Reviewed by Bill Marx.
On September 10, Norwegian writer Jon Fosse became the third recipient of the International Ibsen Award, following such theatrical heavy hitters as French director Ariane Mnouchine (2008) and Peter Brook (2009). The prize committee recognized the writer for “his uniquely dramatic authorship, one that opens scenic gates to the wordless mysteries that pursue humans from birth to death.” In Europe, those gates are wide open: Fosse is the author of over 30 plays that have been translated into over forty languages. Next month, one of Fosse’s most produced plays, Someone is Going to Come, will be presented in Beijing; at the same time his most recent play, I am the Wind, will be staged in London. Outside of the United States, Foss is hailed as a major living dramatist whose works have a global appeal.
In America, Fosse is virtually unknown. His plays have been rarely produced here; at least my Google search came up with only one production. (The YouTube trailer for Winter, which looks to be about a woman attempting to seduce a guy in the park by taking off her clothes, comes off as sexist rather than erotic.) Why is Fosse a non-starter? Truth is, American theaters are not interested in (or curious about) non-commercial international drama, so it could be the usual case of provincial neglect. It could also be that Fosse specializes in the kind of irritating experimental (and state subsidized) European drama that wallows in épater les bourgeois – inscrutable, emotionally arid scripts of resolutely abstract despair that win big awards and accolades among the denizens of a rarefied theater and literary community.
Or Fosse could be, like Thomas Bernhard, a playwright of genuine talent whose knotty scripts are worthwhile, but pivot on visions of modern life that are so dark and difficult that they won’t “sell” over here. There’s only a slot (labeled “Downer”) for one Beckett on the American playbill.
Curious about Fosse, I picked up the Dalkey Archive Press translation of his novel Melancholy, a slice-of-madness narrative that details the breakdown of nineteenth-century Norwegian artist Lars Hertervig, a painter of genius who suffered from mental illness and died penniless at the turn-of-the-century. I cut my reading teeth on Beckett, Sebald, Kafka, Bernhard, etc, so I am not only acquainted with the depths of the post-modern night but insanely fond of them. Still, I couldn’t get through this book: the determined pessimism, the narrative’s monochromatic assault of childish dissociation, the cement slabs of gloom, were just too much. Beckett and company leaven their horror of existence with poetry and black comedy; their books also contain an elusive sense of a road that leads elsewhere – an ironic whiff of possibility that serves as a gift of grace to both characters and readers.
In Melancholy (at least as far as I could get), Fosse enjoys being an indifferent welder, melting shut each of Hertervig’s light and air holes. It feels like the portrait of the artist as a brain-damaged rat in a sadistic trap.
I swore off Fosse. But the news of the International Ibsen Award, and the heartfelt assurances of the Dalkey Archive’s publicist, sent me to the latest of the Norwegian’s prose works in translation, the 2005 novella Aliss at the Fire. I am not ready to help organize a Fosse drama festival, but the book displays a much more emotionally and intellectually expansive palette than the psychotic Melancholy. Still, Fosse’s flight from the psychological and embrace of the archetypal drive him toward a mechanical determinism that threatens to turn his work into more of an absurdist stylistic exercise than a compelling revelation of existential pain. And humor remains absent; does a Fosse comedy exist? The prospect is tantalizing but also frightening to contemplate.
Aliss at the Fire gets around Fosse’s gaunt limitations by way of its compact length, haunting female narrative voice, and imaginative approach to time-tripping, multi-generational longing: this is a ghost story that (may be) told by a spirit who can’t stop mourning the death of her beloved. For Fosse, poltergeists appear to live in an eternal traumatic “now,” so throughout the book spooks walk in and out of each others hells – perhaps the “pale purple” fire of the title in English.
The set-up is brusquely tragic. Lying on a bench in her home near a fjord, Signe dreams of an event in late November 20 years before that has left her paralyzed spiritually and perhaps physically. Her husband Asle senselessly took his small boat out onto the water during a rampaging storm and disappeared. No explanation for Asle’s suicide is offered. It wasn’t martial discord, at least according to Signe, who suggests that the couple shared a stark but affectionate relationship. (Fosse even uses the word love!) No, the reason for Asle’s trip to oblivion appears to be a destined compulsion, articulated by a bedeviled chorus made up of earlier generations of Asle’s family, to join them in the darkness:
… and it is as if silent voices are speaking from them, as if a big tongue was there in the walls and this tongue is saying something that cannot be said in words, he knows it, he thinks, and what it’s saying is something behind the words that are usually said, something in the wall’s tongue, he thinks, and he stands there and looks at the walls …
The book revolves around that oxymoron of “silent voices”: Fosse’s aim is to evoke the insinuating power of self-destructive forces that lie beyond our control. The book’s challenging prose is crafted to suggest how these energies melt down time and memory: the book’s sentences are held together by commas, no periods. (Though there is the occasional question mark.) Names are capitalized but nothing else. Long, winding sentences are punctuated by short bursts of dialogue.
The demanding style calls for concentration, and Damion Searls’ lucid translation helps make the voices and episodes recalled by Signe easy to follow, even when a ghost suddenly walks into the woman’s story and takes us back to another time and another traumatic drowning. At its best, particularly when describing the cold and forbidding landscape, the writing attains an icy lyricism, though there’s with an insistent neurotic undertow, the familiar Sartrean rhythm of the hell of other people:
what ties two people together? or at least tied her to him, and he, well yes he was tied to her, him too, but maybe not quite as much as she was tied to him, but still, yes, yes, tied together, they were, he to her, she to him, but maybe she was more tied to him then he was to her, that may well be, but does that mean anything?
What ties do mean anything? For Fosse, the invisible trumps the visible — in fact, the living don’t seem to have much of a chance in the face of the past, which makes me wonder how the playwright generates drama out of metaphysical bullying. Still, this is a compelling read, so don’t hold my feet to the fire.