Quicksilver Messenger Service: "Pride of Man"
Global Catholic Literature Seminar on Flannery O'Connor's Why Do the Heathen Rage?

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. 


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

If it is literature, then it generally will demand more attention than we are likely to give it the first time around. People say to me, "Why are you reading that again?" Those people tend to read genre fiction.
One of the Booktube guys I follow recommended some Jon Fosse books a while back, probably before the Nobel Prize award. I remember the name, and that he is from Norway, but nothing else. I'd have to go looking for the video to see which books.
I have been reading one of the short-listed (not the winner) novels from last year's Booker Prize; The Bee Sting by Paul Murray. Given your disinclinations toward modern lit I'm not recommending it, but Murray (who is Irish) is also a very fine writer who even mixes things up with his writing style as he changes POV characters. I'm enjoying it.

I just recently read "A Shining" myself! It was only recently that I first heard about Jon Fosse, and, like you, I was intrigued by the conjuction of "Nobel Prize" and "Catholic convert".

I found "A Shining" a perplexing little book. A friend and I joked that he might have written it in a weekend. As you say, it invites an allegorical reading. My interpretation is that it's a kind of portrait of the lost, late modern (Scandinavian?) soul, and that the ending, which seems rather positive on first reading, is more ambiguous than it seems. I found the book pretty unsettling in the end.

I had fun writing up my thoughts on the book, and maybe I'll post them soon, since you've started the conversation.

I liked the book well enough that I've put his long novel "Septology" on my birthday wishlist. Apparently this is an anthology of seven short novels, and it is all one sentence!?!

I've been wondering about Septology. I had the impression it was really seven full-length novels, but that can't be right, as the Amazon entry says it's in the 600-page range. Seven short novels, then, as you say.

I look forward to hearing (reading) your thoughts on The Shining.

"he might have written it in a weekend." I would almost be surprised if he didn't. Or at least not surprised if he did. People in the seminar were looking for significance in some details, like the occasional switch from present to past tense. I'm a bit skeptical of that one but maybe they're right.

"If it is literature, then it generally will demand more attention than we are likely to give it the first time around."

Certainly. In fact as I was writing this post and looking again at the two books it occurred to me that Aliss in particular may be like one of those pieces of music that don't make much of an impression at first but sort of unfold and grow on you with repeated listening.

'People say to me, "Why are you reading that again?"' Sigh. Yeah, I've heard that, too. I wouldn't necessarily say this about non-fiction, but if a work of fiction or poetry is not worth reading twice it wasn't really worth reading at all.

Twice or more. Of course practical limits get in the way of following through on re-reading, but still, it's true.

Alright, I posted my notes on "A Shining", silly as they are. Perhaps I'd had a little too much scotch as I was writing.


Sounds like fun. I'll have to wait till later today to read it.

It's brilliant, brilliant. Anyone who has read the book ought to love it. I'm tempted to reply in the same vein but I don't think I have it in me.

People say to me, "Why are you reading that again?"'

I have the same feeling about movies. The really good ones are worth rewatching, sometimes more than once. I'm less apt to rewatch TV series unless they're really top notch. I can think of maybe a dozen that I've watched more than once or would consider rewatching. (This wouldn't include older series that I watched years ago and liked but have largely forgotten. Some of the BBC series fall into that category.)

I agree about movies, though there are very few that meet that rise to that level for me. In principle I'd say the same about tv series, but I don't think I've ever rewatched one, because of the amount of time required.

Oh wait, I take that back: Twin Peaks. And I watched the first two seasons of Dark a second time. I let the third go because it takes a turn which didn't make sense to me. But I would sort of like to see the last episode again, so maybe....

I'm more likely to re-watch a film than to re-read a book, just because of the difference in time investment. That said, I don't do either all that often. There are probably a dozen films that I've seen three or more times.

C.S. Lewis once defined an "unliterary person" as "one who reads books only once". That stings a little!

I think the only TV show I've watched twice was "The Wire".

That's one I'd definitely watch again if not for the time required. Breaking Bad is tempting but toward the end it got so emotionally draining that I don't really want to.

I've been bothered by that C.S. Lewis quote for many years, or some version of it that I've written in my head. I'm not sure the term being defined was "unliterary person"...I was thinking something like "half-educated." But the definition was "has read the great books--once."

I've watched Twin Peaks (original show) three times. There are quite a few I've watched twice -- The Wire, Breaking Bad, Rectify, Prime Suspect, Morse, The Killing (Danish). And there are a few shorter mini-series I've watched twice. The only one currently that I'd like to watch again is Succession, but I'm going to give it a little time.

I've watched some episodes of some shows more than once. I was going to re-watch The X-Files but the quality was just too uneven, and as fans know the story pretty much came to pieces.

I watched several episodes of Rectify but there was something about it I just didn't like. Couldn't really put my finger on it.

Yeah, I remember you saying that about Rectify -- something about there being "a lot of pain" if I recall. I really liked it and found it extremely moving in places.

I seem to remember that the pain didn't seem to be going anywhere, as far as I watched. Just static misery. I'm sure it got past that but I dropped out.

Right. There are some considerable redemptive elements, but other than in some early foreshadowings they take time to develop. I kept expecting the show to make a wrong turn regarding the faith aspect of the story, given the way that Hollywood and the networks usually treat such things, but I was pleasantly surprised that they kept it not only sane but sympathetic.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)