I've finally come to the end of Norwegian writer Jon Fosse's Septology, a collection of 7 short books collected into one, previously published separately in three containers: The Other Name, I Is Another, and A New Name. The titles are somewhat cryptic as is the reading experience when you are just starting out. It took me a few pages to realize that there was never going to be definitive punctuation outside of commas; yes, there are no periods. I played a game with myself asking the question what will Jon Fosse put at the end. Will he finally put a period? I never looked and even when I turned to the last page (p. 667) I resisted the urge to peak until I reached the final word....I won't spoil it for you.
This was one of the few books were I turned back to the beginning to revisit the opening in light of everything that had happened. I encourage you to do the same thing, it reveals a lot about the writer and just how good the dang book is. There's a sense of wholeness about the thing. Despite its length I wished it would go on. I could read another 300 pages of the same.
Others have pointed out (as the Author does) that this is a religious tome centered on ideas espoused hundreds of years earlier by Meister Eckhart. One might also pay too much attention to the perspective shifts, the memories. Are these doppelgängers, real people, alternate paths that our narrator Asle could have gone down, or maybe did? It's all potentially confusing, until one realizes that this story is not about those things. It's about an artist named Asle struggling to come to terms with loss, alcoholism, his God, and his life of loneliness.
I think this book is a great text to learn how to appreciate oil paints. The way Fosse describes the artistic process, the difference between good and bad paintings and as you will see further down this post, the idea of unity has really grown my appreciation for art. I'm one of those who stares dumbly at a painting in a gallery waiting for something to happen. After reading Septology I eagerly await my next visit. Our local museum is the Greenville County Museum of Art. I can't wait to discover what Asle in our book describes as a "shining darkness" in some of the paintings by Andrew Wyeth there. As you read Septology you follow Asle's development as an artist. There is a humorous segment where Asle gifts his factory worker friend a painting of his friend's house. The work is grey, depressing, sad. His friend hates it and the next time Asle comes over he doesn't see the work displayed. Earlier Asle had said he will never again paint tacky pictures of peoples' houses for money. His mother, hates his painting style, thinking it incoherent, the equivalent of noise. This part of the book is sad. In any case here is an example of "shining darkness":
If you think about something hard enough, enough to get obsessed about it you can find puzzling occurrences of the thing in day to day life, which makes you think again about the nature of things, what's real, what matters. Art, I find, heightens these senses, while pure entertainment dulls them. Here in a America I find it's almost impossible to find the space, pace, and time to ponder these other things. And I find that the internet all but makes it banal (even though you are reading this observation here, on the internet). But my time spent with the 600+ Septology has changed my perspective on a number of things.
What's bad and good art
The Power of Art
Why you can't express the reason for it (most of the time)
Why Beethoven is a supreme composer (spoiler: there is unity in his compositions expressed as perfect union or marriage of form and content)
Less fear of the inevitable loss of loved ones
For a book to do anyone of those things is a remarkable achievement. But here we have all four! I will tend to each number sporadically over a series of posts.
On top of that a number of strange things I alluded to above happened to me (or around me?). Upon finishing the book I stepped outside one evening to let out Levy and it was one of those clear nights, the famous constellations clearly above you, a kind of "shining darkness" I thought. And then I think what if a shooting star comes right now? I turn my head to the quadrant on my right and a split second passes before I turn back to the spot directly over our home and there it is a flash of light, a streak of light, like a rocket across the sky. Perhaps it was comet, or a space rocket, who knows, but it was a gift to me. Through out Septology Asle refers to his landmark, a point out in the Sygne Sea seen through the window panes of his rural house outside the main city Bjorgvin (Bergen), Edvard Grieg's hometown. I have the same landmarks out our back window.
That wasn't the only strange thing. At the beginning of Septology Asle is putting the finishing touches on one of his best paintings, a work that begins to torment him, a work he won't let his friend Asleik take (he picks a painting every year as a present). A work that he names St. Andrew's Cross after Asleik (who is kind of a country-bumpkin) tells Asle it looks like a St. Andrew's Cross, or an X. He's very proud about knowing the name of the thing, which annoys Asle for some reason. Perhaps it's because St. Andrew's Cross has been usurped for other, shall I say, purposes. In any case not long after the shooting star incident I needed to help Lisa with some yard work. I fired up the chain saw and let it sit on the driveway to warm up a bit. Well the tree spike at the front of it ended up carving a shape into the ground as it was sitting there idling away (I always forget it can't sit still, the dang thing). I left it unattended for a minute and when I came back I saw this!
A Saint Andrew's Cross etched into our driveway! I couldn't believe it. Perhaps the chainsaw will always make that carving as it sits vibrating away on a cold morning, but perhaps not. My gut felt uneasy. I was operating an extremely dangerous machine. Should I cut my losses and put it back into the garage and leave the trees uncut? Was it an omen? I mean we are looking at a cross of all things here. (Spoiler: I went out and cut the logs and I was fine, all appendages intact).
While I was reading this book I couldn't help but think about two other works of literature that have painting as an obsession or plot device. This is one of the chief pleasures of reading: the constant allusions your mind makes to similar works. Classical music works the same way, the more you know or hear, the more pleasurable the experience happens to be, like you are in the inside of the inside jokes made by Beethoven or Liszt. The two books I was thinking of were The Picture of Dorian Gray and yes, Murakami's Killing Commendatore.
So how does this book fit into our Music in Literature Series? I think it's perhaps one of the most important pamphlets on art and music published in recent memory. What Asle discovers as an artist is profound. And it doesn't hurt that we are placed in and around Edvard Grieg's old haunts.
Let's get into it. This is a longer passage close to the beginning of the book that helps the reader understand art in terms of real physical attachment, not just the heady stuff of the clouds and muses. Asle falls in love with the oil paint and canvas not the painting. I find myself having the same interest in the physical nature of the piano, the physical scores, with their pictures of notes. When I was younger I often perused scores away from the piano to just see the notes and try to imagine how they sound and more importantly how they might feel and what power they might give me. Score videos on Youtube are popular I think for this reason, but there is also something magical about the real music in your hands. Witness Asle's artistic awakening:
"the very first time I saw a picture painted in oil on canvas, and the first picture painted in oil on canvas I ever saw was in the local schoolhouse where a painting hanging crooked on the wall in one of the classrooms was meant to show Jesus walking on water, and to tell the truth it was a terrible painting but the colours, the individual colours in themselves, colours in certain places, colours the way they were on that canvas, yes they were fixed on that canvas, they clung tight to it, went together with it, were one with it and at the same time different from it, yes, it was unbelievable and I looked and looked at that painting, not at the picture itself, it was so badly painted, but it was oil paint on canvas and that, oil paint on canvas, lodged inside me from the very first moment and stayed there to this day, yes, that's the truth, yes it somehow lodged itself in me for life, the same way oil paint fuses with the canvas I was fused with oil on canvas, I don't know why but I guess I needed something or another to cling to?" -p. 72
There are constant references in the first book to a painting by Gude and Tidemand called Bridal Procession on the Hardangerfjord, in so much Asle keeps a copy of the painting folded up in his wallet and transfers it to a new wallet when that one wears out. What's the significance of the work to him? I can't say. You'll see on the boat a sole musician playing the violin. I think of Edvard Grieg's famous piece Wedding Day at Troldhaugen.
There are constant references to water. Asle daydreams that after his painting career is over he will buy a traditional Barmen boat, the kind that his father used to make day in and day out for little money. Asleik, his simple friend, constantly reminds Asle that he says that all the time, that one day he will buy a boat and get a dog, but it hasn't happened yet. On page 143 there's an interesting reference to the hymn Nearer My God To Thee, sang at the impromptu funeral of man on a boat. They threw his body into the sea. Echoing a bit of Moby Dick we read: "the sea is the biggest graveyard in the world, and maybe the best one too, someone says, yes, there's more of God in the sea than in the earth on land, someone says..."
Music, as I am finding in many of the books I've discussed and will write about in this blog, functions as an omen for serious business, oftentimes death (as will be seen in my upcoming blog on Joyce's Dubliners), and still more frequently romance gone wrong like The Kreutzer Sonata. The sole fiddle player in the painting returns again and again in Septology, turning into a kind of Faustian ghost who leaves his wife, yet she still mourns his absence, still misses him. There's a certain Norwegian hue or pastoral color to the descriptions starting with the triumphant scene of the bridal procession to this: "he wasn't slow to do it either, he just took his fiddle and headed out over the mountains to the east, and there, yes, no, she shouldn't talk about it, but he was from East Norway, so then, well, I probably know what she means, the fiddle had disappeared...but he was a good man, he was, and she missed him, yes she really did, every day she missed him, not a day went by without her missing him, she said, and she's often thought it was so stupid to do that, to tell him to leave..." p. 186
Any mention of the fiddler recalls for me the opening tuning fifths of Liszt's Mephisto Waltz. Is our fiddler one and the same? Liszt uses this description from Lenau's Faust. We've come full circle to another wedding celebration, a scene of joy, sure, but also one of danger, of the most sinister form of danger, romantic love gone wrong, distorted, wronged, but powered by the music made on a fiddle. It's the same music that joins lovers together in a kind of sacrament of marriage.
There is a wedding feast in progress in the village inn, with music, dancing, carousing. Mephistopheles and Faust pass by, and Mephistopheles induces Faust to enter and take part in the festivities. Mephistopheles snatches the fiddle from the hands of a lethargic fiddler and draws from it indescribably seductive and intoxicating strains. The amorous Faust whirls about with a full-blooded village beauty in a wild dance; they waltz in mad abandon out of the room, into the open, away into the woods. The sounds of the fiddle grow softer and softer, and the nightingale warbles his love-laden song.
The Fiddler in Septology suffers from alcoholism. His partner Guro surmises he drank because of sadness, but also because of shyness, that he needed to drink a little to perform well, just a little. One time our fiddler stops in the middle of the tune. "It's no good," he says. The fiddler is the one and the same man in the boat in the painting above. We learn that "he earned some money from his playing, gradually more and more, he played at weddings the way fiddlers have always done, and then it got to where he would play almost every week at dances in Gimle, one gig or another would always turn up, but he drank, he was drinking the whole time". We get a sense of his actual playing in a beautiful passage. Here is music criticism at its finest and its told by a simple woman who spends her days sewing. This is a description of the power of music, giving believability to the scene from Faust above and to the central conflict of Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata, too.
"the first time she saw him it was at a competition, it was the first music contest she'd ever been to and he was sitting at the front of the stage and playing like an ordinary fiddler but then he played his way farther and farther into the music and sort of moved away from himself and from the others and it was like both he and the music and everyone listening rose up into the air and then he turned around on his stool and played with his back to the concert hall, his back to everyone listening, and everything kept swinging through the air, it was exactly as if the music he was playing just flew up and sort of disappeared into the air and into nothing and then he stopped and then got up and walked right off the stage without turning around and the audience was clapping and clapping, yes, the applause wouldn't stop, it was like the people in the concert hall had witnessed something like a miracle" p. 189
After this, the woman named Guro (known as Sister) and the Fiddler become a couple. Here the music served as a kind of wedding. Sister recognizes good art (how could you not!). Interestingly this is the only passage in the book where the description of how it is is good is clear. Later on Asle thinks over and over that his words are failing him, that he can't begin to describe the unity in a work of art. But for Sister who is in love with the Fiddler (capitalization is the author's) the music making makes one fly and I'd add: ascends to the heavens.
Well, I just managed to get into one of the points about changing perspectives and the nature of art and we've nearly come to the end of the first book of Septology by Norwegian writer Jon Fosse, for which he won the Nobel Prize in Literature (2023). Like most books in my Music in Literature Series I don't know what to expect on the music side. Again like Moby Dick, I'm surprised about how music inspired the author. Stay tuned for more: we'll dig into form and unity, the author's Nobel Prize Lecture, and more abstractions on art in this great book of literature.