Joe Fosse’s Books Seek and Find the Divine

From a New York Times appraisal by Randy Boyagoda headlined “Joe Fosse’s Books Seek and Find the Divine”:

Randy Boyagoda is a novelist and professor of English at the University of Toronto.

At a dinner party this winter in Toronto, when a table-wide silence descended, I tried to fill it by asking what everyone was reading. A colleague snorted and pointed out that any time people ask that question, what they’re really doing is waiting to announce what they are reading. I was offended because she was right.

I was merely rereading “Septology,” I said, a single-sentence seven-novel sequence by the Norwegian writer Jon Fosse. The novels are about an aging painter living on his own outside a remote village in Norway, with his doppelgänger leading a parallel existence elsewhere. While painting and repainting the same canvas and chatting with a salty neighbor, the old man goes over his life, his work and his relationship with God, family members and friends.

All of this takes place over a few days, I went on casually and insufferably, in what proves to be the lead-up to his death and what he believes comes next: encountering God. A different kind of silence descended upon the table. No one wanted to go next. My colleague scowled at me. I made an innocent face.

Bookish flexing aside, I have for years been an evangelist for Fosse, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday. And “evangelizing” is an apt word, given the vibrant, mirror-dark religious feeling of his books. Fosse converted to Catholicism in 2012, when he was already a well-established playwright and fiction writer in his native Norway, which celebrates Fosse with a biannual festival dedicated to his work. (The most recent took place this past summer, over 12 days.)

His international stature and popularity in a generally secular country is a strong indicator that Fosse’s books aren’t just for the faithful: Indeed, many religiously minded readers of the Chesterton, Lewis and Tolkien club may be put off by Fosse’s formal and stylistic demands, and also by his obscure, at times even willfully inchoate writing about human and divine life.

The Nobel announcement comes only a few weeks before his latest novel, “A Shining,” will be published in English (beautifully and brilliantly translated, as was “Septology,” by Damion Searls), and it affords an excellent occasion to make a stronger case for why reading Fosse is a singular and transporting experience. In the words of the Nobel committee, he received the prize “for his innovative plays and prose which give voice to the unsayable.”

For Fosse, the unsayable manifests in the many ways of exploring questions of being, consciousness and art-making: His first-person protagonists keep trying to say and trying to say and trying to say. Indeed, one of Fosse’s former students and easily his best-known admirer, Karl Ove Knausgaard, proposes that the “voice of Fosse’s fiction is a presence unconnected with Fosse’s own time, but connected rather with something else.”

For a writer like Knausgaard, and other contemporary names in autofiction, like Ben Lerner, Rachel Cusk and Sheila Heti, that “something else” is a self-reflexive, miasmatic, anomie-filled and often solipsistic territory between the self and the world. Not for Fosse. His writing is informed by a searching openness to the eternal that is, to modify Knausgaard’s assessment slightly but importantly, connected with someone else, a living being, which is to invoke the core of the Christian proposition: The Word was made flesh, and dwelled among us. In other words, God spoke and that divine fiat both created the world and took human form, which opened the possibility of a connection to the Divine in our own mortal lives.

If experiencing all of that in a single sentence that runs across hundreds of pages is a daunting entry point, I bring you tidings of great joy: “A Shining,” which will be published on Oct. 31, is only 75 pages long and made up of short, simple sentences; it’s also, somehow, a luminous and subtle rewriting of the entire Divine Comedy. Told in the first person, the novel is about a lost-feeling man who decides to drive his car into a secluded forest in deep winter, just as Dante’s poem opens with the poet finding himself lost in a dark wood, in the middle of the universal journey of life. Feeling cold from more than just the weather, Fosse’s protagonist ventures out into the ever-darkening woods, drawn by an obscure but light-filled presence:

Now it’s really as dark as it can get and there in front of me I see the outline of something that looks like a person. A shining outline, getting clearer and clearer. Yes, a white outline there in the dark, right in front of me. Is it far away or is it nearby. I can’t say for sure. It’s impossible, yes, impossible to say whether it’s close or far away. But it’s there. A white outline. Shining. And I think it’s walking toward me. Or coming toward me. Because it’s not walking. It’s just getting closer and closer somehow. And the outline is entirely white. Now I see it clearly. Yes, I see that it’s white. A whiteness. It’s so clear in the black darkness.

Fosse is our age’s great writer of light and darkness. His characters reckon with the real presence of God in their lives and in the world, both of which, if God didn’t exist, would amount to a total void. As “A Shining” develops, this presence remains close but is never named; elsewhere, it is joined by other shapes that the man eventually discerns as his parents. They have come into the woods to search for their lost son, calling for him and asking him to come close so they can help bring him to a better place — Fosse’s variation on Beatrice and Virgil guiding the lost Dante to God and heaven.

The exchanges between the man and his parents — a chatty mother and an almost mute father — are occasionally funny but more often moving in how they disclose much about an earlier family life marked by suppressed feelings and fraught, often failed efforts at shared understanding. But there are no events or places specified; Fosse’s sensibility is to resist that kind of concrete explication. For him, human reality finds its fullest, active unfolding in an interior life that tries and tries to transcend to an ultimate exterior reality, which is to say, toward a God Who Exists. The time, places and experiences in between, which take up the middle part of “A Shining,” form a contemplative, ascendant walk in a dark forest, not unlike the climb up the mountain in Dante’s “Purgatory.”

In Fosse’s provocatively shaded and muted but still belief-affirming rendering of Paradise, heaven isn’t the geometrically perfect, saint-filled cosmic wonderland of Dante. It’s “a grayness that’s holding me, yes, embracing everything that exists, but it’s like nothing exists, yes, it’s as if everything just is in its grayness, nothing exists and then suddenly I’m in a light so strong” that it’s both said and unsayable, and I’ll leave that sentence open because you should pick up the book and let Fosse take you the rest of the way.

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