Jon Fosse’s novel Septology (published in Norwegian in 2019) is a monologue beginning and ending in the mind of Asle, an elderly widowed Norwegian painter living in the countryside on the proceeds from the sale of his paintings. He communes throughout the next 667 pages with a self who becomes both him and not him.
Among my favorite activities are writing, reading, and knitting. So when my sister told me about an essay collection with the aptly punned title, Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting, I of course bought it immediately. Here were three of my top pastimes all together: I could read what well-known writers wrote about their knitting experiences.
Today, in honor of the new Nobel laureate, I’d like to look at the first of Jon Fosse’s works of fiction that I read, back in 2016, Aliss at the Fire. The most salient features of Fosse’s writing are present in this short novel from 2004. When I read Aliss at the Fire, Fosse’s monumental, mystical, prayerful Septology had not yet been published, but I knew Fosse had converted to Catholicism. I wanted to see if I could catch a glimpse of what led to that conversion by reading the earlier work.
Ann Patchett’s latest novel, “Tom Lake”, is a story in which a woman tells a story, in which she was, for a time, an actress—that is, a performer whose function is to tell stories. In the midst of these layers, or perhaps better, concentric circles, it is a story of ripple effects, of false signifiers, of questions of whether we really are who we think we are.
We’ll ride the waves of Virgil’s consciousness first as the poet arrives in port and is borne through Brundisium’s streets on a litter, then as he languishes through the night in torment over whether to destroy his unfinished epic, the Aeneid, and then the next morning as he argues with Augustus Caesar against Augustus’s insistence that he preserve it.
Novels are my bedtime reading. I especially like very long novels—so that there’s an already familiar world I can re-enter each night. So when I decided to take Swann’s Way off my shelf and up to bed with me, I knew I was in for months of Proust’s unique world created in the seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past.
All spring, I have been trying to re-learn to read. I’m in a book club with a group of women friends in my neighborhood—the kind of book club that focuses on the book, rather than the wine. (Caffeine, actually, is better with this group, because one must always be ready to heed to the sharp discussion.) This month, our book is Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom.
The Ukrainian-Russian writer Eugene Vodolazkin, an Orthodox Christian and professional medievalist, is preoccupied by history. A History of the Island is Vodolazkin’s latest novel to be translated into English and the most overtly concerned with the idea of history. I’m not sure I would describe any of Vodolazkin’s work as historical fiction. I would call it revisionary, allegorical, and neomedieval.
I love Jane Austen’s Emma so much that I re-read it every few years. During my most recent re-reading, I noticed something that I hadn’t quite gotten my mind around previously: this is a novel about how people misread one another. Misreading indeed drives the plot of Emma. Austen’s other novels usually contain a misreading or two—but none make it core to the book as Emma does.
In her new books The Scandal of Holiness and Reading for the Love of God, Jessica Hooten Wilson writes as a lifelong Christian to other Christians. She would like more people who profess the faith to immerse themselves in reading works of imaginative literature. This duology is part of new widespread interest in Great Books curricula.
Everything is connected in the end. That’s the sober pronouncement made near the conclusion, on page 826, of Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel Underworld, in which the resolutely anti-modern, paranoid nun Sister Edgar arrives in the afterlife to find herself in an eternal cyberspace, instead of what she’d expected of heaven, alongside J. Edgar Hoover, her philosophical twin. The conclusion manages to be both ominous and incantatory all at once; grim and yet hopeful.
One of the reasons I’m drawn to fantasy is that I believe it offers the deepest sense of place that art can express. The criterion of fantasy is geographical. Fantasy is that form of storytelling which engages with the world that in the West for almost the past thousand years has been called Faerie (variously spelled). Faerie both is and is not this Earth.
Some months ago, I overheard two writers whose work I admire conversing about what makes subject matter—the stuff writers write about—interesting. I’m sure it was rude of me to eavesdrop. “Eavesdropping”— a fabulous word in itself— calls to mind someone lurking unseen, intent on overhearing what’s being said around the corner. It’s the vehicle of mysteries and comedies, depending on how much one overhears and in what context. Without eavesdropping, Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing would be a plotless bore.
The one common theme of all these one-off volumes is: they represent a singular creative movement amid the lives of their authors, that is ultimately evanescent. They are the opposite of the books or careers that are like immovable boulders, or worse, business franchises. They produced something, and then they moved on. They are the living personification of Diana Vreeland’s purported fashion dictum, Elegance is refusal.
Preparatory to discussing Cormac McCarthy’s new fiction, a duology comprising The Passenger and Stella Maris, with Greg Wolfe via Zoom on January 25th, I’d like to offer a few ways into the books. The surname of the main characters, siblings Alicia and Bobby, is Western. Novelists do not name characters carelessly. Bobby and Alicia are the children, born in the late 1940s and early 1950s respectively, of a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project which built the first atomic bombs.
What made me want to return to my favorite childhood book, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women”? Was it when I met my new dental hygienist recently? She introduced herself as “Amy”—which led me to tell her how, as a child, I’d named my newest baby sister “Amy,” because I was reading Little Women when my Mom was pregnant a fourth time.
One trigger for this particular novel was coming across the King James Bible phrase “the mystery of iniquity” (2 Thess 2:7-9). I found it a very intriguing phrase, one always relevant but no more so than today. (Modern translations lean toward rendering this “the spirit of lawlessness,” which certainly seems loose in the world today in many ways both overt and subtle.) What is evil? Why do we participate in it?
When the lockdown began in March of 2020, schools closed, traffic came to a halt, and the great buzzing marketplace that had always sustained us fell silent. Though it was frightening—those blurry photos of ghostly Covid patients on ven-tilators in packed intensive care wards—it was also weirdly thrilling. There was an emergency on, and we’d suddenly become explorers in new, dangerous territory.
A local DJ is spinning polkas on the radio. It’s Sunday morning. His name is Johnny Kotrick, and the radio station is WNCC in Barnesboro, Pennsylvania. This place is called Coal Country because its very life depends on the black mineral. The pocket of small towns here exists because of coal, and in the mid-1970s, it thrives because of coal.
Legend, the Google definition states, is a “a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but unauthenticated.” Brendan, the 1987 historical novel by theologian Frederick Buechner, uses this term to its advantage. St. Brendan of Clonfert (c. AD 484 – c. AD 577), or Brendan the Navigator in Catholic tradition, is the novel’s subject