One of the highlights of my reading year was the final part of Jon Fosse’s trilogy in seven parts, Septology, and soon after finishing that series, I headed off to the library website to see if I could find anything else by the Norwegian writer. Sadly, the pickings were slim, but I did manage to find one little book, a beautiful novella with some very familiar themes and quirks. That’s what I’ll be looking at today, but before I do, it’s time for a slight warning. No matter how much I rack my brain, I can’t quite think of a way to do the book justice without giving away certain important plot elements, so I’m afraid today’s post will most likely be full of what the kids these days are calling ‘spoilers’ – consider yourselves warned 😉
Morning and Evening (translated by Damion Searls) begins with a short scene set on a small Norwegian island, where Olai, a fisherman, is waiting nervously in the house he built with his own hands for his wife to give birth. It’s the couple’s second child, coming many years after their first, a daughter, and Olai is convinced that God has finally granted him his wish for a son and successor. After a nervy few hours, the child, with the old midwife’s assistance, is finally brought into the world, and sure enough, it’s a boy, who is to be named Johannes, after Olai’s father.
This brief sections ends, and we move on in time, a good deal further than anyone would have expected. We now meet Johannes as an old man as he gets up one morning, wondering how to fill the hours of his empty day. His wife, Erna, is long dead, and he takes refuge in a series of habits: coffee and a cigarette, a walk to the bay, a visit to the house of his youngest daughter, Signe. Yet today seems a little different, special somehow. As the old man gets up and goes about his business, he notices small changes, both to himself and the world around him. No, this is no ordinary day, but it’ll take a while for Johannes, and the reader to work out exactly what is going on…
I think some of you may already have guessed where this is going, and I may as well make it clear now. Morning and Evening, while ostensibly about the life of Johannes, manages to actually miss all but a few minutes of his earthly experience, instead describing the moments before his birth and after his death. The bulk of the (short) novel(la) actually describes how he spends a day after he has peacefully passed away in his sleep, showing his essence roaming his usual haunts (a word that takes on extra significance now…) while it adjusts to what’s happened.
It’s not initially clear what exactly is happening, yet we are given hints early on that this is no ordinary day. Johannes wakes up feeling light and pain-free, and as he looks around, he finds himself seeing everything differently:
…and he stands up and looks around and then he thinks that everything is somehow what it is and at the same time different, all the things are normal things but they have become somehow dignified, and golden, and heavy, as though they weighed much much more than themselves and at the same time had no weight…
p.36 (Dalkey Archive, 2015)
As the story progresses, the hints of the truth become stronger. He develops a numbness in his hand, and the line between reality and memory becomes ever more blurred.
Then, of course, there are the people he meets, many of whom shouldn’t be there at all. Much of his day is spent in the company of Peter, his best friend – who passed away years back -, and that’s just the first of several unexpected encounters. Johannes alternates between taking it all in his stride and becoming confused over the sudden appearance of people who’ve been gone for years. Gradually, he becomes aware of what’s going on, and how he’s being prepared for what comes next.
This interest in what comes after life is one of the major themes of Morning and Evening, with the writer wondering about the nature of God, and an existence outside life. Both Olai and Johannes find themselves musing on the topic, recognising that their views are slightly unorthodox, if not heretical:
…because even if it’s possible to think such thoughts, from nothing to nothing, it’s not like that’s it, there is so much more to it than that, but what is this everything else? the blue sky, the trees where leaves grow? the word that was in the beginning, as it says in Scripture, that lets a person understand deep things and shallow things, what is this everything else? (p.14)
The day itself almost appears to be an attempt to answer the two men’s questions – just how do we move on, and what do we move on to?
For a book about death, though (and that’s what much of Morning and Evening is), Fosse’s story is a beautiful, calming read. There’s a slowness to it all as Johannes methodically goes from chore to chore, unhurriedly making his breakfast and enjoying his coffee. There’s also the sense of a hazy, dreamlike flow, carrying the reader from start to finish, daybreak to nightfall, as if we’re being rocked to sleep in a cradle.
The main reason for that of course is the language, which will be familiar to anyone who’s tried the Septology books. The whole story is an endless sentence, with many examples of meandering, circular thought processes and mundane conversations where people constantly repeat themselves:
…and then he sees that Peter’s hair has grown long and gray, it hangs down over his shoulders, thin and wispy, no oh no Peter has such long hair now, Johannes thinks, no, such a long time it’s been since he went to his house and cut his hair
We saved a lot of money cutting each other’s hair, Peter says
Yes you’re right about that, Johannes says
But now you really need it cut, Johannes says
Your hair has gotten so long, it’s all the way down to your shoulders, he says
That’s true, Peter says
I should come by and cut your hair, Johannes says
Yes you should, Peter says (p.51)
Searls, of course, was also the translator of Septology, and the style is very similar here, with the frequent ‘yes’ and ‘no’ interjections drawing us closer to the speaker. Anyone who enjoyed the story of Asle and Asle will certainly instantly feel at home here.
Overall, Morning and Evening is a beautiful little work, one I’ve tried a couple of times now (and am tempted to try again). It’s a look at what lies beyond life, putting the existence part to one side to explore what comes before and after, and providing an appealing glimpse of how our time on Earth might come to a close. However, as well as providing more evidence of Fosse’s quality, the book is a timely reminder that Dalkey Archive Press, whatever your thoughts on how they went about publishing and promoting their books, had a great eye for literature in translation. With the recent rebooting of the press, Dalkey 2.0, if you will, there are high hopes of more like this. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for what comes next – in every sense…