Today, in honor of the new Nobel laureate, I’d like to look at the first of Jon Fosse’s works of fiction that I read, back in 2016, Aliss at the Fire. The most salient features of Fosse’s writing are present in this short novel from 2004. When I read Aliss at the Fire, Fosse’s monumental, mystical, prayerful Septology had not yet been published, but I knew Fosse had converted to Catholicism. I wanted to see if I could catch a glimpse of what led to that conversion by reading the earlier work. What I found was fiction that I would call fantasy, and fantasy is one of my basic criteria for religious sensibility. Another criterion is true love, and Fosse is a poet of true love.
Here is what I mean by true love, as expressed through the thoughts of the character Signe:
and they looked at each other, smiled at each other, and it was as though they were old friends, as though they had always known each other, in a way, just that it had been such an immeasurably long time since they had last seen each other, and that’s why they were so happy, to see each other again made them both so happy that happiness took over and steered them, it steered them to each other, as though this was something that was gone, that had been missing their whole lives, but now it was here, at last, it was here now, that’s how it felt then, that first time they met… it wasn’t frightening, no, it was like it was obvious, like there was nothing to do about it, it was certain, somehow, and whether she said or did one thing or another it was kind of like it didn’t make any difference, it happened the way it was meant to happen, it had all been decided in advance, she thinks, yes, yes that’s how it was
And here is what I mean by fantasy, again as expressed through Signe’s thoughts:
but she can’t stay standing in front of the window like this, she thinks, why does she do that all the time? and now she mustn’t think what she has thought so many times before, that she might just as well do that as do anything else, she thinks, instead she stays standing and she looks at a place in the middle of the fjord and then she loses herself in looking out at that place and she sees, lying there on the bench, herself standing there in front of the window and he too, she thinks, he too stood there so many times, just like she now sees herself standing there
The entirety of Aliss at the Fire occurs in the mind of a middle-aged woman named Signe who is lying on a bench in her house in rural Norway. That perspective is the outermost in a sort of Russian doll set of nested perspectives or visions. In fact, there is one perspective outside even that: the narrator, who begins by seeing Signe lying on the bench, then disappears for the rest of the book until the very end, when he hears her praying. Apart from the narrator, the scheme of the book works this way:
Signe sees her younger self on the day when her husband, Asle, went missing in the fjord. She watches herself do what she did that day, all the while being aware of herself in the present lying on the bench. This visionary recollection brings us back twenty-three years before 1979, when Asle was alive, and so we enter into Asle’s stream-of-consciousness as well. Both Asle and Signe, in the past time of the story, have visions of circumstances surrounding a tragic event further in the past that happened on the fjord by the house where Signe now lives alone, namely the death by drowning of Asle’s great-uncle, after whom Asle was named, on his seventh birthday.
Asle sees further still into the past—remember, we only see Asle through Signe’s retrospective vision—when he beholds his great-great-grandmother Aliss cooking sheep’s heads in a bonfire while tending to her son, Kristoffer, who will become the father of the Asle who dies on his seventh birthday, the great-uncle of our story’s Asle, who disappears in the fjord on November 17, 1979. Thus we have a story that, through hallucinatory recollection, spans from the early twenty-first century back to the late nineteenth century.