Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 6, 2022

Septology (2022), by Jon Fosse, translated by Damion Searls

Finer minds than mine have waxed eloquent about this book, but FWIW, I enjoyed it as a slow, melancholy, hypnotic rumination on art, life and the choices we make.

Shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2022 and longlisted for the National Book Awards, Translated Literature 2022, Septology is said to be the magnum opus of Norwegian author Jon Fosse (b.1959).  Importantly, as far as I’m concerned, Septology is nothing like the self-indulgent meanderings of that other famous Norwegian author who has mined his own life, and the lives of his significant others, ad nauseam. (I have read one of his, and I hope made it clear in my review that I loathed his cruel observations about his family.)

Septology was originally published in three volumes, all translated by Damion Searls and published in English by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

  • Det andre namnet – Septologien I-II (2019). The Other Name: Septology I-II;
  • Eg er ein annan – Septologien III-V (2020). I Is Another: Septology III-V; and
  • Eit nytt namn – Septologien VI-VII (2021). A New Name: Septology VI-VII. 

In October 2022, Giramondo published this Australian edition of the series in one volume for the first time.

This is the blurb, from the Giramondo website:

What makes us who we are? And why do we lead one life and not another? Asle, an ageing painter and widower who lives alone on the southwest coast of Norway, is reminiscing about his life. His only friends are his neighbour, Åsleik, a traditional fisherman-farmer, and Beyer, a gallerist who lives in the city. There, in Bjørgvin, lives another Asle, also a painter but lonely and consumed by alcohol. Asle and Asle are doppelgängers – two versions of the same person, two versions of the same life, both grappling with existential questions about death, love, light and shadow, faith and hopelessness. Jon Fosse’s Septology is a transcendent exploration of the human condition, and a radically other reading experience – incantatory, hypnotic and utterly unique.

Septology is not a book for all tastes. Considering that it’s a very long book, not much happens, and some of what happens is confusing.  But by the time the reader reaches the last chapter, it’s impossible not to be invested in the narrator Asle, and to care about what happens to him and the other people in his life.  And to feel a sense of loss on the last page.

BTW There are some ‘spoilers’ in what follows, but nobody reads Septology for the plot. Even during the heart-stopping sequence when there is a risk that Asle might die in the blizzard or fall into the sea under Åsleik’s drunken seamanship, the reader knows that there are many pages to go so it’s not a spoiler to observe that he survives those events.

In Book 1 we meet Asle, an ageing painter sufficiently successful to have made an adequate living out of his art.  Since the death of his wife, he lives alone on the Norwegian coast in Dylgia, a few hours’ drive from Bjørgvin, now known as Bergen. The name Dylgia seems to be a bit of a Norwegian in-joke, because my Google search revealed that it was the site of a battle in one of the sagas.  Well, Septology is a saga, and the central character seems to have struggled with himself for most of his life.

Book I, like Books II-VII, begins with Asle contemplating the same painting.  In Book I, it is Monday.

And I see myself standing and looking at the picture with the two lines that cross in the middle, one purple line, one brown line it’s a painting wider than it is high and I see that I’ve painted the lines slowly, the paint is thick, two long wide lines, and they’ve dripped, where the brown line and purple line cross the colours blend beautifully and drip and I’m thinking this isn’t a picture but suddenly the picture is the way it’s supposed to be, it’s done, there’s nothing more to do to it. (p.3)

These pairings in the painting prefigure numerous other pairings in a work suffused with doppelgangers.

But in Book II, these same thoughts take place on Tuesday and he is less sure about the painting, and by Book V it is Thursday, and he thinks it’s a really bad painting.  By Book VI the crisis in his life is upon him:

… I can’t look at this picture anymore, it’s been sitting on the easel for a long time now, a couple of weeks maybe, so now I either have to paint over it in white or else put it up in the attic, in the crates where I keep the pictures I don’t want to sell, but I’ve already thought that thought day after day, I think and then I take hold of the stretcher and let go of it again and I realise that I, who have spent my whole life painting, oil paint on canvas, yes, ever since I was a boy, I don’t want to paint anymore, ever, all the pleasure I used to take in painting is gone… (p.551)

He doesn’t understand why, but he just wants to get rid of it all and in Book VII, his aversion has solidified.  And this is the man who in Book I was obsessed by light. He sees pictures in his head and paints to clear his mind of them.

…the best way I can tell if a picture is shining, and how strong or weak the light is in it, and where, is to turn out all the other lights, when it’s dark as blackest night […] I always wait until it’s as dark as possible before looking where and how much a picture is shining […] it’s always, always the darkest part of the picture that shines the most… (p.79)

Asle has a neighbour, Åsleik, also living alone, and they have occasional petty arguments driven by mutual incomprehension about art and God, and their mutual dependence on one another.  Åsleik is hard up, while Asle makes enough money for his simple needs, so they maintain a charade of trading favours so that Åsleik can maintain his sense of dignity.  This is not the only way in which Asle endears himself to the reader…

He takes a trip into Bjørgvin to deliver some paintings to his agent Beyer, and discovers his old friend dead drunk in the snow. This friend is also called Asle but to avoid confusion I shall call him the Namesake as Asle does later on in the book.  The Namesake ends up in hospital with the DTs, and Asle finds himself rescuing his dog Bragi and getting perilously lost in a blizzard while trying to find refuge when the Country Inn won’t allow the dog inside. (In Old Norse Bragi is the skaldic god of poetry in Norse mythology. Bragi can also mean ‘the first, the noblest’, so it’s a lovely name for a dog — and this choice of name also tells you something about The Namesake so that he’s no longer just a drunk in the reader’s mind.)  And while Asle is the friend who has cared for The Namesake throughout his alcoholic career, it is The Namesake’s long estranged children who are allowed to visit him in hospital and he is not.

So often friends are more caring than family, but The System doesn’t recognise it.

Asle’s memories surface in ways that are disorientating for the reader.  There are no clear signals to indicate that events are taking place long ago, as when he sees himself and his sister in a playground, or when he encounters The Bald Man that he and the other children have been warned to avoid. (Later, we find the young Asle examining his conscience about the lie he told his mother about the three kroner that The Bald Man gave him to keep quiet.) These excursions backwards and forwards across time blend into one another and gradually form a coherent whole.

Still, Septology is not a book that can be neatly packaged into a chronology, but Book III brings us to his adolescence, when he leaves the family home in Bermen.  He is off to attend the Academic High School in Aga so that he can take the entrance exam for the Art School in Bjørgvin.  But when Beyer (later to become his agent) discovers this emerging talent and buys all his paintings, Asle’s entry direct to the Art School is approved by Eiliv Pedersen (an allusion to Eilif Peterssen, (1852-1928) in real life a notable Norwegian painter).  This is a good time in his life because he also meets the love of his life, Ales.  Young as they are, they marry.

Haunted also by the death of his sister when she was very young, Asle has never got over the death of his wife.  His attachment to her chair reminded me of Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary (2012, see my review) where the mother of Jesus keeps his chair close by as a reminder of him…

…one day when Åsleik was over and I was sitting in my chair he sat down in the empty chair next to me and I was suddenly shocked and afraid, yes, it was like I was suddenly jealous and I told Åsleik he had to get up

Get up, I said
and he stood up right away and he looked at me taken aback
I didn’t know, he said
and I felt ashamed of myself
Sorry, I said
I didn’t know, he said again
No of course, I say
But that’s Ales’s chair, I say

and then it was quiet for a long time and then Åsleik asked if maybe it was a bad idea to have the chair always there, the chair where Ales used to sit, and I said no, no, it’s not bad, but I didn’t want anyone else to sit there, because it was like desecrating Ales’s memory, I said and Åsleik said that when Ales was alive he used to sit in that chair all the time and I sat in the other chair and we’d sit there and look out at the water and I said that’s how it was but that was when Ales was alive and was either in the room with us or was somewhere else in the house, but now, now that she’s gone, yes, now it’s only her chair, even I never sit in it. (p.507)

There is a lovely moment when Asle and Ales have just met, and she muses about there being two kinds of time:

…one of the days where something happens, yes, an event, because it’s so strange, day after day goes by and it’s like time is just passing, but then something happens, and when it happens the time passes slowly, and the time that passes slowly doesn’t disappear, it becomes, yes, a kind of event, so actually there are two kinds of time, the time that just passes and that really matters only so that daily life can move along its course and then the other time, the actual time, which is made up of events, and that time can last, can become lasting. (p. 648)

Other readers have commented on the spiritual elements in Asle’s musings. His religion lapsed when he was young but it offered him solace in his old age, and he prays for his old friend The Namesake to no avail. But he seems still to be ambivalent, because Christmas and its obligations tire him, and he hasn’t been to mass for a long time.  Even with such a limited circle of people in his life, he still gets pressured to spend Christmas Day with Åsleik’s sister Guro (who might or might not be the same Guro of dubious reputation in Bjørgvin).  The last pages of Septology trace their journey by boat towards her home, but from the moment that Asle gets the news that The Namesake has died, there is a palpable sense of Asle winding up his life.  He offloads his last painting and he rejects advances from Guro because he is ready for his last great journey.

A word about the translation: this is an heroic work of translation.  Each of the three volumes were published in English in the same year that they were first published in Norwegian, so congratulations should go not only to the translator Damion Searls but also the English publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions. According to their website:

Damion Searls is a translator from German, Norwegian, French, and Dutch, and a writer in English. He has translated eight books and a libretto by Jon Fosse – Melancholy I (co-translated with Grethe Kvernes), Melancholy IIAliss at the FireMorning and Evening (novel and libretto), Scenes from a Childhood, and the three books of Septology – and books by many other classic modern writers.

How lucky we are to have translators and publishers like Fitzcarraldo and Giramondo in Australia who bring us the best of translated fiction like this one!

Author: Jon Fosse
Title: Septology
Translated by Damion Searls
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2022
ISBN: 9781922725363, pbk., 745 pages
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing








  1. Curiously, Fosse was one of Knausgaard’s teachers.


    • If Septology is anything to go by, then it’s not Fosse’s fault that K turned out the way he did. Both Asle and his Namesake have selfish moments, and so do other characters, but nobody says cruel things about their own children.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I am planning to read this one very soon, I’m glad you like it more than Knausgaard (I did not dislike K but 1-2 of his books were enough and I completely agree with what you say about using his family somewhat relentlessly – his (ex)wife is a much more subtle writer).


    • In general I’m wary of predicting who will like it, but I suspect that you will. It’s such a humane book.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Your review makes me think it makes sense to read this all at once – I read the first volume when it was published, enjoyed it, but have not yet read the next two.


    • I think I would have missed a lot if I’d hadn’t treated it as one book. I read other things at the same time (because it’s not a book for reading in bed or at a doctor’s waiting room!) but I set aside about 30 mins to an hour more or less each day to sit at the table with my journal, noting down the characters as they occurred and the page number so that when if a doppelganger turned up I was ready for it, and I noted ‘events’ such as they are so that I could track a chronology. I don’t think I could have made the connections without doing this.


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