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  • David Kiser

Septology: Empty Stillness

This is the continuation of my posts on Jon Fosse's book Septology in my Music and Literature Series. Please read part one here: Septology: The Fiddler. Fosse and his autobiographical character Asle are greatly influenced by the theology of Meister Eckhart. Near the end of the first book Asle ponders on "empty stillness...because it's in the silence that God can be heard"(p. 202). It is this thought that also acts as a kind of artistic manifesto. Throughout these pages he also refers to silence, the silence within and from which comes all art.


The Korean Composer Yun Isang's bike in his hometown of Tongyeong. Yun's difficult music springs from a "main tone". Asle would have loved his music.

Fosse spoke about this in his Nobel Prize Lecture which I highly recommend reading alongside the book. Silence is a musical idea, and the difference between silence and activity and how often the activity means rhythm. He quotes himself from a passage from Septology via Eckhart: "it is only in the silence that you can hear God's voice." Later in the lecture he states how important it is for him to listen. So now we have three utterly musical ideas from the winner of the Nobel Prize: Silence, Rhythm, and Listening. "Thus, it almost goes without saying, that writing is reminiscent of music." Curiously, he adds later that he had to stop playing music and listening to music when he writes. One substitutes for the other.

A similar thing happens in the book. In this case Asle gives up playing in the band for painting. He can't quite manage to do both. It starts with the realization that painting causes him pain, pain that derives from the death of his sister.

"now he doesn't want to see pictures anymore, he simply can't deal with all these pictures, not the ones in his head and not the ones there on canvas, no he wants to be done with pictures, so now he doesn't want to paint any more pictures, he wants to listen instead of seeing, yes now he wants to listen to music, Asle thinks and he gets up and now it's decided, he wants to play music, and he wants to play guitar, a guitar makes a lot of noise" (p. 315)

This need Asle has is to remove that which is inside of him. We refer to it as simple expression as I think most people would, but Asle is haunted by death. Remember he is thinking back on his life in the absence of his wife Ales. "he wants to hear the pictures away now".

One thing I am constantly struck by in this book is the alternation of the mundane with the sublime. My favorite sequence like this is the description of Asle's dad learning how to drive. "they can't wait to get their own car so they can drive for themselves, drive around wherever they want," (p. 331). Fosse is able to throw the common back in our faces to examine how we leave with the things we take for granted. It's like the Alberti bass in a Mozart sonata, but what would he write instead? You see it is easy to return to the discussion of the form of a thing, the form of Asle's paintings. The power of great writing is it is relatable. You can see someone else feeling like you. This common bond is the beginning of empathy. Asle's father is so stressed about the new car: how much it cost him, the danger of it, the feeling of indebtedness. We can also relate to the bad relationship that Asle has with his mother. She constantly criticizes him, complains about his long hair. It's touching and heartbreaking. Asle's a strange kid, a smoker, single minded. Any parent would be worried sick.

But let us return to the intensifying feeling that Asle has that he's lost his desire to paint. He begins repeating this sentiment throughout the next hundred pages."it suddenly feels like i've said what I have to say, yes, like I don't have any desire to paint anymore, that there's no more to see, no more to add, but if I stop painting then what'll I do with myself?" (p. 360). Any artist can relate to this next thought: "I never got a boat or a dog either, I think, because I've always lived completely inside my painting, in a way, it was like there was no room for anything else, not a boat, not a dog" (p. 360). We get the sense he is preparing for death and his thoughts return again and again to his dead sister and his dead wife. How can reconcile their absence their death? He proposes a few ideas. "Asle thinks and he thinks that there's no meaning in the fact that his sister Alida died and it's not something that God could have possibly wanted, so it must be that something God didn't want to have happened" (p. 363). His further solution: "I think that since God is eternal and outside of space and time everything is simultaneous in God...so that's why all the dead have already awoken, yes, they live " (p. 364). This is a musical thought. Timelessness pervades Beethoven's large form works like the Diabelli Variations.

Some of the most touching scenes in the book are the conversations Asle has with his deceased wife Ales. She is a living presence throughout. I hope those who have lost a spouse can find a kind of comfort in this book. He shares with his dead wife the problem with his painting, the fact that he feels like he is done. And she responds: "I've done my part, maybe I've painted my paintings, what I needed to paint, she says and even if I don't paint anymore I'll get by, I'll have enough to live on...maybe it won't be long now before I too come back to God, come back to where I come from, to where she is now, Ales says" (p. 404). This exchange between Asle and his dead wife is the heart of the book (on page 404 it is a kind of golden mean). We are presented with the first part of his artistic and religious manifesto: "for the body is conceived and born, it grows and declines, it dies and vanishes, but the spirit is a unity of body and soul, the way form and content are an invisible unity in a good picture, yes, there's a spirit in the picture so to speak, yes, the same as in any work of art, in a good poem too, in a good piece of music, yes, there is a unity that's the spirit in the work and it's the spirit, the unity of body and soul, that rises up from the dead, yes, it's the resurrection of the flesh" (p. 404). Then he reminds us how powerless language is to express these thoughts, thus the reason for art, giving the example of the limitless number of colors that exist, colors without names. "...but it can't be said in words,". You might ask how Asle can hear his dead wife speak. He answers with the same power of belief and the spirit: "we are still invisibly together...because I say or think of words, it's not she who's saying them, because now she is everything that exists in language, because God is the pure, the whole language" (p. 405). In the next book, V, Asle further turns inward and makes a beautiful statement about his art, expanding on his first idea of the weakness of words. Remember how torn he is about not having the desire to paint. "I look at the easel now...isn't it like God is there too, in the easel?...I just have to not go crazy, I think, because it's like God is looking at me from every single thing, I think and I look around and it's like God is in everything around me," (p. 462). Because Asle struggles coming up with the right words he often repeats himself, little phrases here and there. This makes the rhythm of book sound quite musical. The bones of music is what is being repeated and how. That words fail Asle he withdraws "into the wordless prayer of painting".

In the first post on the book I mention the idea of shining darkness. Asle revisits the idea in this part of the book, revisiting the idea and coming to a musical conclusion. He goes from "darkness is a stillness" to the stillness is what allows God to speak, that stillness is like silence: "where God's voice sounds in silence" (notice the paradox made famous by Paul Simon). From here Asle gathers up all his loved ones who have passed. This is one of the music beautiful scenes in the book and close to home. In a draft of an unpublished book I wrote, the culminating scene has the characters singing the same hymn together in a public utterance of release, acceptance and yes, prayer. Here are Asle's ruminations turning real, acted upon by and through art:

"I see the chair where I always sit next to the round table and I go over to the chair and I sit down and I find my bearings and then I look at my landmark, at the waves, and I think that often when I sit like this and look at the water I pray a silent prayer and then Ales is near me too, and my parents, and my sister Alida, and Grandmother, and Sigve, and I get very still inside, and I think that everyone has a deep longing inside them, we always always long for something and we believe that what we long for is this or that, this person or that person, this thing or that thing, but actually we're longing for God, because the human being is a continuous prayer, a person is a prayer through his or her longing, I think and then I look at the chair next to me and I see Ales sitting there and then she starts singing softly, almost inaudibly, she sings Amazing grace How sweet the song That saved a wretch like me I once was lost But now am found Was blind but now I see" (p. 464)

The closest Fosse gets to an historical allusion is the Bjorgvin Times art critic, a deeply praised and appreciated character named Anne Sofie Grieg who was also a "skilled pianist and she had a real eye for what was good art and bad art" (p. 436). Keeping in line with the series, music and literature, what kind of music goes with this reading? Fosse doesn't reference any individual classical work besides the hymn. But for me the idea of form and content is no better presented than in the late piano music by Beethoven like the Diabelli Variations mentioned above and the last three piano sonatas.

Thus concludes my two posts on Septology. I highly recommend it for those struggling with their artistic endeavors, loneliness and loss. I suppose one other pairing that might work from classical music are the Piano Etudes by Phillip Glass, works that echo the haunting repetition of Fosse's diction.

Subscribe and stay tuned for our next book in the series Music in Literature: Dubliners by James Joyce.

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