might collapse at any time painting and she can’t imagine and Bjørgviner Bjørgviner Bjørgviner and she lets go of his arm and never been in love before no never and the paintbrush the kitchen vodka and she went to get The Son from nursery school bought toilet paper dinner that meat a glass of vodka no she can’t stand it anymore and bread milk The Son and The Daughter sleep in that morning a two-room apartment forcing her he just taking and doesn’t know and never come back and never been in love quiet that was gone and never should have moved in together… (p.60)
In a book that’s full of swift shifts of pace and wandering prose, these new passages stand out, almost crying out in pain. They’re preparing the reader for what’s to come, a warning of the impending end of the story.
Another feature of Septology is the sliding doors aspect of the tale. From the start of the first part, we’ve known about the two Asles and suspected that they’re the same person, ending up in different places having taken alternative paths early in life. Like many readers, I suppose, I have a tendency to compare the two, to regard ‘our’ Asle as luckier, and happier than the version he calls The Namesake. And yet, The New Name shows us that it’s quite as clear-cut as that, with more than a hint of the main character’s own issues. There were already earlier mentions of Asle’s decision to stop drinking, and this aspect of the story is made more explicit here as we learn about the demons that drove him and his final decision to get in control of his life.
This parallel-lives aspect, very much a focal point of Fosse’s multiverse of madness, is focused this time less on Asle, though, than on Guro. She/they appear(s) early in A New Name, and this other woman, the “woman with the medium-length blonde hair“, haunts Ales and Asle on their dates, an ever-present ghost they can’t shake off. Most readers will already have picked up on the links between the Guro we meet in The Other Name and the woman Asle will meet when he finally goes off with Åsleik on Christmas Eve, but the story still ties up this loose end beautifully, providing the (retired?) painter with one last ordeal before the end of the story.
In fact, the whole trilogy, or septology, comes to a superb climax as the passivity and numbness of most of the book is suddenly thrust aside in a quick burst of activity. Asle, having finally managed to stand up, takes stock of his life, packing up his belongings and then heading off on the final boat trip with Åsleik. These final pages see the past laid to rest before focusing squarely on the present, and right to the end, down to the very last words (and those that we don’t get to see), it’s evident how tightly Fosse has constructed his novel, even if the whole affair looks messy and rambling at times.
Septology is a wonderful achievement, a set of books I’ll definitely come back to in future, and I’d certainly recommend that any unwary reader who has made it this far in my review despite not trying the earlier books go back to the beginning and seek out The Other Name. Fosse’s work is a story of an artist as both a young and old man simultaneously, but also one of the road not travelled, and being able to see it play out alongside the path you did choose. Whichever of these parallel lives you found yourself living, it’s all about making peace with your decisions (and mistakes), saying your prayers and preparing for what comes next.