Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Jess Sauer, Fri., Nov. 24, 2006
by Jon Fosse (translated by Grethe Kvernes and Damion Searls)
Dalkey Archive Press, 284 pp., $13.95 (paper)Jon Fosse's Melancholy is a repetitive book. The writer, Jon Fosse, repeats himself in Melancholy. He writes, and his main character, painter Lars Hertervig, paints. He paints because he is a painter. But he has gone mad, so he can't paint, so instead he repeats himself. Lars Hertervig, the painter, repeats himself because he has gone mad, and as far as Jon Fosse, the writer, knows, when people go mad, they repeat themselves. And people who go mad also use question marks when they aren't asking questions? And people who go mad also don't vary their sentence structure much, but sometimes they do. It gets pretty exhausting after a while. After a while, it gets pretty exhausting.
Melancholy attempts to give the reader a view into Norwegian landscape painter Lars Hertervig's mental collapse. Instead of being captive in his madness, though, the reader knows what the reality of the situation is at all times. Hertervig's interior narration would ideally allow the reader to experience his madness, but his hallucinations aren't delivered in a way that might blur the line between delusion and reality.
The bulk of the novel focuses on a single day in Hertervig's life. He has come from Norway to Düsseldorf to study landscape painting and has fallen in love with his landlady's daughter. He gets evicted, leaves the house, goes back to the house, gets kicked out again, and so on. Not having a place to go, he shuttles back and forth between the house and a bar where his fellow students mock him sadistically, and he walks into the same practical joke over and over. He then gets committed, which results in a second half that's something like A Portrait of the Artist as a Compulsive Masturbator (he is repeatedly scolded for "touching himself down there," which he describes in full, and also talks obsessively about women being whores, snakes slithering, and Germans eating eels). Basically, it's like watching an arcade game demo where the character repeatedly falls into a manhole in a 30-second loop. This well might be an accurate approximation of dementia, but there isn't really anything else at work. There are some pretty moments and lines, but they lose their power once they've been repeated for the 40th time. The end is an opportunity for lucidity or expansion, but instead Fosse presents a somewhat pointless third-person story about a novelist writing what seems to be the rest of the novel.