I came to the work of the Norwegian writer Jon Fosse — who receives the Nobel Prize for Literature this week — by way of “Septology,” a novel cycle that began appearing in English just a few years ago.
I’d been told by more than one person I trust that “Septology” was Fosse’s masterpiece, but I will admit to a personal reason for finally picking up a writer I’d been meaning to read for many years. In quick succession about a decade ago, Fosse married (for the third time), quit drinking, and converted to Catholicism. “Septology” was the first thing he wrote after these life-altering events, and they are all reflected in its pages. So “Septology” was recommended to me not just as a great literary novel but as a great Catholic literary novel, and I have a special interest in the genre.
As it happens, I also married (for the first time), quit drinking, and converted to Catholicism in quick succession about a decade ago. (In my case, this “conversion” was a return to the faith in which I’d been raised.) I’m a novelist myself, though not nearly so prolific or distinguished as Fosse, and my writing life is linked to my religious life in ways that remain fairly mysterious to me. Given all this, it may seem overdetermined that “Septology” would feel from its very first pages like it was written especially for me, but many readers who do not share these autobiographical affinities have reported the same reaction.
As the title suggests, “Septology” comprises seven books, but they are grouped into three volumes, and they are best read and understood as a single novel. Each book covers a single day, the whole making up a week, and they are each short enough to be read in a few sittings, so that you can live the week of the book almost in real time.
The novel unspools in one long sentence, with few paragraph breaks and no full stops, which is the kind of formal gesture that turns some people off before they even begin, but in this case it creates an incredibly absorbing reading experience. Among other things, “Septology” is a novel of consciousness in the high Modernist tradition, and you feel right away as though you are in the main character’s head, or as though he is in yours, until the book comes to seem like your own voice speaking to you.
That main character is Asle, a painter living in a small western Norway fishing village. Years earlier, Asle quit drinking and converted to Catholicism at the urging of his wife, Ales. As the book begins, Ales has died and Asle lives alone. He spends his time painting, talking with his neighbor Asleik, and making occasional trips to Bjorgvin, the large city a few hours’ drive away, which is home to another painter named Asle, who looks like the first. They might be the same man, except that the other Asle never met his Ales. He too lives alone — he is twice divorced — but he is an unbeliever debilitated by alcohol.
I am a sucker for doppelgänger stories, perhaps because I am an identical twin, but I felt a particularly powerful draw to this one. Over the past decade I have been troubled — as I imagine Fosse to be troubled — by the thoughts of the version of me that remained on the track my life was once on. I don’t think I’m being melodramatic when I wonder whether he survived. I worry for this shadow self, just as Asle worries for the Asle in Bjorgvin. I feel responsible for him.
After finishing a round trip to Bjorgvin for groceries in the first book, Asle is haunted by his failure to check in on his double, and he drives back to the city, where he finds the other Asle passed out in the snow, nearly dead. He drags him to a clinic and retreats to the local inn, where he collapses in exhaustion. The book ends with the Latin words of the Hail Mary, as Asle prays the rosary until fading off mid-sentence.
It was at this point that my experience of reading “Septology” became something else. After a serious bout with cancer in my early 20s, I suffered for many years from terrible insomnia. Each time I tried to sleep I became convinced that I would never wake up again. On many nights, I treated this problem by drinking myself into oblivion. When things started to change for me, one of the things that changed was this: I prayed myself to sleep instead. This habit eventually became central to my spiritual life, the moment when I asked myself whether I had spent the day that was ending as I ought to have spent it and committed myself to living the day to come as well as I could. I have come in certain ways to organize my life around this ritual, but I had never spoken about it to anyone besides my wife.
There are many better reasons to love a novel than self-identification. But I was gratified to see this practice on the page — and repeated at the end of each subsequent book in the series — because it is so private, and so difficult to discuss, and because it is not the kind of thing most people think about when they think about religious devotion.
In fact very little of Asle’s life corresponds to the public image of belief. You will find a great deal of prayer and contemplation throughout the 600-odd pages, but nowhere in it will you find political statements, pamphleteering, or anything that could be remotely considered a salvo in the culture war. One might chalk that up to its remote setting, but as Karl Ove Knausgaard’s readers know, social issues are every bit as pressing and divisive in Scandinavia as they are in the United States. They just don’t play a part in Asle’s life or Fosse’s work.
Though Asle is a regular churchgoer, and the novel takes place during Advent, you also won’t find much in the way of public religious performance here. Nor will you find anything that could be called proselytizing, either by Fosse or by his character. Asle talks about God with Asleik, a committed atheist, but he does so mostly at Asleik’s urging, and he makes no effort to convert him. A typical bit of conversation goes like this: “[S]omeone lives and then he dies and that’s that, no more no less, Asleik says and he’s probably right about that too, but then again maybe it isn’t so simple, because life isn’t something you can understand, and death isn’t either, actually to put it in other words it’s like in a weird way both life and death are things you can understand but not with thoughts[.]”
Asle describes his “deepest truest prayers” as those moments when he’s “sitting and staring into empty nothingness, and becoming empty.” Above all, he searches in his prayers for “silence and humility.” The books take place during Advent — which is to say, right at this time of year — and they are saturated by the feeling of waiting that this season brings. Not waiting for a family holiday or the turning of the calendar but waiting for that time when a God who is at once inside of us and impossibly far away will finally be seen face-to-face.
I wish I could say that Asle’s spiritual life mirrors my own. What I can say with more honesty is that it mirrors my aspirations for my own. I sometimes think that the modern world’s true cultural divide is not between believers and unbelievers but between those who think life is a puzzle that is capable of being solved and those who believe it’s a mystery that ought to be approached by way of silence and humility. I am a problem solver by disposition, but in my heart I am strongly on the side of the mysterians.
As an institution, the Catholic Church is notably hierarchical and dogmatic, and it has often presented itself not just as a solution to the puzzle of life but as the only possible solution. Yet the church has also always been a home for the kind of mystical, contemplative, apophatic faith that Asle represents. It is the faith of the 13th-century and early 14th-century German friar Meister Eckhart, whom Asle quotes at several points. It is the faith of the 16th-century mystic Teresa of Avila and her follower, John of the Cross. It is the faith of the 20th-century theologian Karl Rahner, who said that “The devout Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic’—someone who has ‘experienced something’—or will cease to be anything at all.” Each of these figures was formally investigated for heterodox belief during their lifetimes, but all are recognized today as vital communicators of Catholic truth.
It’s a mistake to treat their tradition as a watered-down version of the more certain expressions of faith typically associated with organized religion. The most sincere believers I’ve known have also been the most humble, the most perplexed. It may be that those who feel most powerfully the presence of God in their lives likewise feel most powerfully the impossibility of adequately capturing that presence in words. And it may be that those for whom God is not a symbol or a cudgel but a lived reality find this reality most mysterious.
Of course, this kind of faith has its critics. On the one hand, many believers consider it a capitulation to secular culture, perhaps even heretical in its mystical acceptance of the many paths to God. On the other hand, many atheists consider it an intellectual sleight-of-hand, an effort to launder with philosophical abstractions the fundamentally irrational and intolerant business of belief. You can call that religion if you want, they’ll say, but we all know that’s not what most people mean by the word.
To which one can only respond as Asle would: You’re probably right about that too, but then again maybe it isn’t so simple.