“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Book Review: Aliss at the Fire

Aliss at the Fire
By Jon Fosse
Dalkey Archive Press

Aliss at the Fire is the new novella by John Fosse, a Norwegian author who, aside from being a novelist, is also generally considered to be one of Europe’s greatest living playwrights; his work has been translated into more than 40 languages, he placed number 83 on The Daily Telegraph’s list of the top 100 living geniuses (certainly one of the most fatuous lists ever compiled), and he has also been awarded a lifetime stipend from the Norwegian government in anticipation of his future literary efforts. As befits the lowly place of literature-in-translation within English-speaking countries though, it remains unsurprising that few Australian readers will have ever heard of him.
            While I very much doubt that Aliss at the Fire is likely to make Fosse a household name, it is a beautiful and clever shorter novel. In the language known as book reviewese, this is the kind of book that would normally be described as ‘haunting,’ ‘dreamlike’ or ‘hallucinatory’, and, indeed, all of these descriptors would be apt.  The story starts out in the mind of Signe who is sitting in her kitchen in 2002 and thinking about the night that her husband, Asle, disappeared while out in a boat on a fjord in 1979. But despite the seeming simplicity of this narrative conceit, the story quickly turns in a series of different directions, jumping into Asle’s head, and then again further back in time to Asle’s great-great-grandmother, Aliss, who is tending a fire, and then again to the death of Aliss’s grand-nephew, also named Asle (and who is the great-uncle of the Asle who disappeared in 1979), who also suffered an untimely death.
            I don’t want to say too much more about the plot for fear of ruining its interesting and complex twists and turns, but the effect is extraordinary: the novel jumps across time such that every different moment seems to be happening at once. It becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate Signe’s thoughts from memory and hallucination; the reader can’t be certain what is fact and what is fiction.
            Despite the complexity of the narrative, Fosse’s language is incredibly restrained, repetitive and minimal in the tradition of Samuel Beckett, which only further serves to lend an otherworldly quality to events otherwise associated with the banality of daily life. Unsurprisingly for a playwright, Fosse’s dialogue is particularly wonderful, often conveying the inability of his characters to communicate with each other:
            ‘What are you thinking about, Signe says
            No nothing special, Asle says
            No, Signe says
            I guess I, Asle says
            Yes I, he says
            and he stands there and looks at her
            I, he says
            I, I, yes well. I’ll just, he says           
            You, Signe says
            Yes, Asle says
            You’ll, Signe says
            I, Asle says
            I guess I’ll go out onto the  fjord for a while, he says
            Today too, Signe says
            I think so, Asle says’
It may be hard to appreciate how wonderful (and funny!) this dialogue is when removed from its context, but it works wonderfully within Aliss at the Fire, and has also made me quite interested in tracking down and reading some of Fosse’s dramatic work, too.
            Aliss at the Fire is a little wonder of a novel, taking a simple concept and spinning it out into something that has a melancholic and strange beauty. Most impressively, Fosse is actually able to draw the whole work together at the end, with a conclusion that both sums up much of what has occurred, while simultaneously raising as many questions as it answers.
That being said, this is a book that—in its emphatic European-ness—probably won’t appeal to the sensibilities of most Australian readers, which is a shame, since this a wonderful and moving work of world literature. But this book would appeal to those readers who have an interest in the classic European cinema of the 1960s (the mood of this novel occupies a similar space to that of Ingmar Bergman’s classic 1966 film Persona, for example). For those willing to be open-minded about their literary experiences, Aliss at the Fire is wonderfully suggestive narrative, and an exceptionally affecting work of contemporary literature.

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