In Review: Melancholy II by Jon Fosse

"In the end just one word is left of the poem: 'wide-screen sky.' But that word, Fosse tells a distraught Knausgaard, is a good word."

Once upon a time, and a very good time it was, a friend of a friend was sitting on a park bench with a book. This friend—a student of literature—was reading modern Norwegian drama, and the park bench she was sitting on was right by the theater in Bergen. It was also right by a large and imposing statue of Henrik Ibsen. 

As she sat there reading, a heavy figure approached, dressed in black. He lumbered closer and finally sat down on the other end of her bench, musing into the air, saying nothing, as my friend read her book. Or rather, as she pretended to read her book, and just sat there quaking, reading Fosse while Fosse sat on the other end of the bench, the two of them watched over by a furious-looking stone statue of Ibsen. After a while, Fosse got up and wandered on. My friend sat there for a while and collected herself, then went to a lecture.

It’s difficult to picture such a scene happening in any other country—where else would anyone recognize a playwright, and be so overcome that she couldn’t speak?—but it gives you an idea of Fosse’s standing in Norway among the small, devoted audience that knows and loves him, despite the fact that his work might arguably be the most depressing stuff ever written. The book chosen by Dalkey Archive Press for translation, Melancholy II, follows old and senile Oline as she spends a day or so reminiscing over her life in western coastal Norway. Without apparent irony, the foreword suggests that the book not be read for its plot. What’s left then, to read for? Language.

In his original Norwegian, Fosse is a man who does a lot with a little. There are two styles of written Norwegian, the standard and the… other. Fosse, you will not be surprised to hear, writes in the other, known as nynorsk. While it’s less popular as a written language, it’s closer to the way many Norwegians speak than standardized Norwegian, known as bokmål. Literally translated, “bokmål” could be rendered “bookish,” if bookish was a commonly acknowledged style. For an English speaker, imagine the difference between a text message from a teenager and a Wall Street Journal story about the interest rate, and you get an idea of the difference between the immediacy of nynorsk and the fussy remove of bokmål.

Melancholy II takes place in Stavanger, a pious city on the west coast these days known as the capital of the oil industry. How times have changed. The Stavanger Fosse describes, of a hundred years ago, is made up, in this immediate language, of only a few clean ingredients: people, sea, sky. Fosse, writing in the frankly difficult and challenging language of nynorsk, is operating at a high level—he’s been tipped for the Nobel Prize in literature several times—yet the original language is simple, with short words and short sentences. Except when they’re long and on-running in the manner of a five-year-old telling you about the time they saw a ghost.

That’s what she’s going to do, yes, thinks Oline and she opens the red door to her nice little house, with the hand she is holding the fish in she opens the nice red door, and she enters her house, and Oline looks at the flagstones of the floor in the hall and she can see their Father sitting astride the roof ridge there on Borgøya and Father is letting go of slate after slate so they fall to the ground and stick crookedly out of it, Father, Father, Oline thinks and now she thinks she mustn’t lose herself in reveries again, Oline must go straight into the kitchen and gut and wash the fish and then sit down, because the ache is coming back again so she must sit herself down, thinks Oline and she goes into the kitchen and puts the fish on the table, and she sits herself down at the table, and she leans her stick against the edge of the table, and she puts the chopping board in front of her takes the knife out of its sheath, she picks up the one fish and feels that it is dry and a little sticky, her fingers stick to the fish, and Oline cuts the head off the one fish.

In an as-yet untranslated volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Karl Ove writes about attending writing school in Bergen, the Writing Arts Academy, and having Jon Fosse as one of his teachers. Early in the school year, the class was sent out to the museums of Bergen and instructed to come back with a poem. Karl Ove gets carried away writing about a nature scene and comes back with a long, descriptive poem. Fosse, his professor, starts deleting words from it in a public critique. Unnecessary words. Strike, strike, strike. In the end just one word is left of the poem: “wide-screen sky.” But that word, Fosse tells a distraught Knausgaard, is a good word. Although this anecdote is really about Knausgaard, it also tells you about Fosse’s stringency. I did not come across any words in Melancholy II that could be removed. What a stone-like effect it produces.

Fosse in Norwegian often employs evocative dialect words that are unknown in standard Norwegian. It’s a bit like reading Robert Burns. Often, reading the Norwegian, you will come across a word you don’t really know, which nevertheless produces a certain bodily sensation of familiarity, as if you’re thinking and reading with your guts, not your brain. Contrast this with the English version, which doesn’t have any of these weird words, yet like the Norwegian text is simple. Simple in this case, though, doesn’t carry with it the sense of something minimal, controlled and suggestive of unfathomable depths, but rather something limited and small, solid and dumb.

What does carry over is the bluntness and desperation of Oline, and the language is never less than clear. In both the Norwegian and the English versions, I have the sense of looking at someone’s life through very old glass, the kind with tiny trapped air bubbles, that shrinks and weaves your perspective like a lens, not a pane. Pellucid.

So if anyone cannot live without reading Fosse, but only speaks English, this ersatz product may both stay and whet your perverse appetite. Don’t for a minute, though, imagine it’s quite like the real thing. For that, you’ll have to learn Norwegian, and not the standard kind, but a hand-made, original Norwegian of feeling and instinct and experience.


Jon Fosse’s Melancholy II, translated by Eric Dickens, is forthcoming from Dalkey Archive Press.


Julia Grønnevet is a freelancer journalist and Asymptote’s editor-at-large for Norway.