Book - A New Name: Septology VI-VII

Tony Cross is reading all the books on the International Booker Prize shortlist ahead of this year's awards on 26th May. Here are his thoughts on A New Name: Septology VI-VII by Jon Fosse, translated by Damion Searls...

I have finished the Septology. This volume contains the final two books of the series and has been nominated for the International Booker Prize. All seven books, in three volumes tell the story of Asle, a painter. And Asle, his namesake. Also, a painter. They are two separate people, or they are not. I’m never quite sure. They're doppelgangers or alternative versions of the same person. One the version who found love, God, and stopped drinking. The other a twice-divorced alcoholic who is drinking himself to death.

There are other characters: Alse, the sudden love of Asle's life who helps him quit drinking and convert to Catholicism, there is Åsleik who is one of his few friends. Åsleik has a sister, Guro. Every year Åsleik has picked one of Asle's pictures as a Christmas gift. Åsleik has a good eye for art. One of the threads of this final volume is Asle's decision to go to Guro's house for Christmas with Åsleik. But Guro too has a doppelganger. A woman who...

Trying to explain the Septology like that is impossible. Asle tells the story in a stream of conscious style. But it is stream of conscious in extremis. It reminded me of distilled Proust. The voice is Asle’s, but it is temporally chaotic. Events jump backwards and sideways mid-sentence. There isn't a full-stop in the whole book. This isn't an easy book to read. Asle also uses 'I think' repetitively. Hypnotically. Each book ends with Asle repeating various prayers in Latin.

This book - the whole Septology - has contemplations of God and Catholicism at its centre. The concept of God being both near and far, being everything and nothing, being darkness and a light in the darkness. He talks about time and how past, present, and future are all happening at the same time, which I think is reflected in the style of Asle's storytelling. I might think there's an element of neurodivergence in Asle too, but perhaps I'm reaching.

This existential discussions tie in with discussion about art and literature. How great art reflects a kind of religious grace:

"…and I think that what I'm saying is that a person is not just body and soul, there is spirit that connects the body and the soul, the same connection, the same undifferentiating connection, between what we like to call form and what we like to call content that makes a painting good, or makes a good poem good, and that makes good music good, yes, that exists when one thing can’t be separated from the other, when form can’t be separated from content..."(p. 68)

Then there is grief and love. Asle's story is filled with loss and that loss is another part of this book's Venn diagram of subjects through which Asle can talk about the meaning of God.

You're probably thinking that this sounds like an almost cliched pretentious piece of literary fiction and it certainly a hard read because of the stylistic choices. Yet there is something about it, if you allow yourself to adjust to the style and rhythm of the prose. Here I should pause and applaud Damion Searls's translation. This must have been an incredibly tough work to translate because of the density of the writing. But you get the impression that he's caught both the meaning and style spot on.

Jon Fosse converted to Catholicism himself and you do wonder how much of Asle’s thoughts are his own. It is dangerous though to assume that similarities in history between an author and his characters is automatically autobiographical.

Would I have read it if I wasn't reviewing it? Probably not. I'm glad I did though. Would I recommend the Septology? Yes, I would. I'd be honest about it not being an easy read. It's seven books divided over three volumes, but I found myself moved, fascinated, frustrated, and driven to think more about subjects that I don't often think about. I cried. In the end I can only recommend it to you knowing that some people will hate it.

Follow Tony on Twitter at @Lokster71

Image - Amazon

The 2022 International Booker Prize celebrates the finest fiction from around the world, translated into English.

The 2022 shortlist is:

Elena Knows, written by Claudia Piñeiro, translated by Frances Riddle from Spanish; published by Charco Press - Find the book on Amazon

Cursed Bunny, written by Bora Chung, translated by Anton Hur from Korean; published by Honford Star Find the book on Amazon
A New Name Septology VI-VII, written by Jon Fosse, translated by Damion Searls from Norwegian; published by Fizcarraldo 
Find the book on Amazon
Heaven, written by Mieko Kawakami, translated by Samuel Bett and David Boyd from Japanese; published by Pan Macmillan, Picador 
Find the book on Amazon
Tomb of Sand, written by Geetanjali Shree, translated by Daisy Rockwell from Hindi; published by Tilted Axis Press 
Find the book on Amazon
The Books of Jacob, written by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft from Polish; published by Fitzcarraldo Editions 
Find the book on Amazon

The 2022 International Booker Prize winner will be announced on 26th May 2022.
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