As this blog has evolved, one of its tropes has become comparing things to music; music is my other passion, and I’ve spent a lifetime reading and listening to odd things. I have a comparison here, and I’ll get there, but there are a few things to get out of the way:
These are the first two books in a “Septology”. I haven’t read the remaining ones; they are on the list, and I definitely plan to get to them. So if there are things that change my impression of the characters or the story, they will come with any writing I do about them. Said Septology has been published in English in three volumes, and this is about the first one, which consists of books one and two.
Second, this book deals a lot with religion and religious thought. The author, Jon Fosse, converted to Catholicism in 2012, and prior to that he identified as an atheist. I myself am an adult convert to the Orthodox church, but for a variety of reasons, have strayed from it. That having been said, my relationship to religion remains complicated, and difficult for me to articulate. But it is something I think worthy of respect and thought; not something to be dismissed out of hand, and this colors my reading of “The Other Name” quite heavily. This also means I will be using the Christian terms for God, along with the capitalized pronoun Him in reference to God. I’m not asking you to believe or agree, but it is the easiest way for me to write about it.
Lastly, this book is a kind of haze. It’s one long sentence, it switches tenses, and the stories it tells are often echoes of each other; they fold in, twist, and parts of it can be unclear. I can’t offer (nor would I ever really want to offer) some sort of definitive guide to the story– and really, in a lot of ways, the story isn’t the book.
That having been said, in broad strokes, the first book concerns itself with Asle, a painter who is working on his latest painting, which is an abstract version of a St. Andrews Cross. He has a variety of encounters with his neighbor, Åsleik, a fisherman, and another painter in a town next to him, who is also named Asle. During these encounters, we learn about Asle’s past, especially involving his wife, Alse, who has died, and in the second book, memories of his childhood and his sister, Alide. (I have no idea if the proliferation of names that begin with A is something Norwegian as all hell, or symbolic in some fashion; there are characters who’s names do not begin with A, they are usually background characters.)
Asle himself is a religious man who has quit drinking. His namesake, also a painter, is someone who is very ill from years of alcohol abuse; Asle rescues his namesake and takes him to a clinic. He sees this as an act of God. He recounts his own experiences quitting drinking, which he attributes to God and his wife. There are allusions to a drunken past, including an encounter with a woman who may be named Guro or Silje.
In the second book, Alse recalls going for a long walk with his sister, and describes the town he lives in. He and his sister walk along the beach and mess with a boat, which is forbidden. They run across a boy named Bård, who ends up drowning.
Alse ends up having to bring his namesake’s dog, Braghi, home with him. We learn that Åsleik has a sister named “Guro”, which is the same name as the woman he encountered in the first book.
We learn that Alse was molested as a child by someone referred to only as “The Bald Man”, who his parents have told him to avoid. The book ends with Alse falling asleep while praying.
The story is, however, secondary to its own imagery. Fosse seeks nothing less than a kind of understanding of Christian grace; the gift of God to His creation– in some senses, the idea that God has granted us His favor, even though we are unworthy of it, but that’s not the entirety of it. The Orthodox, during lent, discuss a ‘bright sadness’– an understanding that the world can be an ugly and confusing place to be, and yet a place for which we give thanks. My notes read that the book captures a specific feeling– one of being indoors and cozy on a cold and blustery day; there’s a storm outside, but inside you are warm and comfortable. You know the outside world is miserable at the moment, and you may be aware that there are people stuck out in it, and so you are thankful that you’re indoors and warm. That’s a kind of grace.
Alse’s “namesake” serves as a vision of his life outside grace, but not one without hope; Alse is his rescuer, working through God, extending His hand through Alse. It’s a difficult subject, but Fosse works with it deftly. All the joys and pains in Alse’s life are on display, as is Alse’s own evolving understanding of God, as a thing we experience but cannot grasp the totality of. There’s a deep sense of the divine in all things in the book, and it feels very real. As Alse experiences God, we also experience Him, Alse’s prayers are not petitions to God, but simple expressions of his relationship to Him.
I’ve never read anything quite like it. The faith in the book is filled with assurance and free of arrogance. It’s a genuine encounter with faith which doesn’t avoid the difficult parts of life.
And the prose itself is excellent. It’s written as a long sentence, though may be more conventionally structured than that implies (there are line breaks during some dialog for example). Fosse calls it ‘slow writing’; it put me in mind of Morton Feldman, who wrote music which sort of arrives and then leaves– there are no distinct movement, but there are repeated themes. They can occur at any time, and there’s no apparent reason for anything, but when you step away and see everything as a whole, you’re left with an understanding of the work as a whole. The writing here is like that– thoughtful, profound, and ultimately moving. Even if you don’t have any faith of your own, it’s worthy of your time and consideration. You’ll see the world in a slightly different light when you’re done, and that’s the way the best literature works.