Life, Death and the Hidden Light

This year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Jon Fosse of Norway, is a prolific writer who should now become better known in the West. His work certainly merits this. Septology, a 7-book novel comprised of three individual titles (The Other Name, I Is Another, A New Name) in just one sentence, more or less, is widely—and justly—regarded as a masterpiece. The work has been hailed as both a new form of fiction and a completely unique reading experience.

In the United States, Septology is published by Transit Books, a small, recently founded publisher based in the Bay Area. The brilliant, incantatory English translation is by Damion Searls. Publishing Fosse is quite a coup for the new imprint.

Septology is a different kind of reading experience. While the seven-book, one-sentence description above may sound daunting, the work itself is anything but. It might best be described as a kind of spiritual journey, one keenly felt by the reader as well as the principal protagonist, a painter named Asle.

Asle’s St. Andrews Cross, generated by DALL-E.
Asle’s St. Andrews Cross, generated by DALL-E.

Asle believes in God, though not merely in the conventional ways. For him, God resides in everything, as a sort of hidden light. Early on, he has worked on a painting which his neighbor dubs St. Andrews Cross—two thick lines forming an X-shaped cross on a black background, one line brown, the other purple. Asle believes a dark light shines from this painting.

That light somehow reflects the inexplicable mysteries of life, death and God, Asle believes. As he says, “…it’s definitely true that it’s just when things are darkest, blackest, that you see the light, that’s when this light can be seen, when the darkness is shining, yes, and it has always been like that in my life at least, when it’s darkest is when the light appears, when the darkness starts to shine, and maybe it’s the same way in the pictures I paint, anyway I hope it is….”

Fosse’s writings about the ineffable somehow seem deeply real, and intensely engaging. Lauren Groff, reviewing his more recent novella A Shining in the Guardian, writes that his fiction “somehow dissolves the border between the material and the spiritual worlds,” and this is true. Yet Fosse’s work is amazingly accessible and compelling, nowhere more so than in Septology (though A Shining will provide you with a brief, stripped-down example).

These works will not resolve the great issues of life, death or God; no straightforward explanations are offered, nor could they be. But in reading Fosse, you will feel the grip and importance of these issues and the questions they raise as never before.