by Sarah Rodriguez | 17 Jan 2023
Art, Light, & the Unknowable: On Septology by Jon Fosse
“I hope there is [...] a kind of silent voice speaking from my writing,” shares Jon Fosse, in an interview about his novel, published in October 2022, Septology. Taken together, the series, in seven parts, offers a striking account of what we can say and know and what we cannot. It immerses the reader, also, in the mysterious interplay between light and darkness and the nature of artmaking.
Fosse writes about a protagonist named Asle, living in snowy Norway. An elderly man and widower—by vocation, an abstract painter—Asle wears the same long silver ponytail as Fosse himself, a Norwegian novelist-poet-turned-playwright-turned novelist. He shares, too, Fosse’s religious tendencies, particularly a form of Catholic mysticism inflected by the thought of Meister Eckhart. The motions of Asle’s mind swim, crash, and swirl, with the gushing flow of time—roving backward, sideways, and even, almost, outside of time. Not a single period punctuates his Fosse-dubbed “slow prose.” Over the course of the story, Asle meets his own, younger döppleganger, a man also named Asle—a painter, like the older Asle, but also lonely, non-religious, and an alcoholic.
These two Asles may amount to alter-egos of Fosse, himself at one point a man consumed by alcohol abuse. Simply substitute painting for prose. In Septology, Fosse tasks himself with drawing parallels between art and religion, the putatively divine. According to Asle, artmaking, like God, is more unknowable than known, linking body and soul, able to be gestured to by language but ultimately ineffable, yet most palpable in times of pain and sorrow.
Most of the books in the series begin the same way. Asle returns to work on the same painting, one of a purple and brown line intersecting, to form an X, which he compares the cross of St. Andrew. Frustratingly, we never get to see for ourselves what his paintings look like. What else happens in Septology? Periodically, Asle desires to pause or stop his painting practice. As the story develops, Asle’s neighbour, a chatty fisherman named Åsleik and his only real friend, stops by Asle’s home and invites him to Christmas dinner at his sister Guro’s. The journey to Guro’s is one of the sole physical treks of the, on the whole, psychological, plot-light tome. Asle checks in on his younger dopplegänger throughout the books, too—hospitalised, dying and also known as simply “Namesake”; meanwhile, Asle takes care of his dog, Bragi, and recalls how he met and loves his dead wife, Ales. Each chapter ends with Asle lapsing into Latin prayer, rhythmically moving his hands up and down on the rosary that Ales gifted him.
I say inside myself kyrie and I breathe out and eleison and I breath in and christie and I breathe out and eleison and I breathe in and I move my thumb up to the first bead and I say inside myself [...] Ave Maria Gratia plena Dominus tecum Benedicta tu in mulieribus
Hailed by Karl Ove Knausgard as a “major European writer,” and, with Septology, a finalist for the Booker Prize, Fosse’s voice is unfunny, deep, and repetitive, at times to hypnotic effect. In the text, Asle, looking back at his life, realizes his raison d’être for becoming a painter. In day-to-day life, “these pictures lodged inside me, yes” and “they’re almost all connected to something bad that I remember, the light is linked to the darkness, yes, that’s how it is…”
Such an artistic process—luminescent and weighty—evokes Emily Dickinson. “There's a certain Slant of light,” Dickinson writes, “Winter Afternoons-/That oppresses,” she says, “like the Heft/of Cathedral Tunes-”. Light melds with that of a sacred air melds with something oppressive. After pictures are lodged in Asle, he feels a need to dislodge them; to externalize some aspect of his soul, often painful. Feels an itch he needs to scratch, transmute, then release, by way of oil and canvas. Each painting must, according to Asle’s philosophy, radiate a light in order to gain legitimacy. In his artwork, the illegible and obscure eclipses that which can be viewed and understood.
“I know the difference between a good picture and a bad picture,” Asle goes on, “and I know that I can paint pictures that only I can paint, because I have my very own inner picture that all the other pictures come from, so to speak, or that they all try to get to, or get close to, but that one innermost picture can’t be painted, and the closer I am to that inner picture when I paint the better I paint”.
Only in silent communion with the work of art can its original, ineffable essence be relayed. Indeed, of such an essence, Asle remarks, “Yes of course it can’t be said but maybe it can be shown?” With this principle, Fosse’s protagonist echoes the early work of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein—in whose Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the language-obsessed eccentric writes “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Independently, Fosse acknowledges this very Wittgensteinian aphorism, going on further to complicate it. “You know this famous twist by Jacques Derrida,” Fosse mentions, in his New Yorker Interview, “‘What you cannot say, you have to write.’ That’s closer to the way I think about it.”
And still, in Septology, some aura about the unsayable seems sweetly to triumph. Perhaps this is a phenomenon that the writing form, in particular, makes possible. Like painting, writing allows more to be shown, sustainedly—sometimes in silence—than can be told, audibly, in words. The series transcends the rows of text that it maps onto, sways into a nebulous yet unswerving way of being, a sort of chill yet shimmery atmosphere. Fosse’s presence as a narrator appears to hover somewhere in the backdrop, at once distant and near. In the second book of Septology, Asle posits that:
painting can be compared to praying [...] pictures have spirit [...] a picture is a prayer, I think [...] yes, you could say all good art is like that in the end because all good art finds its way to the same place, I think
If Asle is on the right track, Fosse’s series as a whole may well find its way to such a place.
Asle’s own quests to bring forth paintings are microcosms of Fosse’s quest—a postmodern one—to bring forth the series. A project not dissimilar from that of Virginia Woolf’s in To the Lighthouse—Lily Briscoe’s attempt to create one abstract painting of Mrs. Ramsey, mirroring Woolf’s project to create the novel-cum-epic. In both Fosse and Woolf, also, the artist and writer—the makers—are afforded a certain priority over the art-appreciator and reader—the intakers. Only the former become conduits for something religious in nature. While in Woolf, Lily’s artwork is facilitated by a jolt of inspiration, in Fosse, Asle’s is facilitated by the gift of grace.
In the final section of Septology, Asle stops painting his brown and purple lines intersecting. He’s tempted even to give up painting altogether:
I have a real aversion to even the thought of painting anymore and I don’t understand what changed so suddenly inside me [Asle says] [...] because it used to be that I had to paint, not just to support myself but to get rid of all these pictures lodged in my head, I think and I realize that there are still pictures in my head but I also realize that they are about to fade away on their own, they are about to come together into one slow picture that doesn’t need to be painted and won’t be and can’t be, yes, the pictures are about to come together into a stillness, a calm silence
As the series nears its final page, multiple characters—once shiningly alive—face their demise. Most poignantly for Asle, he re-lives the death of Ales, in his mind’s eye. In the very last line of the book, a ball of blue lights blooms then vanishes into the dark, unknowable night. “...and I a ball of blue light shoots into my forehead and bursts and I say reeling inside myself Ora pro nobis peccatoribus nunc et in hora”. With this final, parting light, Asle dies.