Something That Can Never Be Said with Words

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The darkness in Jon Fosse’s work is that of human consciousness confronted with mortality. Yet his characters seem to radiate with a luminous urgency.

Jon Fosse, the celebrated Norwegian novelist and playwright, is still largely—and bafflingly—unknown in the United States, although his works have been translated into over 40 languages and his plays are produced regularly on stages throughout the world. Fosse has just received the 2010 International Ibsen Prize, the latest in a series of prestigious literary awards that have secured his reputation as one of the world’s most influential and enduring voices. Now, in their continued effort to bring contemporary European literature to a wider American readership, Dalkey Archive has published Fosse’s haunting, exquisite novel, Aliss at the Fire. Translated by Damion Searls, Aliss at the Fire was published in Norway in 2004; following Melancholy, it is the second of Fosse’s novels to be published by Dalkey in the last four years.

Aliss at the Fire is a stark, hypnotic book whose circular, minimalist prose quietly draws the reader into its vortex. It is late autumn in Norway, the days are approaching near-total darkness, and Asle stands by the window, gazing silently out onto the fjord. His demeanor seems to mirror the barely distinguishable landscape outside; gradually, Asle merges into a larger blackness that engulfs inside and out, present and past. Yet at the same time, it is another day, another darkness—and it is now his widow Signe, more than twenty years later, recalling the last time she saw him alive. Rain pelts against the windowpanes, the wind is picking up, yet Asle cannot resist the pull of habit and goes outdoors. Signe watches herself as she stands motionless at the window, waiting for him to return, unable to articulate the exact source of her dread.

Jon Fosse

Fosse’s use of dialogue highlights the difficulty of communicating in words. Sentences are begun and left dangling, revealing a profound inability to reliably convey emotion. Words intrude on Signe’s and Asle’s minds with an alien quality that unsettles them; their sentences are punctuated by distractedness, the mind questioning itself at every turn. Yet the emotions Fosse’s characters feel for one another are vivid; they resonate in the interstices, in what is left unsaid. Fosse is a master at conveying the subjectivity of human experience through language—in a kind of paradoxical inversion, his writing involves a precision of imprecision in which love, fear, jealousy, longing, and loneliness become palpable and real. Language, it seems, is elusive; meaning is better expressed through cadence and rhythm, through silence and omission, and in this Fosse’s language, even in Searls’ excellent translation, approaches the emotional power of music.

Aliss is a powerful meditation on love, loss, and the bonds of family. Lived lives imbed themselves like layers of sediment in the walls of a house that has been passed down through several generations. Temporality and transience take on an increasingly hallucinatory character, and it is out of this blackness of lost time, heralded by an inexplicable fire on the banks of the fjord, that Aliss suddenly appears with her little boy Kristoffer, an apparition that foretells Asle’s demise:

[H]e looks at her standing there bending down in front of the stove and then she puts the log sideways in the flames and at the same time he sees that now it’s Aliss who is putting a log in the stove, it’s not her, it’s Aliss, his great-great-grandmother, it’s her standing in front of the stove now and putting a log sideways into the stove and it shines in her black hair and there on the bench, back there in the corner, he sees Kristoffer lying with a wool blanket wrapped around him and then he sees Aliss go over and sit down on the edge of the bench and she puts her hand on Kristoffer’s forehead

You don’t have a fever now do you, Kristoffer, do you, Aliss says

You feel a little warm, she says

Just go back to sleep, good boy, she says

Fosse presents consciousness as a shifting amalgam of remembered and imagined scenes: The past anticipates the future, while the present is inexorably connected to the past. Signe sees the apparition, but in the scene it remains ambiguous whether readers are seeing what she saw twenty years ago or following her memory as she probes Asle’s family history for an explanation of his disappearance.

There is a mysticism at work in much of Fosse’s work—human powerlessness and complicity join to confront the inscrutable forces governing our fate:

[H]e walks into the hall and the old walls there settle into place all around him and say something to him, the same way they always have, he thinks, it’s always like that, whether he notices it and thinks about it or not the walls are there, and it is as if silent voices are speaking from them, as if a big tongue is there in the walls and this tongue is saying something that can never be said with words, he knows it, he thinks, and what it’s saying is something behind the words that are usually said.

Fosse, widely regarded as an heir to the existentialist tradition, is often compared to Samuel Beckett. Both can be said to reduce language to a minimum to confront the unaccountable fact of human existence; both refrain from conventional narrative, focusing instead on a few characters in isolation from a larger social context. Yet while Beckett pared language down to reveal the inherent absurdity in the human condition, rejecting anything that came close to a naturalist portrayal of human relationships, Fosse’s naturalism is heightened to the point of artificiality, as in the hyper-reality of a tableau vivant.

In a certain sense, Fosse can be compared to Thomas Bernhard, whose use of repetition and cyclical grammatical construction also lures the reader into a radically different state of perception. Yet while Bernhard draws closer and closer to the source of his exasperation—circling it like an object of prey and comically, obsessively conjugating his hyperbolic fury at the world into every case and tense imaginable—his use of repetition, punctuated by infinitesimal variation upon variation, is hilarious. In contrast, Fosse’s use of repetition is alchemical and incantatory, transporting a reader into another, more dreamlike state.

The frequent comparisons to Ibsen are equally misleading. Ibsen revolutionized 19th century theater by introducing socially critical themes for the first time; Fosse, for his part, carefully keeps the outside world at bay and reduces his characters to their bare selves. The darkness in Fosse’s work is not the gloom of dissatisfaction, regret, or thwarted purpose. It is the darkness of a larger unknowing, of human consciousness confronted with mortality. Yet Fosse’s characters seem to glow from within, radiating with a luminous sense of urgency that elevates them to the universal. This might, in part, explain the overwhelming international appeal of his works—and in this light, the comparisons to Beckett and to Ibsen can be understood as part of a concerted effort to recognize Fosse’s genius.


Andrea Scrima is the author of the novel “A Lesser Day” (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2010), literary critic for The Brooklyn Rail and The Rumpus, and co-editor of Hyperion: On the Future of Aesthetics. She lives in Berlin. More from this author →