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April 2024

Two Novellas by Jon Fosse

Jon Fosse won the 2023 Nobel Prize for Literature. In stating that, I'm supposing that those reading this might not already be aware of it. That supposition in turn is based on another: that there are a considerable number of people like me who read a lot but aren't necessarily aware of who wins the Nobel and other big prizes every year. 

For my part, I just don't give much thought to those prizes, or, as a rule, to the writers who receive them. This is not any sort of contrarian snobbery. I don't look down on them; in fact I feel a vague and slight sense of shame about my ignorance. It's true that I don't assume that Nobel winners are necessarily the best the world has to offer, but neither do I assume that they aren't. Most of them are probably excellent. It's just that for the most part my literary interests don't take me in the direction of contemporary writing. 

Those interests do, however, take me very much in the direction of writing by Catholics, contemporary and otherwise, and that's how Fosse came to my attention: he is a fairly recent Catholic convert, in spite of being Norwegian. I don't really mean for that last bit to be funny. The Nordic countries went thoroughly Protestant as soon as they had a chance, then even further and faster into secularism than the rest of Europe, and Catholics there have been not just scarce but rare. Still, I wouldn't have gotten around to reading Fosse if it hadn't been made convenient by an online seminar produced by the Global Catholic Literature Project of the Collegium Institute of the University of Pennsylvania, in partnership with Dappled Things magazine. I've taken a couple of these and found them interesting and helpful.

Fosse has published an enormous amount and I would have had no idea where to start with his work. The seminar made the choice for me: two novellas, A Shining and Aliss At the Fire. There were four Zoom sessions taking place on four consecutive Monday nights in March, two each for each of the novels.

It was perhaps a mistake to take the seminar, as I was more interested in other writers at the moment--for instance, Dickens--and had other things going on, including a week-long trip that made me miss the last session. So I didn't really give either the works or the seminar itself as much attention as they deserved. Moreover, the works are rather mysterious, and despite the vigorous efforts of the excellent presenters (who, I must say, made me feel rather stupid with the intelligence and depth of their analysis) I still have only a vague idea of their meaning, and even, in Aliss, of what actually happens. Therefore I am not going to attempt to discuss them in much depth, and am writing this post mainly to point them out and suggest that you may want to investigate them yourself.

A Shining is the simpler of the two. It's even, in a sense, straightforward. I'll give you a lengthy quote from the opening which will give you the flavor of it: 

I was taking a drive. It was nice. It felt good to be moving. I didn't know where I was going. I was just driving. Boredom had taken hold of me--usually I was never bored but now I had fallen prey to it. I couldn't think of anything I wanted to do. So I just did something. I got in my car and drove and when I got somewhere I could turn right or left I turned right, and at the next place I could turn right or left I turned left, and so on. I kept driving like that. Eventually I'd driven a long way up a forest road where the ruts gradually got so deep that I felt like the car was getting stuck. I just kept driving, until the car got totally stuck. I tried to reverse but I couldn't, so I stopped the car. I was sitting in the car. Yes, well, now I'm here, I thought, now I'm sitting here, and I felt empty as if the boredom had turned into emptiness. Or maybe into a kind of anxiety, because I felt something like fear as I sat there empty, looking straight ahead as if into a void. Into nothingness. What am I talking about, I thought. There's the forest in front of me, it's just a forest, I thought. All right then, this sudden urge to drive off somewhere had brought me to a forest.

And it goes on like that. There are no paragraph breaks in its 74 pages. The man begins to walk into the forest. Night falls. It's very cold. He walks a long way, and he encounters a mysterious entity, the Shining of the title. He encounters several people, including his parents, and a man in black, as mysterious as the Shining. And there is what I will call a consummation at the end. The novella can be taken as a mystical or theological allegory (a dark wood and all that), but until I've read it again, which I do intend to do, I don't want to say anything more definite.


Publisher: Transit Books

Aliss At the Fire is a bit longer and considerably more complex. And puzzling. And as it happens it occupied the last two sessions of the seminar, when I was distracted for one and absent for the other (though I was able to watch a video of the session later). But I think this much is accurate: the people and events are fixed in place but not in time. The place is an old house near the sea, by (in?) a fjord, and its immediate surroundings. Over this place time is sort of...smeared. The place is inhabited by at least four or five people, all members of one family, going back several generations.

The point of view shifts without notice or acknowledgment. The books opens with an "I" who is watching someone--a woman named Signe--in a room in the house. Almost immediately the point of view shifts to Signe's, in third person: "She watches...she thinks...she sees..." Among the things she sees is her husband, Asle. After a few dozen pages there is a sort of pivot and the point of view becomes Asle's. Signe sees Asle and herself at different points in their life together. Asle sees Signe, his great-great-grandmother, Aliss, and several people from the intervening generations. There have been at least two deaths, untimely and deeply lamented, apparently by drowning in the fjord. The overall effect is of a connection, very deep and very much alive, among the persons along the timeline, as if to demonstrate Faulkner's "the past is never dead; it is not even past."

I don't think the "I" reappears until the last line, and if there is any explanation of him or her I missed it (which is possible). I'm tempted to quote that line. But it would be a species of spoiler, so I won't. 

Browsing through the book just now, I noticed that there seemed to be, typographically, no sentences. The narrative goes on for many pages with no punctuation except commas and question marks, and with paragraphs only used to indicate spoken dialog. I was going to say that there are no periods in the book at all, but there are a few. On page 41, more than a third of the way through the book, Asle is seeing his great-great-grandmother, Aliss, roasting a sheep's head at a fire near the shore.

...she moves the sheep's head back and forth, back and forth in the flames. That's Aliss, he thinks, and he sees it, he knows it. That's Aliss at the fire.

Unless I've missed one, that period after "flames" is the first one in the book. There are a few more in that passage, very very few after. No doubt that means something, but I don't know what.


Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press

Giving these books a little attention for the writing of this post has made me see that they deserve more attention than I gave them during the seminar, and are probably better than I gave them credit for. I plan to re-read them fairly soon. 

Quicksilver Messenger Service: "Pride of Man"

Though I only heard this song a few times fifty years ago, it's come back to my mind now and then over the years, and often over the past weeks and months, for reasons which will not be mysterious when you hear the lyrics.  

I heard this version by Quicksilver Messenger Service, one of the original San Francisco hippie-psychedelic bands, around 1970 or so, and not since until today. The band was fairly well-known at the time, mentioned along with the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, but never achieved the kind of fame that some of the others did.

They didn't write "Pride of Man." That was a guy named Hamilton Camp, who had some modest success as a folk, or perhaps I should say "folk," artist in the mid-'60s (and after). I have just learned, thanks to Wikipedia, that the song was connected with Camp's involvement in a religious movement called Subud

I was aware of him because when I was in high school I owned this album, a sampler from the then-new and innovative Elektra label:

Folksong65There's a wonderful range of music on it, and I listened to it many, many times. Some of the artists had long and successful careers, others pretty much disappeared, or just remained obscure. Some died fairly young. The duo called Kathy and Carol is among those who remained obscure, releasing one album and going their separate ways. Their track on the album was one of my favorites.

Coincidentally, my girlfriend at the time was named Kathy. Or rather Cathy.

My copy of the album disappeared many years ago. Someone has compiled a YouTube playlist which replicates the album, and that's nice. But I really would like to hear, and handle, and read the back cover of, the LP, and I see that it can be had very inexpensively from sellers on Discogs. I guess there's no harm in adding one more to my hoard.

(Cathy dumped me, by the way.) 

Mozart: Requiem

Having been thwarted twice in attempts to hear a live performance of this work, and being pretty old, I'm probably not going to get another chance at it. Oh well; I'm happy that there are recordings.

For Christmas of 2019 one of my children and her husband gave my wife and me tickets to a performance of the Requiem by the Mobile Symphony and a local choir (no offense, local choir, I just don't remember your name). Then along came Covid, and the performance was cancelled. So I was happy to see that the symphony was going to try again this year. No pandemic or other obstacle was in the way, and the performance did happen. 

But came the week before the concert, and also came a bad cold, first to my wife and then to me. By Saturday, when we were to have attended, we were both coughing and sneezing etc. so much that it began to seem like a bad idea to put ourselves into seats at the Saenger Theater where we would spend a couple of hours elbow-to-elbow with other people, and probably conversing with a few of them, as some acquaintances have seats next to and directly behind us. Apart from the good possibility that we would spread the virus, there was also the potential problem of our being unable to suppress bouts of noisy coughing and sneezing etc. Which could arguably have been a worse thing to do than spreading the cold.

So we decided not to go, and instead spent the evening watching Alabama lose their game in the Final Four of the NCAA basketball playoffs. That was sad, because it was the first time Alabama had gotten that far, but since I don't care much about basketball, missing the concert was sadder.

Oh well; I'm happy that there are recordings. And since the weekend I've listened to two of them. I had not heard this work for many years, and I was astonished at how good it is. I guess I had never really listened to it so attentively; I can recall putting on the LP when we had small children and being pretty distracted. 

This is not just an excellent and profound piece of music, it's a monument of Western civilization, up there with the greatest works of Bach and Beethoven. The fact that it's a setting of the Mass is part of its cultural status, even in the eyes of non-believers, as Christianity is at the heart of our civilization and so was the Mass for over a thousand years, and the Mass is at the heart of so much great music. For Christians it goes beyond that. The Requiem Mass in particular is a dramatic statement of the greatest truths of the faith, expressed here in some of the greatest music of one of those extremely rare artists who are unquestionably at the highest levels of genius.  

I know, Mozart left it unfinished at his death, and the version we have was completed by his friend Franz Xaver Süssmayr. We can't know how much of the work as we know it was Süssmayr's, and apparently that question has been continually and energetically argued almost from the beginning. (I did not know until a few days ago that there are other completions, some fairly recent. But Süssmayr's remains the standard.) But that doesn't matter when you're listening to it. 

I listened to two recordings, the one I purchased on LP over thirty years ago, and another chosen more or less randomly from the many available on IDAGIO. This is the LP, which seems to have been recorded in the late '60s.


Image from Discogs

And this is the other. 


Also from Discogs

I liked the first one better. I can only say that it seemed to have more clarity, especially in the singing, which is obviously desirable when the text is so important, and generally a somewhat more fresh and lively quality. I want next to try one of the recordings which use smaller ensembles and may have greater clarity in the complex choral parts. 

I would urge that anyone who is new (or, like me, sort of new) to the work listen to a recording with the text and a close translation at hand (the back cover of my LP gives both, side by side). If you know Latin pretty well and are very familiar with the Requiem texts, you may not need them, but I certainly did. You really need to follow as closely as possible what Mozart does with the text, often giving a single word or a phrase a very elaborate treatment, with a good deal of repetition, and sometimes charging straight through. The Kyrie, for instance, is a fugue, and not the only one. I found it easy to lose track, even with the text in front of me, and the whole experience would have had less impact without that orientation. And I know that there is much more to be gained from further listening, though I feel a bit wistful knowing that there are technical complications and subtleties that are beyond my perception.

I won't try to go further than those general observations, except to repeat my sense of awe at the work. I may insert into my will a requirement that it be performed at my funeral, to make up for my having missed these two chances at hearing a live performance--and I don't mean a recording. It would be a nice thing to do for my family, though it might seem to some of them more like being forced to eat their vegetables. Stop complaining, it's good for you.

A Note on Bleak House Editions

When my wife and I moved to a new house in the fall of 2022, we tried to get rid of some of the books that were overflowing, in a very unsightly way, our shelves. That meant books that we had already read and didn't want to re-read, or had not read and most likely never would read, and duplicates. Among the latter were two copies of Bleak House. One was a small, beat-up, and generally undistinguished paperback. The other was a hardback, in perfect condition, of a good size, and nicely printed. 

So that was an easy decision: out went the paperback. 

But six weeks or so ago, when I finally began to satisfy my desire to re-read Bleak House for the first time in roughly fifty years and took up the hardback, I noticed something odd. I had just finished Dombey and Son, which runs to some 900 pages. I was fairly sure that Bleak House was at least comparable in length. But this copy had slightly under 600 pages, though it was printed in a typeface of reasonable size and with comfortable margins. Closer examination discovered this brief and inconspicuous note on the title page: "Arranged for Modern Reading."

The fact that I strongly suspect the internet to be a net harm to society doesn't prevent me from using it and appreciating the fact that it gives me instant access to vast quantities of information. I took a quick look at the Project Gutenberg edition of Bleak House and saw that at least one whole chapter was missing from my copy. Then I poked around for information about this particular edition, published by The Literary Guild, which is a book-of-the-month style enterprise, perhaps meant to be classier. And I found that it is indeed abridged. It is, as I said, a handsome production, with illustrations by Edward Gorey (which may be enough reason for me to keep it). But abridgment of such a novel is unacceptable, indeed a sin, if meant for adult readers.

So I checked out a copy from the local library: the Oxford Illustrated Dickens edition, the illustrations being the originals by "Phiz." I hadn't gotten very far in it before I realized that I wanted to buy my own copy. But the OID is out of print, replaced, apparently, by the edition included in the Oxford World's Classics series. That seemed promising. I was also interested in the Norton Critical Edition, which I've found to be very good, and, having just been reading the Wordsworth NCE, I wanted the paraphernalia of notes, background, and criticism. (I thought it was out of print, as Amazon only offered used copies. But I find now that it apparently is very much alive. At any rate I found an inexpensive used copy in good condition.)

I ended up buying both and would recommend either. Quality and size of typeface are increasingly important to me in my old age, as my vision seems to get a bit worse every year. (And it's not something that can be solved with the right glasses; if I live long enough I'll probably need cataract surgery). Both these are very readable. Norton is still using the typeface they've been using since at least the Norton Anthologies which were my textbooks in the mid-'60s, or at least a very similar one. It's remarkably clear as well as compact.

I'm telling you all this because I hadn't quite realized how much detail I was skimming past and ignoring in reading Dickens without notes.  He assumes we know something about London geography, about the Chancery courts, about details of life in his time which have had little or no presence in ours for the past century and more. There are many words and phrases that are unintelligible to us, or to me at least, and I venture to say most of us. I hadn't realized how often I contented myself with getting the general drift of a sentence or paragraph and moving on without knowing exactly what had been referred to.

Here, for instance, opening the NCE at random, I find this footnote:

  1. A ship that is laid up and out of commission, although still afloat.

The note is attached to this sentence in the text:

The good ships Law and Equity, those teak-built, copper-bottomed, iron-fastened, brazened-faced, and not by any means fast-sailing Clippers are laid up in ordinary.

Without the note, you haven't completely missed the sense as long as you get the general idea that the ships are not proceeding. But you certainly miss some precision and some flavor. 

Both the NCE and the OWC have such notes, footnotes in the NCE and endnotes in the OWC. I prefer footnotes to the constant page-turning required by endnotes. And I prefer the NCE overall. It has much more supplementary material. Some of that doesn't interest me, including 65 pages of textual notes giving every detail of variation between manuscripts of the novel, almost all of them trivial. But there are also, for instance, selections from documents of the time that go into disgusting detail about the filth of some parts of London in the 1840s, and a section devoted to tracking down real-life sources for some of the characters. I did not know that the detestable freeloader Skimpole is, by Dickens's own assertion, a portrait of Leigh Hunt, though I don't know that Dickens thought Hunt behaved detestably. 

Both editions include the Phiz illustrations, but the NCE doesn't have them all. And I wonder about the reproduction of some of them in both. Night scenes are more or less black smears, with little detail visible. But maybe that's my old eyes. Also, the maps are better in the OWC.